The only thing about which there is no dispute is that the president is advancing pell-mell toward a growing concentration of power. Every step he takes and each decision he makes tends to eliminate competition, diminish or neutralize counterweights and cancel all sources of independence that he can. The manifest objective is to control so as to resolve the problems that the country has been experiencing with weak presidencies that proved incapable of reestablishing order and promoting the growth of the economy. In other words, recreating the sixties.
Decades of observing the functioning of the political system have led me to two conclusions on its fundamental pillars, hence on the viability of the project of concentration of power.
In the first place, there is not the least doubt that during the entire independent era of the country there have been only two periods when the economy grew swiftly and the society lived through years of peace and stability. The first was that of the Presidency of Porfirio Díaz that, after decades of conflicts and uprisings, the government instituted an order that permitted attracting investments, constructing railroads and bestowing a strong drive on the economy. The second was the post-revolutionary stage, especially the years of the so-called “stabilizing development,” during which the economy burgeoned in an unusual manner and the country underwent rapid urbanization and growth of the middle class. The common denominator was a strong government that did not allow dissidence and one that imposed order. It is not difficult to identify in these achievements a powerful attraction for a president who dreams of procuring a third era of peace and stability.
The problem with a nostalgic glance back on the past is that it permits us to isolate the triumphs from the failures or the advances from their consequences. The Porfiriato period collapsed due to biological reasons in that it depended on one individual who pushed and controlled, negotiated and governed, but that inexorably came to a close. Even without a revolution, the Porfiriato endured contradictions that with difficulty would have survived the leader himself. The end of the era of the hard PRI was the product not of the lack of institutionality but rather to its close-mindedness and authoritarianism, which denied any flexibility for adjusting the model when its underpinnings began to take on water, while it simultaneously blinded its leaders to the development of the society, the product, ironically, of its own successful governing. Like in the Porfirio Diaz times, the nature of the system hindered it from transforming itself and there is no reason to think that a new era of iron-fisted presidential control would be distinct. The problems that the PRIsts are currently facing in their intent to re-create themselves derive from precisely this.
In the second place, Mexicans have an innate penchant for wasting opportunities, perhaps because of the shallowness of the Mexican democracy and its profound authoritarian leanings. Although the problem of access to power was (almost) solved, Mexicans are far from having built institutional scaffolding that protects the citizenry, deeply rooting citizen participation in such a diverse and unequal society and obligating the authority to be transparent and accountable for their acts. The mere fact that the president can decisively wipe out the incipient counterbalances with no cost says it all.
But the underlying problem is that power, as vast as it may be, does not guarantee a genial result. In the eighties and nineties, thanks to the pairing of the PRI and the presidency and the authoritarianism inherent in the latter, with an infinitely more powerful presidency than that which followed, the government was unable to carry out the integral change that its own project proposed. Incomplete reforms were made, frequently translating into substantial discomfiture, for which Mexicans are now paying the price. An example illustrates this to a T: Telmex had two title-concession projects for its privatization, one worth four times more than other; one pledged the immediate end of the monopoly and the opening of competition, while the other preserved the monopoly. Economic growth required the first; interest from internal revenue ensured the second. No such thing as a free lunch.
At the beginning of this century, Fox wasted the enormous opportunity that his election had created. To the dilution of presidential power he added the incompetence and frivolity of his person, who has to date been unable to understand his historical responsibility. Will the third –the so called 4T- be the charm?
The problem transcends the characteristics of a person or persons because it reflects the structural weakness of Mexican politics that is not resolved with the reconstruction of the imperial presidency.
AMLO is basking in enormous popular support, greater than Fox at his moment, but equally volatile. If something has been taught by Mexico’s history it is that the great statesmen recognized today were acknowledged as such from having transcended the barriers of the time and constructed a novel platform of reality. None of these -Juárez, Madero, Cárdenas- knew beforehand that they would be statesmen: they simply erected a new future. All of which shows the futility of attempting to recreate an unrepeatable past, when what is required is a new future.