IFE: Of the State

The businessman wished to develop a strategy for modifying certain regulations and increasing a few customs duties with the purpose of delimiting the capacity of his competitors’ access to the market. In other words, he wanted to create market failures that would benefit his bottom line. The consultant proposed the need to think on a large scale and for the long term: to accept lower profits in the short term in exchange for a bigger business in the future. The businessmanwas pursuing and protecting his interests, attempting to skew the means within his reach to increase the benefit of his company. The consultant was thinking about Mexico and its long-term needs.  The mismatch was evident.

This is a true story that I was witness to some years ago. The head of one of the important companies in Mexico was speaking with a former civil servant, now a business consultant. The advice given by the ex-functionary was serious, solid, responsible, and totally inappropriate for his client. While public officials make their living from thinking about the collective good and how to propitiate greater competition with fewer roadblocks for investors or, in the case of the politician, for contenders, businessmen (like the political parties and the candidates) perennially seek to bias the rules of the game in their favor. These are two normal visions, both necessary in a society, but not the same.

What interests the citizen, in his facet of entrepreneur, intellectual, or candidate, is to win in his own territory and space. What is of concern to a public official is for no one to abuse the situation and for everyone to have the same opportunity for getting ahead. The tension between the two is what makes an economy, a society, and political processes work.

I am not mentioning the names of those involved for obvious reasons, but on witnessing the exchange I realized that the institutional design of the IFE (the Federal Electoral Institute in Mexico) is wrong. What does one thing have to do with the other? Everything. The IFE came into being as a citizen institution because no one trusted the politicians and the moment was unique for naming a group of exceptional persons at a time that, as we have seen, would not repeat itself. Time has demonstrated that this was something unusual and unrepeatable. The first IFE citizen council conferred legitimacy on the elections and expunged, in an amazingly short period, the entire history of electoral abuse. Without the least desire to subtract anything from the council’s merit, an honest and realistic vision of that moment must also include the evident fact that the electoral process was celebrated and the council earned enormous prestige because the politically correct candidate won or, in even more precise terms, because the PRI lost. It is not obvious whether, had the PRI maintained the presidency in 2000, this prestige would have been the same, to say the least. 2006 showed aspects of the other side of the coin.

The irony of that first council is that its success threatened the politicians, that is, those who were indisposed to losing control of an institution so central to the game of politics. As soon as the council achieved obliterating the history of abuse and partisanship at least in appearance, the political parties assigned IFE council seats to individuals close to them and managed this with a strictly partisan criterion. The delay in naming three of the council’s missing members speaks loudly in this regard.

The IFE should be an institution of the State, one which is administered by professional public-service officials. Thus the relevance of the exchange between the entrepreneur and the former functionary: citizens are not the ideal persons to administer a State entity. These institutions, and even more so those who preside over such contentious matters, require the mentality and long-term vision innate in a public functionary and that distinguish the latter from the average citizen.

This is not an issue of a citizen being incapable of or poor at being responsible for a State institution, but his vision and perspective is, by definition, short-term. A citizen -whether an entrepreneur or an intellectual- knows that his mandate is finite and this, inexorably, leads him to contemplate his next means of livelihood (the same as, surely, politicians). In contrast, a permanent functionary has a long-term career that sheathes him and confers upon him the certainty of permanence that is indispensable for administrating with fair criteria and in the general interest. A citizen, however disinterested, will always be pondering his future and will put it at play only to the degree that it will not affect his prestige or perspective for employment.

Also, this is not meant to be a criticism of individuals who have served on institutional councils such as the Federal Electoral Institute or other regulatory instances that have followed a similar path. The dedication and commitment of many of these persons is laudable and absolutely respectable. But, in terms of the country’s development and the construction of institutions that afford strength and permanence to political stability and economic growth, and as human beings, these are people who will always be contemplating their personal future.

The presence of exceptional citizens in entities such as the IFE, the Federal Public Information Access Institute (IFAI), and entities of economic regulation (such as the Federal Competition Commission, Telecommunications, and Energy) has permitted us to deal with and advance through the difficulties and avatars of a complex political and economic transition over the past decades, but has not led to the consolidation of strong, permanent institutions. I entertain not the least doubt that part of the success and smoothness of the transition that we underwent in 2000 was due to this team of citizens who understood the moment as few did. I am also certain that this period is over and that the citizen presence no longer contributes to the institutional development of the nation.

At this new stage we require strengthening of the State and its civil service, granting it permanence and solidity. This is only achieved with career civil servants, independent and non-partisan, with not only the time horizon inherent in the governmental function, but also with the vision of the State, which implies looking after the collective interest, balancing private interests, and creating, and managing,  identical game rules for all. In other words, it is time to construct a State with the capacities and attributes that the country requires for the future. Never could a citizenry, regardless of how altruistic and well-intentioned, achieve this. John Stuart Mill, XIX century philosopher, said that “all political revolutions, not affected by foreign conquest, originate in moral revolution. The subversion of established institutions is merely one consequence of the previous subversion of established opinions”. To carry on with, and above all, to conclude, the transition upon which we have embarked, we should move ahead to the institutional stage, to the strengthening of the State.