According to Lord Byron, “A thousand years may scarce form a State. An hour may lay it in ruins”. Our problem is that, despite what the PRIists –and everyone else- always thought, an institutional system was never consolidated in Mexico. Everyone spoke (and speaks) about institutions, but what the PRI defeat revealed is that the country had lived under a system of authoritarian features that imposed control but that never consolidated an institutional system that would manage power and check on its exercise. In this regard, our dilemma concerning the future is not distinct from before the time of the alternation of parties in government and this is a true tragedy.

The end of the PRIist era was not accompanied by the end of its main characteristics and forms, except that many of these stopped being functional, if not frankly dysfunctional. With its virtues and defects, that system maintained control and stability and, for decades, but not always, made relatively high economic growth rates possible. The PANist governments did not change the basic structure of the system, but the latter ceased being operative not (only) because the new governments were incompetent, but also because the “divorce” of the PRI and the presidency involved a migration of political power toward the governors, the parties, and what we now call the “de facto powers”. The political reality changed not because of the alternation of parties in the presidency, but because of the profound transformation that the reality of political power experienced within the society. The pretense of many PRIists to return to the status quo ante may in no way be differentiated from attempting to put the genie back into its mythical lamp.

In retrospect, the great surprise of the 2000 election was that one of the most important and ubiquitous rhetorical “truths” of the PRIist system that emanated from the Calles era in the 1920′s turned out to be false: Mexico never was a nation of institutions. As it turns out, it was an authoritarian system that employed discipline in order to maintain control and did so with diligence and care, in such a way that repression was utilized only exceptionally: the system achieved widespread legitimacy for many decades, and this led to that the distinct actors, and the population in general, would accept discipline not because of the threat of punishment as occurred in dictatorships, but because of rational but implicit calculation. In a manner of speaking, as Vargas-Llosa accused so clearly, the “perfect dictatorship” was attractive because it disguised its real nature very well. Much more than democracy and its complications, the true discovery that came with PRI’s defeat was that the country has no consolidated institutions, and perhaps from this emanate many of its current challenges.

Does this matter?  Many of those who most actively promoted democratic change affirm that this is an inevitable process of change and transformation and that what is exceptional in such transformative situations is an agreed-upon transition in which formerly authoritarian institutions become democratic: typically, this situation is complex and requires that political actors sooner or later recognize that democratic consolidation will only be possible through collaboration and the establishment of accords and bridges. On the other end of the spectrum, above all on the side of the PRIists and among ex-PRIists of the PRD, the conclusion is much more taciturn: for them, the democratic experiment failed and the course should be righted. Of course, in a world of political correctness, no one would dare to express this concept in such transparent fashion, but it is unnecessary to scrutinize too closely in order to understand how to read this. A candidate endeavors to modify the so-called “governability clause” in such a way that the threshold is lowered for achieving an artificial legislative majority, that is, to attempt to revitalize the old system through the back door. Others are even more forthcoming when they assert that Putin restored the order and viability of his country after a decade of supposedly democratic chaos.

Reflecting on the avatars of our reality, I retrieved an article that I had read in 1980 and that seems to me to be to be extraordinarily clairvoyant. Susan Kaufman Purcell and John FH Purcell* analyzed the Mexican political system and arrived at a series of conclusions that are useful for explaining to us the origin of our reality and, if fortune shines, for illuminating us about what must be changed. Some of their appreciations in this celebrated article are the following:

-“The Mexican state is a “balancing act” because it is based on a constantly renewed political bargain among several ruling groups and interests representing a broad range of ideological tendencies and social bases.”

-“The Mexican state is unique, however, in that it has never evolved from its original bargain into an institutional entity.”

-“The system is held together not by institutions, but by the rigid discipline of the elites in not overstepping the bounds of the bargain. It is therefore less a set of institutionalized structures… than a complex of well-established, even ritualized, strategies and tactics appropriate to political, bureaucratic, and private interaction throughout the system.“


-“ We view Mexican political stability as resting primarily not upon institutionalized structures such as the party of the presidency, but upon the interaction of two principles of political action: political discipline and political negotiation.”


-“Ideology is a mechanism both for linking elites to, and insulating them from, their potential constituencies.”


-“Herein lies the great paradox of the Mexican political system: it is simultaneously an elitist and a mass-based system. The constituencies of the rulers run the gamut from the richest to the poorest in society.”


-“The political system established in the 1920s was essentially an alliance among elites for the distribution rather than the redistribution of wealth. It was a system concerned with ratifying existing political and economic relationships, not with changing them.”


-“The structured institutions of Mexican politics which receive the greatest attention -the dominant party, the presidency, and the bureaucracy- are simply convenient formal formal frameworks within which the true balancing act, so necessary to the survival of the heterogeneous Mexican state, is performed”


-Mexico is less institutionalized that it might seem, given its history of stable government. In times of crisis… uncontrolled conflict and political breakdown are possibilities.”


The past cannot be changed, but we can learn from it. We came from an authoritarian era and not from an era of institutions. This difference explains, to a considerable degree, the complexity entailed in decision-making processes at present and their frequent paralysis. It is also an invitation to ponder that only close and intense interaction among clairvoyant and visionary leaders can make possible the construction of agreements and, eventually, of institutions that are likely to afford direction and stability to the system and, with this, viability to economic development. In other words: we have no functional institutions, thus, only the interaction of persons capable of and willing to surmount the daily wrangles would permit us to emerge from the hole in which we find ourselves.


*State and Society in Mexico: Must a Stable Polity Be Institutionalized? World Politics, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Jan., 1980), pp. 194-227.