Why did the Mexican government lose effectiveness? What had distinguished it throughout nearly the entire XX century was its steadiness and efficacy, in stark contrast with most of the nations of the hemisphere. Mexico was characterized, as the President constantly states, by its stability, order and economic growth. That all ceased and there is no shared diagnosis concerning the causes of the weakness of the Mexican government, but I am certain that the current attempt at centralization will not achieve its objective of restoring its effectiveness of yesteryear.
The heart of the problem lies in an obsolete system of government that has not worked for almost a half century and, more importantly, that is not going to function however much the present government attempts to reconstruct its decrepit structures. Mexico acquired a federal system of government because it replicated the U.S. Constitution, but the nations’ circumstances were not similar. Not by chance were the two stages of greatest economic growth –and of their benefits in the form of social mobility and job creation- those of the Porfirio Diaz government and the post-revolutionary PRI. The common denominator was the centralization of power, in flagrant violation of the constitutional framework. Despite the rhetorical reverence paid to federalism, the country does not possess a system of government that is compatible with a federal political organization.
Prior to the Porfiriato and from the end of the seventies, the Mexican government had been ineffective. Before because an institutional structure did not exist, today because that which exists does not work. Many Mexicans alive today remember (some with nostalgia) the stability and economic growth that made possible the strategy of “stabilizing development”, which gave up the ghost due to that the factors that rendered it successful disappeared. On the economic side, the import-substitution model reached its limit, while political demands ended up forcing an opening that reduced its vertical control.
Instead of the gradual economic liberalization that would allow for an adjustment of the domestic industry to the competition, from the 1970s the economy closed to an even greater degree, favoring national groups not concerned with elevating their productivity levels or satisfying the consumer. On top of that, the public expenditure rose in unusual fashion, all financed with debt. The mix ended up provoking the collapse of the government’s finances in 1982, bringing about a brutal adjustment because there was no longer any alternative.
The political opening was further encroached upon because it was reactive and went in counterflow to the most powerful interests. The most important electoral reform, that of 1996, created the conditions for equitable competition, but did not modify the manner in which the country was to be governed. The system of government, structured since the thirties, remained essentially the same. For example, instead of liberalizing the electoral system the reform incorporated the second and third parties (which then were the PAN and the PRD) into the PRI system of privilege. That is, it extended the existing system, assuming that the problems that the new structure would generate would solve themselves, which obviously did not take place.
Instead of transforming the system of government in order for it to deal with the conditions and challenges of the XXI century, its structure and objectives were clung to, leaving it totally incapable of functioning in a radically changed environment. Opening the economy implied that the government stopped controlling the private sector and the unions of the private sector. The political reforms produced vices that magnified themselves systematically: decontrol of the governors; the absence of institutions for security, beginning at the local level; mediocre services; de facto powers acting at will; and a population that, legitimately, reproved the existing order.
The reforms, in political and economic ambits, were necessary, but a strategy did not develop that anticipated their consequences in terms of governability, stability, security and efficacy. As Francis Fukuyama would say, Mexico became democratized before constructing a functional government. What we are observing today is an attempt to reconstruct what –a half-century ago- worked, when what is required is building a system of government for the XXI century.
The nodal point is that Mexico’s federal government is ever less powerful (even while more functions are being centralized) in the face of a society that is increasingly larger, more demanding and diverse and an economy that calls for conditions of stability in order to be successful. The Porfiriato and PRIist ruse of centralizing the power will not yield the result that the President desires because it is not compatible with the era of the ubiquity of information and of ferocious international competition.
The Mexican government needs to increase its capacity and that implies a change of conception: to build mechanisms that allow it to perform its functions from the municipal level to the federation, with procedures that make accountability possible, while systematically increasing its capacities to fulfill its functions, from the most elementary such as security, to the vital ones to eradicate poverty such as education and infrastructure.
Mexico stands in need of a revolution in its system of government; while this does not occur, governments will come and go, but peace and stability will continue to be illusory.