Conflict and Institutions

Luis Rubio

The big question is how Mexicans are going to get out of this one. Aside from President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s approval ratings, all indicators are pointing the wrong way: the economy is stagnating, employment does not grow, the government continues to amass legal and fiscal tools to persecute citizens and there is not one single issue –from security to childhood issues or healthcare- where the government can show any improvement.

Conflict, whether social or political, has become the raison d’être of Mexican reality because therein are summed up the expectations, resentments, envies and aspirations of Mexican society as a great collective. Some perceive the government as good, others  disapprove it; some trust that things will improve, others are sure that the only possibility ahead lies in things worsening.  Independently of affiliations, phobias or preferences, the contradictory rhetoric of everyday statements does not help to creating a future in which all citizens can partake.

A clear majority of those who voted in 2018 did so for now President López Obrador. I entertain not the least doubt that much of the anger and many of the grievances that encouraged that vote were absolutely legitimate because, despite the headways, a competitive economy was never consolidated, one sufficiently broad in scope for all Mexicans to benefit from. This “boredom vote” reflected a clash between reality  -including decades of rhetoric that oversold the future- and poor results.


If one brings this situation into focus as a problem requiring a solution,  what is evident  is that the country urgently needs new institutions, a term that has acquired a bad name in the current government’s morning discourses, but one that is nonetheless transcendent. The problem is that, in the existing environment, it is nearly impossible to build institutions that satisfy the indispensable condition for success: for them to have widespread support and recognition. The environment of conflict and polarization renders it highly difficult to create and consolidate new institutions. At present, the country is encountering two great currents running against the flow: those who want to break with the status quo at any cost and those who demand certainty that can only derive from solid and non-contentious institutions. Beyond which side of the fence one sits on, what is certain is that it is impossible to achieve stability and predictability in a society that lacks institutions that are credible for the majority of its citizens.


The environment is so vice-ridden that anything the government proposes ends up being conceived as an abuse by one part of the population and as a given by the other. The opposite is equally true: the Morena Pary majority in Congress automatically condemns, and is ready to dismantle, everything in existence prior to its arrival to power, even when many of the best things existing today –and that arguably its base appreciates- are the product of the reforms of the recent decades.


The advancements of the last decades are not few nor are they small: freedom of speech; free elections; a perhaps basic health system (but infinitely superior to the madness into which the current government has incurred); access to countless first-rate goods and services at infinitely lower prices (after inflation) than those that existed before. At the same time, it is evident that there is a myriad of things, in terms of the conditions of daily life as well as the functioning of the governmental system, that are unacceptable, bad, corrupt and exceedingly inefficient. I have not doubt that, soon, we will find that the stalwarts of the ruling Morena Party at different levels of government, will be found immersed in problems of corruption. Just as it occurred with PAN party members, the Puritans of old times. The problem does not lie in persons or parties, as much as the President absolves them, but rather in structures and incentives. That is the reason that the country will not get ahead unless it adopts new legal and institutional structures. In contrast with the past, the latter would have to be legitimate to achieve its objective.


The dispute surrounding to the National Elections Institute (INE, by its Spanish acronym) dates back to 1996 and was reinforced even more in 2006 because the PRD party (many of whose members are now with Morena arty) did not participate fully in a decisive manner and was in fact excluded from the process, for good or bad reasons. Legitimacy was not achieved because there was no consensus -at least once- for this crucial institution.


There’s an additional phenomenon: much of public life consists of negotiating and a serious negotiation cannot be conducted in public. Mexicans created the myth of transparency -which is obviously necessary- but not everything has to be transparent. In Congress or in the Supreme Court, for example, transparency is indispensable but not in discussions and negotiations among the actors because it is there that, as Bismarck noted regarding sausages, the future is built. What is public ends up being merely a show and it  does not lead to good government.


Conflict can only come to an end with negotiation leading to legitimacy. The question is whether the government is in the business of promoting and deepening conflict or of building legitimacy. The women’s march of March 8 will be a bellwether of where Mexico stands today.


* Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations and of México Evalúa-CIDAC. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. 

Twitter: @lrubiof