Regime Change?

Luis Rubio

The government and its coterie state that through their election in 2018 they achieved a regime change in Mexico, which explains (and justifies) all the outrages, excesses and problems that characterize the Mexican economy and society today. According to this thesis, the actions taken by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration stem from a change in the rules of the game and that they reflect a new governing coalition. Therefore, what is happening in the Mexican national stage comprises a novel political reality accompanied by what all this implies with respect to decisions, criteria and actions.

It seems to me that there are three elements that should be analyzed to evaluate what has in fact been occurring: in the first place, determine whether, in effect, a change in regime has come about; in second place, analyzing what it is that the government put into practice in reality and what the latter implies; and finally, evaluating the result.

There’s no one better than Leonardo Morlino, the dean of the scholars of regime change, to help us determine whether such a change has in fact taken place: “there is change of regime when, in addition to the collapse of the key characteristics of authoritarianism, all the components of the minimalist definition of democracy are set up” (Changes for Democracy: Actors, Structures, Processes, 2011). To ascertain whether these have been complied with, Morlino employs a series of measurements that include: Whether the cabinet is staffed by a single party or a coalition; whether the executive dominates the legislature; whether relations between government institutions and interest groups are pluralist or neo-corporatist in nature; and the degree of centralization of power.

Of course, there is no unique or specific gauge that determines whether a political system is democratic or authoritarian or when a change of regime to democracy has transpired. This is about qualitative factors that are supported quantitatively, but the key point (if Morlino would allow me) is if it can be evaluated according to the old rule: in dictatorships the politicians ridicule the citizens, while in democracies, it is the citizens who poke fun at the politicians. The problems with these measurements, –comical or analytical- is that they do not help us much because the traditional Mexican political system was so powerful that it was able to withstand the mockery without being a democracy.

In practical terms, the post-revolutionary regime underwent diverse adaptations throughout the 20th century, concluding with the creation of a professional, citizen-backed electoral system which allowed the alternation of parties in power. Those rotations created widespread spaces for freedom of expression and political competition, but they did not modify the essence of the regime dominated by a political class with access to privileges and benefits alien to those of the population as a whole even today under President López Obrador’s party, Morena.

What undoubtedly changed with the government of President López Obrador is the composition of the political coalition that sustains it, from which arises its own particular way of allocating resources, budgets and priorities. That change has been very steep above all because it has been accomplished in tandem with the elimination (real or virtual) of institutions constituted to (supposedly) limit the power of the presidency. However, if one analyzes the daily exercise of power that defines the López Obrador administration, it is not very distinct from that of its predecessors: the use of the formerly denominated “meta constitutional” attributions of the presidency is an everyday event (in fact, much larger than in the recent past); the demands of loyalty above that any other value are ubiquitous; discretional decisions (therefore, arbitrariness) in governmental action surpasses anything observed since the 1980’s; and the forging of clienteles with public monies is crucial, as is the absolute impunity of those in close proximity to the administration.

If by regime change one understands not Morlino’s definition but rather the reenactment of governmental practices of half-century ago, Mexicans are experiencing at present a regression in matters of democracy in a country in which democracy never came about beyond in electoral affairs (as fundamental as that is). The unipersonal exercise of power does not constitute a new regime, but instead the reenactment of the old one that, in reality, never left. It is, at the end of the day, the same old wine in a new bottle.

The problem of the attempt to reenact the old political system does not lie in its unviability (as it is evident present by observing the dreadful economic and health policy results, to cite two obvious examples), but in its incompatibility with the 21st century. The old political system worked because it matched with a worldwide moment during which the governments were almighty; in the digital 21st century, markets, the integration of supply chains and the decisions of individuals are in command. One may like or dislike this, but it is the clash between of these two components –the new/old political system and the way the economy functions in the 21st century- which explains the present economic stagnation. And there is no reason to anticipate that this will change once the current health emergency ends.

* 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