Shot in the Foot

Luis Rubio

Continuity is normal when a government changes, with natural adjustments for style and personality. The president changes, but the country continues along its course: the new government imprints its forms, preferences, and priorities, but in general perpetuates the essence of what the government is and its relationship with the society. On occasion, for endogenous reasons –such as the advent of a  transformative government- or on exogenous grounds –like the appearance of unpredictable factors such as a pandemic and its social and economic sequelae- the circumstances press for a break with the past or render one possible. Now and again, the changes improve the future, at others they amount to a shot in the foot.

The main gamble of President López Obrador is for his base, now his clientele, to be preserved intact despite economic infirmities and unemployment, and for the U.S. economy to be sufficiently strong to generate demand for domestic exports.  As the principal engine of Mexico’s economy, exports are key for any attempt at economic recovery, as Mexicans learned so well in 2009, when the U.S. recession nearly caused a depression in Mexico.

Another issue is for the presidential project to end up untouched, despite the changes taking place in both the internal as well as the external milieu. The only sure thing is that everything the president does -his visits around the country and the entire political operation- are oriented toward winning the midterm election in 2021 at any price.

In this perspective, there is no tediousness in the query of whether this government is driven by the search of a profound change (the demagogues of the so-called Fourth Transformation love to speak of an inexistent “change of regime”) or of continuity with modifications in the style of the presidential house. Beyond eliminating counterweights that have proven to be paper tigers, the government has accomplished nothing other than strive to recreate the old Mexican Presidency, but those efforts have come to entail unanticipated consequences. Perhaps the President has not realized that the greater the control, the greater the deterioration: in an open world, restrictions, cancellations, and impositions have an incremental cost.

The key question is whether everything the country and the world have undergone this year will allow it to return to the previous normality, as if nothing had happened.  Serious countries that led the public health process without competing agendas –such as Germany or Korea, to cite two successful cases- have achieved a return to some degree of normality and, along the way, their governments have earned the applause of the citizenry because the latter recognized in the government an ally that did nothing more than dedicate itself to combating the common enemy. In Mexico, the government encountered a multiplicity of adversaries, took the fight against the virus in jest and won the disapproval and, worse, procured the disappointment of a good part of the collective citizens, as surveys have conveyed. It may be that in terms of greatest importance for his sole objective, the 2021 elections, the President has done nothing, not even recognize that unemployment and recession entail consequences for persons and their families, especially the most vulnerable, many of whom voted for him. The ballot boxes will be the ultimate test of those perceptions.

Two circumstances make one doubt the viability of the governmental plan of action. The first of these is whether the blind obstinacy in “priority” projects (such as the refinery and the Tren Maya) is the best way of governing. The famous Prussian General von Moltke said that not even the best of plans survive the first contact with reality, and no one should have the least doubt that the reality changed radically over the last few months due to the recession, which had been looming since last year, as well as unemployment. The President has not been willing to alter his project even an iota, which obligates asking the question of whether lack of attention to the most affected population will exert political and/or electoral effects. It is inconceivable for it not to.

The second characteristic of the governmental approach is that it is, at its core, a fundamentally commercial transaction: while the President devotes himself to activating and nourishing his networks through his tours around the country, the lifeblood of his electoral strategy lies in the transfers of monies to older adults, to “young people building the future” and to other clienteles. Those individuals and families doubtlessly are grateful for the contribution, but that does not mean all of them are believers as a result: except for those who in effect entertain a quasi-religious bond with the President (there are many), the rest maintain a basically business relationship, which depend on the transfers continuing. Vote buying is an old tool in Mexican politics and the population engages in it as it is: a transaction. Will the relationship survive when public finances put a squeeze on, which will inexorably happen in the upcoming months?

Nothing is written for the 2021 elections, but it is clear that Mexico is already in full electoral season, and everything that the government and the opposition do is directed toward defining or redefining the correlation of forces that emerged in 2018. The problem for the government is that it does not possess a strategy for the development of the country and that is, at the end of the day, what makes a difference for the citizenry.