Mexico’s cycle of reforms

Mexico Today –  July 02, 2021
Luis Rubio

 There’s an old proverb that says that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Something like this happened to Mexico in the late 20th century with several reforms of its electoral system. The reforms were devised by political actors who wanted to lead Mexico towards, first, political stability (from 1958 to 1978) and, later, towards democracy (starting in 1996). The problem is that those efforts focused exclusively on electoral issues, leaving the matter of how Mexicans should govern ourselves up in the air.


Theory and practice explain the problems Mexicans have experienced in these decades and, also, the rationale behind president López Obrador’s governing strategy. Theoretically, it’s been known for decades that in democratization processes around the world, consolidating a strong and effective government is critical before liberalizing political competition. Constituting a government that can effectively govern and meet the demands and expectations of the population is otherwise practically impossible. Additionally, those countries that achieved successful transitions to democracy also consolidated their rule of law, the crucial framework to curb a government or its bureaucracy’s potential for abuse. Mexico’s grade in these matters is not good.

On the practical side, Mexico has experienced two very successful periods of economic growth with political stability: the Porfirio Diaz era at the end of the 19th century and the hard-line PRI eras, between the 1940s and the late 1960s. Both had as their political earmark an authoritarian government whose only check and balance was the population’s and the investors’ willingness to participate in their own spaces. Both historical moments ended badly due to their rigid structures and processes: when difficulties arose, they were unable to adapt to a new reality. In the Porfirio Diaz era, the challenge was partly political and partly the famine that gripped the country at the turn of the 20th century. Without the slightest flexibility to undergo reform, the Porfirio Diaz era collapsed, opening the door to a civil conflict that decimated the economy and left over a million deaths.


The second moment, in the early 1980s, ended differently, but no less chaotically. After the Mexican economy and politics began to implode in the 1960s, the government sought to artificially extend its validity through foreign debt, encouraged by the expectation of ever mounting oil prices. In the end, the excessive debt brought about a financial meltdown and led to a decade of near hyperinflation in Mexico. The economic reforms that followed solved part of the problem by stabilizing the economy, opening the country to international trade, and building a manufacturing powerhouse in the process.


What was not addressed was the Mexican society’s wish to participate in political decisions and thereby limit government excesses. It’s clear that  president López Obrador believes that building a new era of stability and growth is what Mexico requires, and in his mind this calls for a strong government that limits citizen excesses. That’s why he’s centralizing power and ditching checks and balances left and right. Mexican history gives him formidable hope.


The problem is that the Mexican government is not set up to solve problems, pave the way for growth, or build a platform for development in the next century. Our government, heir to the Porfirio Diaz era and organized under the post-revolutionary pact -with the unequivocal goal of having the revolution do “justice”- is designed to plunder, corrupt, and abuse. Political, union, and business groups in Mexico -and their associates within the political class- are not interested in citizens, workers improvement or the quality of products and services, but rather in ensconcing themselves in a system that yields them rents, sometimes inordinately big.


Mexico’s electoral reforms from 1996 on were accompanied by the assumption that the country’s problem lay in the lack of political competition and that once unfettered, everything else would fall in place. What in fact happened was that electoral democracy was mounted on the existing political system, with its stagnant bureaucratic structures and tangle of interests which continue to benefit at the expense of the country’s full development. Thereby stem the two great evils we face: Mexicans’ frustration as manifested at the polls one election after the next, and the enormous inequality of opportunities and economic possibilities.


The solution that president López Obrador advances will only postpone and heighten the frustration because it doesn’t address it, just attempts to evade it. Instead of confronting the political, bureaucratic, and special-interest structures that rob the treasury blind and maintain half of Mexico mired in poverty, the López Obrador government, like its predecessors, devotes itself to inventing new excuses instead of solutions. What Mexico requires is a transformation of its political system, without which we will never extricate ourselves from the vicious circle we have been in for decades.


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

Twitter: @lrubio