The “And Why Me?”

Some days ago, Jose Luis Reyna touched a sore spot when he differentiated between democratic from authoritarian regimes: “One difference between democracy and authoritarian systems is that the latter requires few institutions and scarce rules to govern; the leader in turn’s will is sufficient for him to impose his will, arbitrary or not, on the rest. In contrast, in a democratic regime, the rules tend to be followed, complied with, and respected. For this, institutions are needed that provide implementation for the agreements, the differences, and their consequences.” Under this parameter, Mexico continues to be, or conducts itself as, an authoritarian regime. Will a strong State be constructed instead of the “why me?” one that characterizes the entire society at present?

What’s critical in our reality is that the centralized and power hungry regime disappeared but the country did not enter into a stage of institutional development. The result has not been the flowering of a society avid for democratic participation (although there are incipient manifestations in that direction) but rather the dispersion of power and the vanishing of responsibility. We stopped having a functional government and the whole society –from the president to every last mayor, including legislators, businesspeople, and labor and social leaders- defend privileges and cushy jobs with a gigantic “why me?”. At least at the federal level, authority and the capacity of intimidation have waned but in all other ambits, the forms continue to be authoritarian. The worst of all worlds: problem-solving mechanisms no longer exist nor does the disposition to employ those of yore.

Fox inaugurated this “new” era with his famous “and why me? when one television network deployed a paramilitary group for a physical takeover of another network’s installations without the government lifting a finger. In recent months, we were able to observe how two TV networks, presumably competitors, agreed to close the doors to the telephone group, and the government, neither hide nor hair. Without greater conviction nor a show of responsibility, the president of the Federal Commission of Telecommunications (Cofetel) limited himself to affirming that his commission “does not possess the power” to act, as if we lived in a paradise of legality. The Sicilias of this world are there because there is no institutional capacity to respond or disposition of the authority to act. The formerly omnipotent government has become just another onlooker. From an authoritarian State we moved on to the “why me?” one.

The change observed in the squalid federal government has not taken place at the State level, where the governors, heirs to part of the power that was previously consolidated in the presidency, have become established as feudal lords of the manor with no need to be accountable to anybody (why me?). The governors not only corner the greater part of the public expenditures, but they also do this without the least federal or local scrutiny. One governor contracts debt after the election of his successor, the money disappears, and there is no earthly power that can call him to account. Another appoints his brother as his successor without even thinking about it. Some recent elections demonstrated that the time has gone by when a governor can leave his chauffer as his successor but, aside from the most extreme effronteries, what characterized the presidential power of yesteryear, is observed today at the local level in almost comical fashion, although there’s nothing funny about it. Freedom of expression, perhaps the only great change and attainment of the alternation of parties in government, is real in central Mexico, where the imperial force of the presidency used to be brutal; but this is not so in the majority of states, where the feudal lord and master in the semblance of the governor or the narco (or a fusion of both) has ended up imposing his law. The old regime died but the ability to govern disappeared.

When the State is weak, the risks are high. The narcos understood this and took advantage of the years of decomposition at the end of the PRI and the transition to establish themselves. A strong State would not have to be at war: it is at war because, due to its present feebleness, it had few options. The authoritarian State of the past imposed rules; a strong but non authoritarian State would have to impose these via the institutional route. Our challenge is this: to transform the State so that it will have the capacity to govern, institutionalize disputes, and be accountable: cent by cent.

As does any architectural project, the development of a new institutional structure requires a wide variety of ingredients: from plans and permits to construction workers and engineers. It is possible that much of this could have been obviated in 2000 in view of the window of opportunity created by the PRI defeat. However, this possibility died due to lack of vision, the lack of understanding of the exceptionality of the moment and, above all, to the absence of grandeur: unfortunately, Mexico did not have a Mandela to inaugurate the democratic era… This instant gone, what is required today is a visionary initiative that brings together all the parts that integrate Mexican society. What is paradoxical is that in 2000 it perhaps might have been possible to employ authoritarian means to construct a democratic system. Today both the process and the result will have to be democratic.

There are no recipes for these things. There are also no prefabricated plans of value. What Mexico requires is a grand pact which the entire society joins. In practical terms, this will imply, necessarily, a great coalition that unites with and integrates, first, the formally existing political forces. But today’s Mexico surely would no longer tolerate a pact of elites like that which characterized the Constitutional Convention of 1917. The huge construction undertaking that awaits the country will consist of building a scaffold in the form of concentric circles that, little by little, will attract and take aboard each and every component of Mexican society. The type of leadership that Mexico will have need of is one that convokes and admixes, one that makes “the why me?” impossible.

It’s easy to pin the blame on recent governments for not having done this. The true challenge is to construct something different: authoritarian mechanisms will have to be abandoned and dialogue, negotiation, and integration skills will have to be developed.

In the final years of the PRI regime, with the old system in decline and without legitimacy, the joke going around  was that the difference between an authoritarian and a democratic system was that in the former the rulers make fun of the citizens while in the democratic system the situation is the other way around. There is, without doubt, freedom to laugh at the politicians, but it’s worthless in the absence of a strong State and what that implies for the development of the country.