The Peña Effect

Luis Rubio

At the end of the Cold War, Fukuyama wrote an article entitled “The End of History” in which he postulated that the world had arrived at a consensus about the way forward. Twenty years later, with wars in the Middle East in vogue, Jennifer Welsh published “The Return of History,” suggesting that war never ends. The equivalent for today’s Mexico could well be “The Return of Politics.”

The 1997 mid-term elections constituted a milestone in Mexican politics on being the first Congress since the Revolution where the PRI did not achieve a majority. The era of the power monopoly passed into history, or at least that was the nearly unanimous reading of the moment. The optimists trusted that the parties and their politicians would begin to negotiate consensual agreements on far-reaching matters for the future of the country. However, the following decades were characterized less by harmony than by bristling tensions, disagreements, and the impossibility of dealing with the challenges confronting the country on myriad fronts.

Everything changed with the advent of Enrique Peña Nieto in presidential office. Echoing his fame in effective executive prowess, President Peña Nieto structured the so-called “Pact for Mexico” with the PAN and PRD parties, with which accords were reached on the agenda of the reforms that the country required and that the three parties (including the PRI) committed to moving ahead without further ado. The infamous pact, of unhappy memory, was somewhat strange, above all for the PAN and the PRD, in that there was very little potential upside for them: were things to go extraordinarily well, those parties would remain the same, while the PRI would experience a virtually supernatural success; if things went wrong, all three parties would lose. It always seemed to me that the pact entertained a very rational sense in terms of the country’s well-being, but an inexplicable -absurd- sense from the perspective of the realpolitik of the parties assenting to it. And that is indeed how it turned out.

The pact had the effect of removing the components of the reforms from the public arena. Instead of venting and debating, everything was decided at the Department of the Treasury (Mexico’s Hacienda) with a small coterie of party leaders, to be later voted on without debate in the Legislature. PRI operators mobilized their legislators and bought the votes lacking – on Lozoya’s ipse dixit – to complete the required tally. The governors went to great lengths to be first in the ratification of the reforms by their local legislators, for whom “contributions” were also likely employed.

The benefit of the operation being conducted “in smoke-filled rooms” was obvious: the country was finally able to count on modern and necessary legislations in diverse rubrics, but especially in those of labor-related issues, education and energy. The cost of that feat is from whence derive to a great degree the disputes of today: reforms that were not socialized, that did not obtain legitimacy from the citizenry and are now being dismantled because they were not perceived as relevant and transcendent. Arrangements among a certain few are now being disarranged by another certain few. Politics can be onerous, haphazard and delayed, but without politics the costs are vast and disproportionate.

Because, additionally, these reforms were not mere adjustments to the existing legal framework. The three emblematic reforms of the Peña administration disrupted the three cardinal pillars of the Mexican Constitution of 1917. From my point of view the reforms were necessary and urgent, but no one quit understanding those who believed, with unease, that the core and essence of the country’s key document, the Constitution, had been denaturalized, if not in reality annulled. All for not taking into consideration the need to win over and gain popular support for conferring permanence and legitimacy on the reforms.

All that went through in the Peña administration was operated in executive, even aseptic, fashion, as if the matter involved nothing more than having the nerve (and money) for things to advance. And, of course, compared with the three prior administrations, things did move ahead and with enormous efficiency and celerity. But now one can see that, with the same efficiency and celerity, the house of cards is nearing collapse. Two so far: education and labor.

The last of the reforms is still pending, the most outrivaled of these in the economic ambit and perhaps the most complex to dismantle due to the number of interests and issues involved and the lawsuits to come, but it is nonetheless the reform dearest to the President’s heart. It will be the first test of the new Congress, in which the Morena party and its allies do not pose a constitutional majority. It will be the first test for the PRI, which holds the key to making or breaking the reform. Next would come the Senate, the last threshold.

Whatever the outcome, the reading is absolute: the great changes in a society must come from the society itself: the changes cannot be imposed on it because this is not about technical decisions, but rather political processes that entail consequences, affect emotions and throw interests, as well as ingrained dogmas, into disarray.

Mexican society has before it the dilemma of buoying up the dismantlement of the energy reform or rejecting it. It had best decide on this soon because, if not, changes will be imposed upon it that will affect the lives implicated, certainly for the worse. Time for politics, at all levels and in all spaces.