“The decisive step toward democracy”, says Prof. Adam Przeworski, “is the devolution of power from a group of people to a set of rules”. The rules and principles on which the functioning of Mexican democracy is based are many, but they have never achieved the supremacy that is the essential requisite for democracy. This does not imply that power continues to be concentrated in the presidency, but it does imply that in Mexico the transition toward democracy has not yet put into the anticipated port: power has been dispersed but not institutionalized.

The transitions toward democracy that began in Mediterranean Europe in the seventies created enormous expectations, in the populations of countries living under the authoritarian heel as well as among scholars and activists who dreamed of imitating it. Decades later Thomas Carothers* says that it is time to recognize that the paradigm of the inevitability of the transition of authoritarianism to democracy is false. Rather, he affirms, the majority of countries that terminated their authoritarian regimes and attempted the transition ended up mired along the way in what, in the best of cases, can be called an “ineffective” democracy, while others remained paralyzed in a gray area characterized by a party, a personage, or a bevy of political forces that dominate the system, impeding the advance of democracy.

Carothers’ thesis, not very distinct from that of the “illiberal” democracy of Zakaria, obliges us to position ourselves in a distinct scenario from that prevailing in the collective consciousness of Mexican society. Instead of supposing that we find ourselves in a process that will inexorably lead to democracy, the scholar’s mind-set is that we have arrived at a distinct state and that only by recognizing this reality will it be possible to rethink what comes next.

Countries living in this “gray zone” and whose political life is marked, according to Carothers, “by feckless pluralism tend to have significant amounts of political freedom, regular elections, and alternation of power between genuinely different political groupings. Despite these positive features, however, democracy remains shallow and troubled. Political participation, though broad at election time, extends little beyond voting. Political elites from all the major parties or groupings are widely perceived as corrupt, self-interested, and ineffective. The alternation of power seems only to trade the country’s problems back and forth from one hapless side to the other… The political competition is between deeply entrenched parties that essentially operate as patronage networks and seem never to renovate themselves”. Sound familiar?

Within a context such as this there is little advancement, reforms are quagmired, and there is an absolute incapacity to perform objective diagnosis, much less to debate practical, not ideological, solutions. The government is not privy to the operational instruments necessary and the demarcation line between the government and its party exhibits a tendency toward non-existence, leading the powers that be to manipulate political processes for their own benefit. With Russia as an example, the author states that instead of building on what already exists, each new government repudiates the legacy of its predecessor and embarks upon destroying the achievements of former governments as a safety mechanism for power. I thought he was talking about Mexico.

The conclusion arrived at by Carothers, which treats the theme in generic fashion, is that the “transition” label is not useful to characterize nations that were incapable of constructing the institutions necessary for operating an effective democracy. It is not that there are no democratic components or that the population has not benefitted from the political change inherent in open and competitive electoral processes, but rather that the distance between the party elites and the citizenry, as well as diverse privations, tend to tarnish democratic life, diminish its legitimacy, and drive alternative electoral proposals, including the appearance of “saviors” rallying behind a return to an idyllic past that, of course, never existed.

In this theme, we Mexicans tap into another of the schizophrenias that separate reality from fantasy. In its political discourse, Mexico is a democratic country that advances little by little toward development and plenty. The problem is that the implicit supposition that, despite the avatars, we are advancing toward democracy and development, obscures the nature of the problem that we are in fact living through. For some it does not matter where we are or how many changes are effected, so sure they are of our arrival at the safe haven of democracy. For others, those who cling to power or who benefit from its privileges, there is no expense involved in high-flown discourse that does nothing other than raise the notch of the system’s illegitimacy. As a whole, both perspectives have had the effect of serving as the aegis for political paralysis, and, in fact, for justification of the democratic regression that we are experiencing.

Mexican democracy emerged from a set of electoral reforms that gradually achieved conferral of legitimacy on the election mechanism of popular representatives and government officials. It never advanced in the terrain of the institutional transformation crucial for the consolidation of a nation of rules to which the powerful are subordinate. This contradiction has opened up opportunities for marking off democratic spaces but, much more importantly, for sustaining an order that is not authoritarian but that is also not democratic or, in Carothers’ words, an ineffective democracy.

Examples abound: the impeachment attempt in 2005; the quest for means of guaranteeing artificial majorities; the 2007 electoral law reforms with the growing limitations on freedom of expression that they entail. It’s not that the present situation is ideal, but instead that the manner in which the attempt to resolve its challenges is by curtailing citizen freedoms, protecting the parties, and consolidating a system where the citizenry serves the politicians and not the inverse.

The good news is that it is impossible to reconstruct the old system, however great the yearning of some PRI- and exPRIists. This is what Lech Walesa inferred when, with Poland already in the embrace of democracy, the former president was defeated by the Communist Party and he then affirmed that “making fish soup from an aquarium is not the same as making an aquarium from fish soup”. There can be considerable regression but the possibility of the restoration of the vertical power of the past is nil. The bad news is that an ineffective democracy does not expedite development.

*The End of the Paradigm Transition, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 13, No. 1, Jan 2002.