Mexicans have become accustomed to living in a world of alternative reality: things are not the way they are and instead calling them by their right name, Mexicans sweeten them with pretentious synonyms and euphemisms so they will appear logical and commonplace, though everyone knows they aren’t. When one observes what happens in other latitudes or hears how the inhabitants of normal countries behave, it suddenly becomes apparent how abnormal Mexican life is in increasing numbers of ambits and explains López Obrador’s success in undermining the advances that had actually taken place.
Rampant insecurity ends up being natural and normal; the lack of job opportunities turns out to be natural; the encumbrances imposed by the bureaucracy -including practices of extortion- come to be ordinary; the lousy quality and focus of the educational is now neoliberal, to be replaced by the Mao’s Red Book; the growing limitations in freedom of expression end up being respectable; eliminating the certainty provided by the electoral institutions is now a triumph of democracy. The world is upside down. All that works must be eradicated.
Mexican democracy is another of those alternative realities to which Mexicans have become accustomed. There is no doubt that the citizenry votes, that the votes are counted and that the popular representatives and the candidates who are elected exercise their function for the period corresponding to them. If democracy were defined in strictly electoral terms, thanks to the National Electoral Institute (INE) Mexico has one of the most successful and consolidated democracies in the world. However, Mexico is far from being a democracy understood as a political system within which the citizenry enjoys freedoms, effective protection of its rights and real representation by the members of Congress, accountability by those exercising Executive Power at all levels of government, and physical security for themselves and their property.
One needs to go no further than to read the newspapers or listen to the news any morning to confirm how distant Mexican democracy is from the most elementary point of reference. It is usual for Mexicans to find information about politicians or functionaries from illegal tapping of phone conversations; the murder of a journalist; the publication of information that should be slated as confidential; the decision to classify as “privileged” information about governmental projects, thus denying the citizenry access to information that it should possess to understand how the government spends the resources gleaned from its taxes; or the crass impunity of more and more public servants. The point is clear: Mexican democracy is very strong in one sphere (the electoral) but extremely frail in all the others.
There are at least three hypotheses why Mexicans finish up mired in these circumstances. One is that the authors of the 1996 Electoral Reform -which was definitive in creating conditions of equality for political competition- were excessively optimistic regarding the way a political or social order can be changed. For them, all that was needed was to introduce rules for fair and equal rules for electoral competition and everything else would be sorted out by itself, something that evidently did not come to pass. While the defeat of the PRI was accompanied by the weakening of the presidency and brought greater freedom of expression, twenty-five years later it is obvious that the change was less definitive or transcendent than what its promotors imagined. A second hypothesis, which does not exclude the latter, is that the Fox government, the immediate beneficiary of the PRI defeat, suffered from the privation of vision and capacity with which to transform the political system. Clearly, there is no doubt of the veracity of this factor.
A further explanation for this phenomenon derives from another aspect. According to Waller Newell,* one type of tyranny is that which reforms the existing order to improve the populations’ quality of life, but without the minimal aim of altering the centralized order that, in addition, facilitates the concentration of power and illicit means of enrichment, that is, corruption. Thus, in the words of the author, this is about a benevolent tyranny.** Thus, one way to understand the Mexico of the past half century is to see the reformer administrations as driven to improve the population’s life and economy, but without changing the political status quo, a hypothesis that does not contradict, but rather complements, the previous two. Nonetheless, it explains why Mexican democracy could never prosper.
Mexican democracy turned out to be frail in terms of bettering the quality of life of the population because, while for three decades it did achieve an economic transformation that favored the whole country, even if today’s President denies it, it did not lead to consolidating the liberation of the citizenry with respect to justice, security, education and fundamental rights. It is this weakness that made possible the emergence of a government like AMLO’s.
The disputes of today, doubtlessly stirred up by the President himself, derive from the poverty of the results of many key reforms that, on their not affecting political, union or business interests that favor the status quo, hinder and curb the country’s development in general.
The great deficit is the democratic one but not that of the electoral institution, which is critical and the example for the world, but more accurately the tyrannical system of government that continues to be the norm and not the exception.
*Tyrants. **the other two types of tyranny being the kleptocratic (as in Mugabe or Al Assad) and millenarian, like Stalin or Pol Pot.