Luis Rubio


For many decades, democracy was perceived as the ideal mechanism for processing the demands of society and, at the same time, for generating conditions for the progress of nations. Not by chance did Churchill coin the phrase that “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.” However, during the last two decades, two phenomena have occurred that have placed the primacy of democracy in doubt. Much of the discontent that led to governments such as that of President López Obrador derives therefrom.

First, some nations have achieved producing better results in terms of economic progress than emblematic democracies. In particular, the success of China is impacting regarding its attaining elevated and sustained rates of economic growth for various decades and what that has implied for hundreds of millions of persons who have come out of poverty. The success of an autocratic government has kindled doubt with respect to the transcendence of democracy as the best system of government, which has engendered a schism, for the developing world, between autocracies and democracies.

Secondly, the technological change that the planet has been undergoing has dislocated all societies and produced hardly commendable results in terms of inequality, unsatisfied expectations for human development and the absence of opportunities for the development of the individual. While the political discourse blames pejoratively denominated “neoliberalism” for the ills afflicting nearly all nations of the globe, what is interesting about this is that no one disputes the economic system in the world: the essence of the dispute lies in the political priorities and their consequences. The digital world gives rise to extraordinary disruption because only persons who have the preparation necessary to prosper in that space have some certainty about their future.

These two circumstances -the effectiveness of the autocratic governments and the disruption deriving from the advent of the digital world became true manna from above for politicians ready to exploit the social discontent. The problem is that those politicians -and Mexico’s president is a perfect example of one- do not offer a better solution to the problems that their electoral success caused.

Yascha Mounk* argues that the general pattern of the governments that have emerged because of exploiting social discontent is the weakening of the elements that made their political ascent possible, like the previously existing liberal institutions. The concentration of power undermines the few or many vestiges of the structure of legality and independence of the institutions, strengthening the political leader, but not always solving the problems that they promised to tackle, which becomes the ultimate cause of their eventual decline.

The “existential struggle” that Mounk describes is suggestive: “As the opposition attempts to reverse the slide toward illiberalism, populist leaders seek to gain ever greater control. Were they to succeed, illiberal democracy turns out to be but a way station on the path of elected dictatorship.” However, says Mounk, the great challenge of charismatic leaders is that their popularity tends to erode to the degree that people demand the tangible satisfiers that they are not obtaining.

The peculiarity of the government of President López Obrador is that it has not employed its power to build a sustainable economic platform for the long term. In contrast with Singapore or China, two very different but nonetheless signature cases, Mexico is not on the road to consolidation with a modern, successful and transformed economy for the population. Just to cite an example, were Mexico to imitate China in its development process, the President would have been the leading champion of the Texcoco Airport, like the new one of Beijing. The fact that the President opted for a provincial, regional airport and one without a future reveals his genuine inclination. That is, the situation of Mexico does not form part of the autocratic–democratic debate that characterizes the world because its economy does not exhibit the trademark of a successful and vigorous nation like those. Thus, its path will be quite different.

The flagship projects of the government -the oil refinery, the airport and the Maya Train- are not works that will come to alter the gradual descent that the country is experiencing. These are much more monuments erected to the president than vehicles directed toward a new stage of development. When the electorate that enthusiastically elected the president in 2018 turns around and sees all that has not been accomplished and the solutions never considered, the question will be what’s next. Or, in other words, how far will his popularity go?

Mexico did not procure the consolidation of its democracy before the arrival of a government that was devoted to diminishing if not eliminating it, but democracy continues to be the best way to resolve the country’s problems for a very simple reason: not even with all its accumulated power was the current administration able to build a better quality of government or better results.  The citizenry ought to drive the construction of a system of checks and balances that renders the latter inevitable.

*Journal of Democracy, Vol 31 #1, January 2020