Ceteris paribus

Luis Rubio

The way that the current presidential term closes will be determinant for the potential future of Mexico. Given the enormous power and legitimacy that President López Obrador has accumulated during these years, the matter turns in good measure to a very simple dilemma:  Which will win: the narrative or the reality?

In a recent video that went viral, the political consultant Antonio Sola states that AMLO is a transitional president who decodes the national reality with which he will create the conditions for governments of the upcoming decades. His argument is essentially that AMLO owns the narrative because it is he who dominates the technique of telling stories that touch the emotions and that he can do this because he has no competition, in that the opposition plays the president’s game instead of building an alternative narrative. While not new, the argument is powerful because it could determine the evolution of this president’s term of office and, in consequence, the nature of the next.

The flip side of the coin is that not all of it is narrative. Piquing the emotions of the voters, that which politicians do, is central to the exercise of leadership in a nation, but it is no substitute for the government’s performance, especially in the economy and security, which at the end of the day is fundamental for each of the members of the society.

In so far as the reality walks in parallel to the narrative, that is to say, one complements the other, presidential leadership marshals strength.  Contrariwise, when the distance between both results unsustainable, one of the two culminates in imposing itself on the other, usually the reality… That is the tessitura that, from my point of view, will determine the next two years.

The way this government ends will be determinant of the capacity that the president retains in terms of nominating his preferred candidate and, not of scant import, avoiding the fracture of the Morena party.  To date, the president has been able to have the upper hand over the political panorama with his exceptional narrative skill, but his unwillingness to promote economic growth and his stubbornness in controlling everything, now including the electoral institutions and processes, has stagnated the country and provoked ever deeper divisions within society. In addition, the institutional destruction and concentration of power creates negative incentives for investment as the perception of risk rises. The result has been that, however marvelous the narrative, its distance from the day-to-day reality is growing.

In this context, there are two means of focusing on what is to come in 2024: one is the way in which the economy and security situation evolve during the subsequent two years, in that the latter will determine the distance between the narrative and the reality, as well as the strength of the president. On the other hand, independently of how the government ends, the liabilities that this administration will leave will be monumental, with dramatic repercussions that will be measured in terms not in years but in generations.

Even the believers in the presidential project will have to recognize that structural liabilities have been created that will not be easy to correct. Here are some of the obvious ones: first and foremost, the destruction of trust and of institutional sources of certainty. Part of this is due more to Trump than to López Obrador (for weakening NAFTA), but the aggregate effect is devastating, and it will require decades to build something liable to secure wellsprings of sustainable, not politicized, trust. The change in the structure of the governmental budget will reverberate with the lack of growth beyond this term because it will be exceedingly difficult to eliminate expenditure items that are politically and socially transcendent (especially cash transfers to the president’s clienteles), but that do not contribute to the general growth of the economy. Third, deriving from the latter, the same is true of expenditures that are today executed by the army and that, in addition to its being prone to corruption, does not contribute to the chief function of that public institution while diverting resources that are necessary for the promotion of economic development. Finally, the educational system, already a long-standing burden regarding development, especially in the digital era, will not only have not advanced, but it rather acquired a deeply ideological profile that could lead to generations of graduates with no possibility of being employed in the productive apparatus.

These four examples illustrate the nature of the current government that, past the scope of its dogmas and obsessions, has entertained, as its sole objective, power, not a better future. The narrative has served to amass that concentration of power, but it will not be benign at the moment of succession. Of course, this does not alter the immense challenge facing the opposition to convince the electorate of a better future to dethrone the, up to now successful, presidential standing.

In addition to economic stagnation, the structural deficits that the present government will leave behind    are incommensurable.   Therefore, it is rash to extrapolate into the future supposing that nothing will change: the Latin phrase ceteris paribus, that implies conditions remaining the same. For a society accustomed to a permanent transactional relationship with those in government -votes for benefits- no narrative will compensate for the lack of jobs, opportunities, security and, not inconceivable, another crisis.