Changing Times

Luis Rubio

How times change! At this stage of the previous presidential term, the political discussion was concentrated on the weakness of the presidency after the end of the PRI era, when the debate was concerned about the excessive power of the presidency. Twenty years later those worries were focused on the feeble presidency. Without there having been a radical change in the legal or constitutional structures, today the debate is once again about the concentration of power. Now that the crucial year of candidate nomination begins, it is critical to elucidate what has changed.

The evidence is robust: change has not been of a structural nature but is instead one of individuals. Former president Peña Nieto practically retired from politics, leaving the (paltry) political task to be executed by his ministers or operators. The result was a government quite ineffective in governing, even while it affected weighty legislative changes.

On his part, López Obrador concentrates nearly exclusively on the political duty-at-hand, dedicating himself to narrating the events of the day in such a compelling manner that he dominates the domestic panorama. He complements that central assignment with frequent visits to the most remote spots in the country, where his entire activity and focus is concentrated on aggrandizing his popularity and securing power alliances. Nothing to do with governing.

The two governments evidence contrasts and similarities that are worthwhile highlighting. They are similar in their devotion to the past, but acutely different in their priorities. The contradiction at the interior of the Peña government was always flagrant: the old presidency cannot be recreated while headway it is advancing reforms whose essence is decentralization, as was the case of communications and energy. In the end the reformer part won, but the political work which so transcendental changes -in ideological and historical terms- demanded, failed. The easiness with which López Obrador has been veered the helm in the opposite direction is clear testimony to that.

The contradiction within the AMLO government is no less great, but it is of a different nature. The president has been markedly successful in dismantling many of the entities, institutions and mechanisms that characterized his predecessors, but the economic and social performance has been, to say the least, (nearly) catastrophic. For a government whose narrative exalts key issues such as poverty, corruption and inequality, his administration is wending its way as fast as it can toward substantially increasing all those indicators. The question today, at the beginning of the government’s penultimate year, is what will be the consequences of this way of managing (or lack thereof) and how distinct will the end be from that of his predecessor.

What is apparent is that the great difference between both administrations has been the person of the president: one reserved and the other hyperactive; the former committed to working in private, the latter foisting himself upon all the forums and excluding, disqualifying or intimidating everything he perceives as an obstacle to the consecration of his (al)mighty presidency.

Last October, President Xi Jinping achieved a milestone that might look similar in terms of consolidating himself as the most powerful leader in China in at least half a century; but the differences are notable: in China, the structure that the president developed, within a consolidated legal and political edifice, is imposing, which renders him so much more powerful and, potentially impregnable.

The case of Mexico is very distinct. The same context   produced a president in Peña Nieto who ended up being weak and the other, López-Obrador, whom, to date, has been extraordinarily strong. Given that the difference is one of individuals in the presidency and of their capacity to act, the question is, how will the next president -male or female- be. What seems obvious is that neither of the two models is repeatable: the first because no one would wish to consciously imitate it, and the second because the conditions that made it possible are unique, exclusive to the person and his history. Much more importantly, how many years can a country endure the systematic deterioration of its economy, security, public services and in the relations between the government and society? And without being governed?

President López Obrador has concentrated exclusively on his popularity and power. To attain this, he has procured the preservation of poverty, containing (or impeding) the growth of the economy, and has permitted insecurity to flourish. He might well had been following the script that, from the XVI century, was penned by Étienne de la Boétie: “It has always happened that tyrants, in order to strengthen their power, have made every effort to train their people not only in obedience and servility toward themselves, but also in adoration.”

Whosoever succeeds President López Obrador will not count on the elements that would allow them to recreate their predecessor. Rather, the new president would have to correct the course to confront the fiscal, political, economic and social problems, not to mention the international ones, which will comprise the legacy of the current administration.

The candidates who are decided on this year should be clear in this regard because the citizenry, currently overwhelmed by a fallacious narrative, but one that is highly effective, will clamor for accountability at the first light.