Where is the Choke Point?

Luis Rubio

While the candidacies advance the political risks increase. There are three factors that drive the possibility of the country having to confront critical situations during next year. The first is the most obvious of these: the presidential cycle, everywhere in the world, follows a natural logic that initiates its ascendent phase during which the president accumulates power, it reaches its zenith and then begins its descent.  The second factor derives from the erosion and eventual disarticulation of the mechanisms of political control the system could count on. The third, and the one entertaining the greatest risk during this period, is that issuing from the inexistence of game rules for politics, in conjunction with the growing incapacity to enforce the few rules that remain in force. Each of these elements will play its part in the upcoming months.

The great success of the old political system lay in the existence of precise rules for the functioning of public life. Some of these rules, starting with the first -the president is in command-, were constant while others varied from administration to administration. The cycle of investment and economic activity typically got underway toward the end of the first year, when the government’s own tonic and its specific rules became clear. With respect to succession, the rules were permanent: no one could dispute the legitimacy of the president, but contending for the succession was valid. This and other peculiarities of the system came to be denominated “metaconstitutional” faculties because they were “unwritten rules”, but ones enforced at all costs.

Many of the worst of the current vices derive from that way of conducting public affairs because Mexico never erected a legal system that was compatible with economic development and personal freedom (as indeed does occur in nearly all Latin-American nations). Mexico achieved stability and growth for many decades along the XX century because it had in place an exceptional political system in which the law was irrelevant and what mattered were the unwritten rules. That worked in a country that was small, provincial and relatively isolated from the rest of the planet, but it has now turned into a hindrance to development for a nation that is big, diverse, disperse and extraordinarily interconnected with the exterior world. The old system, which in many senses persists, is a formidable obstacle for the construction of a different future.  What previously were virtues, are now sources of risk and potential instability.

Going back to the factors mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the political cycle takes place in all nations since it is, in a certain fashion, the cycle of life.  Notwithstanding this, what makes things different in Mexico is that while in most nations the president loses power in their descending phase, in Mexico what they lose is control, but not the power bestowed to the presidency because in normal countries power is limited by the by laws and institutions, which explains extreme situations such as  expropriation of the banks,  expropriation of the lands in the Yaqui Valley and other anomalies (and crises), which have almost always occurred at the end of the six-year presidential term of office.

The second element that the political system was able to rely on throughout the past century was the assemblage of institutions, above all the unions, which granted the presidency enormous capacity of control. The structure of the unions, federations and confederations, such as those of workers and peasants of the so-called popular sector, each with its characteristics and vicissitudes, constituted a formidable mechanism of regulation and authority that gave the country decades of stability, all this at the price of the exercise of individual as well as collective rights extant in other latitudes. Trade liberalization altered the scheme by undermining or eliminating the entire control structure exercised by the government on the workers and businesses (except for unions linked to the government, not subject to competition).

The third element is key. In truly democratic and institutionalized countries, the rules of the game are those established by the legal framework: the laws guide the process and determine the faculties and limits for the diverse actors. In a country where the laws comprise no more than a moral guide and what matters are the formidable discretionary (and arbitrary) powers that the authority rests on at every all level, the law is irrelevant and the only thing that matters is power. And a powerful president such as the current one makes and changes the rules according to the time of day and his corresponding moods.

The challenge for Mexicans is expressly that: how to build a system of rules and laws that cannot be modified or defined by a sole person, but instead through an institutional system such as that established by the Constitution. Mexico’s main problem lies in the fact that the president (the present one and his predecessors) can change the rules (and the laws), literally at will. The issue thus is one of power, not one of laws nor, strictly speaking, one of institutions: How to delimit the true powers of the presidency? The day Mexicans achieve that, Mexico will have entered the world of development and civilization.