A myth is circulating around Mexico: that of presidentialism without counterweights. This is nothing new. Between the exacerbated presidentialism of yesteryear including the legislative paralysis in recent decades, and now the new model of unipersonal government, Mexicans display a propensity for conceiving of the governance problem in a pendular manner, the latter yielding a distorted perspective of what the government is or should be. Mexicans want the country to function, but they do not want there to be crisis; they want the government to act, but not for it to be excessive; they want the good, but not the bad. This is natural and logical, but, as Madison would say, only with rules and counterweights is it possible to achieve this, because the kingdom of man is always subject to human proclivity and passing fancies.
It is said that everyone tells the story according to their personal experience. When someone likes the one in government, they want them to continue and, even, for them to be re-elected to that office. When someone abhors the governor, they want them to take their leave as soon as possible. The matter should not be about persons, but instead be about institutions: precise and limited authority for the governor, rules and rights for the citizen. The point, in the Karl Popper sense, is for the citizen to have the certainty that the president will not be able to abuse their authority thanks to the existence of effective institutions and counterweights. The key question, at least since Plato, is how to ensure that it will thus come to pass.
In Mexican terms, the question is how to preside over the inconsistency that Mexicans harbor with respect to presidential power and the government in general. Recollection of the old political system generates yearning in some and fear in others and the problem is that both of these are accurate: the capacity of execution is missed, and the abuse is feared. That, in a phrase, is the Mexican dilemma.
The problem lies in that this tessitura has led to identifying governance with the control of the other branches of the government, that is, the old domineering presidentialism. The obverse side of that coin is that the circumstances that rendered that model possible (and in good measure necessary) nearly one hundred years ago have nothing to do with the reality of today’s world. Each component of power –politics, governance or governability, bureaucracy and the Rule of Law- should be viewed in this dimension.
Politics is personal, emotive and driven toward negotiating, convincing and uniting. This is the daily exercise of power, and its main instrument is the pulpit and the one-on-one conversation: it is there that agreements are arrived at for “things to happen.” It is said that a good politician can even squeeze water from stones.
In contrast, governance is dull because it does not show, except in the results. It is there that the law comes into play in the form of authority, power and the rules of governmental operation. It is in this ambit where the authority is determined that the legislature delegates to the executive power, both elected, but also to the bureaucracy and the regulatory entities, which are not. Governance is the point at which the government interacts with the citizenry. While a great politician can attain many things in so far as a mediocre one gets stuck along the way, neither of the two can exceed, within a context of effective counterweights, the authority conferred upon it by the legislature, consistent with the constitutional framework.
The term bureaucracy is frequently employed pejoratively, but it is what makes successful governments work in all sectors: a professional body that performs in non-partisan fashion and that operates in efficient and institutional mode, following the guidelines of the elected government. Thus, the destruction engineered by the current government of the administrative capacity that existed is so pernicious: though mediocre, that capacity worked.
What makes a country function are the rules of the game: what is valid and what is not. That is what is codified in the laws, from the Constitution down and in what is known as the Rule of Law. Laws should be clear, known, precise, strictly applied and difficult to change. In Mexico the laws tend to be aspirational rather than normative in character, tending also toward inapplicability, affording such a wide margin of discretion to the enforcer that they cannot comply with the objective of conferring certainty and protection on the citizens’ rights. And worse yet when a president has the power (legislative control) to change the laws at will and later claim that her actions adhere to the law.
Governability cannot consist of faculties so broad -by law or by legislative control- that they give rein to the violation of citizen rights, but they also require incentives for the legislature to cooperate and to avoid the capriciousness of paralysis. The counterweights can come to be disagreeable for the president, but it is the only way to guarantee that no one can abuse the power. To the extent that Mexico continues to elevate the degree of complexity in its economy, society and politics -a natural and desirable process- counterweights will become an indispensable requisite for being able to function.
The mission of a government does not entail their being able to do what they want, but rather the carrying out of their project within the limits imposed by the law. Two very distinct things.