The Good Tsar

Luis Rubio

The Good Tsar is a myth. In history there are good presidents and bad presidents, an inevitable circumstance of human nature and of the complex reality. What is unacceptable is submitting the population to the possibility that its president might be good. The essence of democracy does not lie in the free election of its governors, however crucial that initial step may be, but instead in the capacity of limiting the harm that can be inflicted upon the citizenry and on the country by a bad ruler.


Good or bad, the ruler is always prone to tyranny.  Voltaire spoke of benevolent tyranny as the solution to the governance of a nation, but he himself reined in that notion: “the best government is benevolent tyranny tempered by the occasional assassination.” To depend on the goodness of a ruler implies that some will not be good, thus the well-being of the nation will always be subject to comings and goings and highs and lows, such as those that have characterized Mexico for too long. Much better to develop effective counterweights that permit, before anything else, delimiting the damage that can be palmed on a bad ruler, and second, impeding the bad governor from attempting to impose another ruler of the same stripe as their successor.

In its most fundamental sense, democracy is transcendent because it protects the citizenry from the abuse of the ruler on assembling counterbalancing mechanisms that limit the damage a bad one can cause. It is according to this that, as the philosopher Karl Popper wrote, the relevant question concerning democracy must be the following: “How is the state to be constituted so that bad rulers can be got rid of without bloodshed, without violence?”

The government that is about to end its mandate has sung its own praises regarding its extraordinary capacity to dismantle one after another of the mechanisms constituted in prior decades to fence in presidential power and whose purpose was to confer certainty on the citizenry. Some have applauded those measures because they perceived in the existence of counterweights a source of obstacles for the exercise of presidential power. And, of course, when the mechanisms forged to act as a counterweight became absolute stumbling blocks and impediments (a little like what happened with the two PAN administrations), they failed in their purpose.

But the other side of the coin, this most frequently found in Mexico’s history and that which has typified the current government, is more pernicious. The extreme of the latter has been a Congress conceiving itself as an instrument of the president rather than acting as a mechanism of equilibrium not to impede, but to build the tools -such as the laws- for the development of the country. When the president orders the Congress to approve a bill (or that “not even a comma of it be changed”), the manner of understanding not only governance, but also of democracy becomes plain: as a mere showcase for the rhetoric, but not for the daily functioning of the governmental task.

The phenomenon is not limited to the Executive Power–Congress relationship. The same occurs in the relation between the President and the governors, reaching the extreme of demanding that they relinquish their powers or else face the risk of criminal prosecution. When it is within the jurisdiction of the president the faculty (de facto or de jure) of initiating (or stopping) penal processes against their enemies, democracy and the Rule of Law would end up being nonexistent. Thus, dictatorships and tyrannies begin and that is precisely why it is fundamental not to weaken the judiciary.

The out-going Mexican government has been distinguished by its contradictory stance with respect to the other branches of government. On the one hand, democracy cheers when its candidate wins or when its bill is approved, but, on the other hand, it berates the Supreme Court for its lack of democracy.  In the conception of Montesquieu’s separation-of-powers design, the three branches of government would function as a counterbalance among themselves: some would be elected, others nominated. In this manner, while the president and the members of the legislature are elected through the citizen vote, the justices of the Supreme Court are proposed by the Executive Branch but are voted in by the Legislative Branch.

There is no perfect system of government; notwithstanding this, as Churchill affirmed, democracy is the least imperfect of those attempted so far. But democracy only works when there are institutional structures to anchor it in place and a citizenry that makes its own the responsibility of insisting that the government comply with the law and that makes it be complied with.

There is no way of guaranteeing that a government will be good or that the ruler will be benign and that is the reason why it is indispensable for there to be counterweights underwriting that a bad ruler will not be up to their old tricks. The Mexican presidency is so powerful (above all for those knowing how to engage all the instruments at their disposal), that the potential for abuse is immense, to which Mexicans have been witness in recent times. Therefore, there does not exist -thus it is a myth- the notion of a “Good” Tsar.

Whoever wins the presidency in 2024 will find a dire fiscal situation bordering on chaos and a population hoping -the eternal hope- for a better government. If instead of pretending to be a good tsarina the new ruler devotes herself to building effective counterweights, Mexico will advance unrestrainedly.