Many Gambles

In “The Blues Brothers”, after Jake (John Belushi) left her standing at the altar and with a dinner for 300 guests, his former fiancée shrieks at him, “You betrayed me!” “No, I didn’t”, he says, now cornered next to Elwood (Dan Akroyd). “Honest. I can explain. I ran out of gas. I had a flat tire. I didn’t have enough for the cab fare. My tux didn’t come back from the cleaners. An old friend came in from out of town. Someone stole my car. There was an earthquake! A terrible flood! Locusts! IT WASN’T MY FAULT, I SWEAR TO GOD”. Just like this initiation of the electoral seems to be. Solely excuses for what hasn’t been done.

Election years are always the most vulnerable point of any political system. Transmission of the reins of government entails an entire ensemble of processes, actors, and decisions, each of which can generate conflict at the least provocation. Thus, for example, it is no coincidence that practically all of our recent political crises –political or financial, from that of 1968 to 2006- have taken place precisely at those times. It concerns a moment (comprising months) during which the outgoing administration no longer controls all the instances of the government and the incoming administration has not yet begun to function.

The phenomenon is virtually universal, although it is aggravated in nations with weak institutional structures, in which all key personnel change overnight, that is to say, in which there is no civil service that drives the government to function in good times and in bad, with politicians or without them. In some cases, as occurred in Argentina some years ago, the new government began functioning prior to its legal date-of-entry to avoid yet greater deterioration.

The risks of discontinuity are enormous because all of the personnel of the political apparatus are already thinking about their future and, thus, engaged in something else. The legislators –who in a more representative political system would be in great proximity to the voters, seeking re-election- from April on will be concentrated on their next job. Federal public servants will be doing their own thing at the very most until the election and will then begin to line up other possibilities for themselves. The fact is that the country will be concentrated, in the best case scenario, on the future. The question is who will be in the kitchen tending the home fires and assuring that no essential ingredient is lacking.

In an institutionalized country there would be no cause for concern about these issues, but that is not our case. In England there may or may not be a functioning government at a given moment, but the bureaucracy labor on without surcease: there professional personnel are permanent and the only change is that of the Minister in each entity, whose responsibility is strategy, not daily operations. The same happens in France: a noisier nation than the former but whose bureaucracy possesses the inner workings of a Swiss watch.

In Mexico’s case, practically none of the recent successions have been conflict-free. Despite the Zapatista uprising and the political assassinations, in 1994 we barely got through it and still ended up in deep financial crisis. In 2000 we made it because the politically correct candidate won or, stated another way, because the PRI lost. In 2006 we underwent the most severe political conflict since1968. The big question is what this year holds.

Political processes depend on the rules of the game, on the capacity of the governmental actors to make them work, and on the individual conduct of each of the actors. When everything plays out in the direction of stability (clear game rules that are perceived as legitimate; an effective and reasonably impartial government; and serious and committed actors who perceive no alternative other than the legal one), we have a scenario like that in the U.S. in 2000 when the dispute for votes was limited to what was legal and everyone stood at attention and saluted when the U.S. Supreme Court delivered its verdict. The opposite extreme would be cases such as the Ivory Coast, where two governments co-existed for months in an environment of permanent violence. Each will decide where Mexico is in relation to this continuum, but it is noteworthy that its weaknesses are enormous.

To start with, the rules of the game are new, have been disputed by everyone involved, and the electoral authority does not always know how to proceed and does not enjoy wide-reaching respect on the part of the contenders. In the second place, the President of the Republic has distinguished himself more for his partisan attitude than for the exercise of the basic function of maintaining order, guaranteeing peace, and exercising his faculties  impartially. And finally, among the key actors in this contest there’s a little of everything; from the most integral institutionality to the most consummate irreverence. These are the players Mexicans will have to work with.

The outcome of this year will most assuredly depend, in addition to the candidates’ and their parties’ behavior, on three key factors: the way in which the president and his innermost circle conduct themselves, the manner in which the key macroeconomic indicators are administered, and the actions of the electoral authorities. Each of these factors could either guarantee the smooth running of the process or render it explosive.

The candidates will follow their own logic and silk purses cannot be fashioned from sows’ ears. But the two crucial factors will be the government and the electoral authorities. The government has distinguished itself more for its concern with who wins than with the optimal functioning of the country and has allowed its team, instead of concentrating on its responsibility, to skew the results. This leaves the watered-down crew of electoral authorities, upon whose shoulders rests an intelligent management of a complex process requiring a flexibility that the law does not afford but that reality exacts.

All of the presidents, past and present, believe that they have the reins of the country in their hands. Fifty years of evidence shows the contrary: no one can impose an electoral result at the present time and the potential for conflict is infinite. The presidents also think that they can manipulate the political processes at will. The latter is partially true at the initiation of a six-year presidential term, when the construction of a project begins. Five years later the situation is very different: everything is focused on the future and the outgoing administration’s instruments and capacities erode with the ticking of the clock. At this rate the only thing left is to hope for a happy ending. We Mexicans know that the risks are enormous and we can only hope that each of those responsible for the process contributes to the least unhappy end possible…