The Peña Phenomenon

“Be careful what you wish for”, goes the old adage, “because it may come true”. The electorate as well as the new president-elect should meditate in these terms. The victory of Enrique Peña-Nieto was impeccable and indisputable. Viewed in retrospect, this electoral contest was a new watershed, similar to 2000. Now comes the good part.

The electoral result has two faces: what the electorate demanded, and what Peña supplied. Both reveal a changed country.

On the part of the citizenry it is evident that there is weariness. Decades of crisis followed by more of disorder, the absence of leadership and economic stagnation ended up ruining the expectations that the solution would be via the route of a divided government, incomplete democracy, or a bunch of incompetent governments. The last three administrations, free as they were from financial crises, were mediocre and ended up not satisfying anyone. Peña understood that the electorate wanted an effective government and that’s what he promised.

The majority of the problems that the country is currently experiencing are the residues of the PRIist era that has not been overcome and that translated into violence, institutional weakness, bureaucratic abuse and a pathetic system of government. The PANist governments proved unable to change the country: they neither built democratic institutions nor did they distinguish themselves for the quality of their administration.  But the problems are still there.

Although the final result did not bring about a “full cart” (i.e. control of both legislative houses and the presidency) that some polls anticipated, the changed landscape is nonetheless amazing. The PRI candidate clearly won. The PAN candidate gave a lesson of democracy and integrity up to now absent in the country’s brief democratic history. And the PRD candidate behaved, well, as always: Facundo Cabral would be delighting himself.

The winning candidate prepared himself for years. Peña organized a team, conceived of his term as governor as a showcase for this campaign, planned every step of the construction of his candidacy and developed an impeccable political operation. Instead of wasting time attacking the federal government, he devoted himself to organizing the PRIists, coaxing the dissenters on board and eliminating all competition. He foresaw attacks on his weaknesses by making them public, propitiating the printing of books that justified him, and threatening, albeit in roundabout fashion, those who opposed him. He associated himself with the Mexican multimedia mass media company Televisa to become the sole positive public figure for six years and undermined his potential rivals by attracting and buying leading figures of the Left and the PAN, notably Fox. Peña left nothing to fate.

The campaign proceeded like a perfectly well-oiled and -financed machine driven like a bulldozer. As IvonneMelgar wrote recently, he anticipated diverse scenarios and groomed a team skillful in image management and in immediate response to and care of even the most trivial contingency, by any means possible. In view of this, none of his contenders, however capable, attractive or organized they might have been, had any chance at all. The numbers show this to be so from day one.

Now come the consequences.

Peña did not receive a blank check but a halo of legitimacy. Instead of the risk that an absolute legislative majority entailed –for him and for the country- the electoral outcome will force him to forge agreements and build a legislative majority with opposition parties. The political talent that he showed during the campaign suggests that he has everything going to accomplish that. Also, the moments and circumstances in which he found himself in a predicament during the campaign (as with at the Ibero) illustrate the kind of problems he is likely to face when facing unpredictable scenarios.

It is to be expected that in the upcoming months we will see many adjustments and disadjustments. The underground war between the “center” and the state governors has just begun. Different from the thirties, the latter do not have armies at their fingertips, but no one will give up their privileges without a struggle. The notion that the PRI-Presidency nuptials can simply be restored as if nothing happened in the past decade is simply ludicrous.  When a similar situation was encountered in Poland, the return of the Communist Party, Lech Walesa affirmed that “making fish soup from an aquarium is not the same as making an aquarium from fish soup”. A similar situation will come about with PRI: Peña’s opportunity is immense.

Soon the de facto powers will rear their heads, some to make their weight felt and to establish limits for the new government, other to cash in on campaign favors. The response that they receive, and the manner of that response, will earmark the tenor and nature of the incoming government. The temptation to centralize and impose order will be strong. The example of the State of Mexico, of which he was governor and where nothing moves without the governor’s consent is suggestive.

For Peña the dilemma is to come face to face with recovering what has been lost and to rebuild PRIist hegemony –as well as he can-, or to devote himself to constructing a modern country, which would imply exactly the opposite: abandoning the old PRI once and for all. This would imply achieving precisely what the PANist governments were timorous about and incapable of articulating. The party -PAN or PRD- that first succeeds in organizing itself to negotiate a legislative coalition will be crucial and will determine the nature of the economic policy and thus the potential for transformation of the country. I have no doubt that there will be ad-hoc legislative coalitions. The question is with whom.

A modern country entails, above all, a structure of checks and balances that confers stability and strong institutions on the country and the government. Since 1997, when the PRI lost legislative majority, the country has experienced the checks, but never proper counterweights. That is, diverse private interests (above all the so-called de facto powers, but also the Congress), have achieved blocking and impeding reforms, the elimination of obstacles to economic growth and other means to turn around a country that is ripe for transformation. What there have not been are balances: that is, the means to strengthen the government’s capacity to act for the benefit of the citizenship, marginalizing restrictions imposed by special interests.

The good news of not enjoying a legislative majority is that this makes it irrelevant whether the new government will want to construct a modern country. The bad news is that such a possibility will depend on the quality of the opposition with which he has to work: the opportunity, and responsibility, of the opposition parties to forge a coalition to modernize the country is extraordinary. The paradox is that all that power can be used to advance but also to retreat. Mexican society is avid for answers and for a future. Peña has the opportunity to respond at the tip of his hand. The question is whether he’ll be able to defeat PRI in order to achieve it.