The PRI Gene

The PRI victory engages many possible explanations but, beyond the specific situation –the performance of the last two administrations and the extraordinarily well organized Peña campaign- there is an angle that merits more profound analysis: that of the political culture that this party built throughout the past century and that, judging by the result, could still be imprinted in the Mexican’s genetic code.

Looking back, the central characteristic of the PRI regime of the XX Century was its capacity to administrate and maintain power accompanied by its incapacity to construct a State. This is not a play on words: the key to the PRIist structure was unipersonal power that, although not absolute, conferred enormous powers upon whoever occupied the presidency. As Roger Hansen wrote, the great success of the PRI was that of reproducing the PorfirioDíaz regime but tailored into a six-year presidential term of office. To maintain that power, “the system” constructed a cultural hegemony that not only legitimatized its own power, but that also allowed it to construct a system of fealties and a credibility that far and away transcended the strictly political ambit.

Will it be this cultural hegemony of yesteryear on which Enrique Peña-Nieto was able to capitalize? Doubtlessly, Peña capitalized on the notion that the country used to work well (under PRI management), that things were working out and that afterward (who knows when or why) they stopped working (under PAN), and snowballed to the point of becoming an revealed truth, comparable only with the observation of a former PRI governor in the sense that “we may be corrupt but we know how to govern”.

In a less praiseworthy or benign take, Robert Conquest, one of the greatest historians of the Soviet Union, affirmed that “one of the most difficult things to convey to a young audience is how disgusting the rank and file of the old Soviet ruling class really were –how mean, treacherous, shamelessly lying, cowardly, sycophantic, ignorant”. Which PRI returns, the one that constructed the scaffolding of a modern country or the one that milked it until nearly finishing it off?

What I have no doubt about is that there is indeed a PRIist gene and that this is more penetrating and omnipresent that it is recognized. My impression is that there are two possible explanations: one is that, in effect, it is a cultural phenomenon that underlies everything else. Some scholars from past decades attested to that the PRI had achieved capturing the nature of the Mexican and had converted it into its own raison d’être: that is, that the PRI and the Mexican were one and the same. I tend to have doubts about this way of seeing things because, for example, if one reads the press of the first PRI decades, until the end of the forties, the country was much freer in terms of written expression than it was in the following decades. Media censorship began in the fifties and worsened until it began to subside, but it only disappeared with the defeat of that party in 2000.

From this perspective, it’s not so much that the PRI has mimicked the nature of the Mexican, but rather that it possessed an extraordinary capacity to construct an entire history and culture that the Mexican adopted (by whatever method it was). Thence the official truth and the sole truth that very few dared to doubt. Thus the importance of the official (and only) text book for school children and control of the media. An Interior Minister of that era once observed that “in Mexico anything can be thought, some things can be said and very few may be written”. Anything to maintain control –and the myth.

The other explanation for the phenomenon is perhaps more pedestrian but no less significant: despite the alternation of parties in government, the old PRI system remained intact, was never reformed nor did a new regime ever come to life, meaning by this a new institutional structure that would redefine the relations among the branches of government and among the political parties, that would confer real power on the citizenry and that would guarantee accountability by civil servants. The system stayed the same, except that the president stopped being so powerful when the PRI ceased being an integral component, a permanent component, of the presidential political apparatus. However, given the absence of a true institutional reconstruction, the result of this “divorce” was a dysfunctional system of government, a weak president and a very poor governmental performance. Beyond the individuals, the persistence of the old system under inexpert administrators produced poor results.

Maybe the first conclusion of these disquisitions is that democracy has not penetrated the institutional structures and the culture of the Mexican and that, what the citizen craves is an effective government that makes things work. Without disdaining their achievements in matters of transparency, availability of mortgages and the fight against organized crime, the PAN Presidents didn’t change the political system nor did they strengthen their historical base and its raison d’etre: the citizenry. They maintained economic stability, but they did not resolve the problem of competition in the economy –above all in energy and communications- and they did not change the direction of the country for the better. In addition to this, they were highly incompetent and limited governments, but they surely did adopt many of the PRIist vices.

In view of this, the rational thing for a voter was to move toward an administration that offered the same but with a proven record of delivering. That is, it’s not so much that the PRIist culture continues to be so dominant, but rather that the Mexican simply wants an effective government. That’s what Peña promised and that’s what apparently swayed the electorate. Peña’s first steps have shown unusual pragmatism that contrasts with the dogma of his opponents. Time will tell.

There are two similar cases in recent global history that afford us a comparative perspective: Russia and Nicaragua. In both cases the dominant party lost power but eventually ended up returning for similar reasons: because the people wanted order and assurance concerning the future. It’s not that the Russians wanted to return to Stalinism or that the Nicaraguans missed the Sandinistas, but that the interim governments turned out to be more benign in terms of freedoms, but so incompetent that they ended up tiring everyone out.  Perhaps the explanation for Mexico is no more complicated than that. But the unrelenting question is whether Mexicans will suffer from the privations of freedom, controlled media or systematic attempts of imposition that have characterized those two regimes.

If it’s an effective government that the Mexican wants, then that’s what he or she will surely get. Will the efficacy be accompanied by all that Robert Conquest summed up so well: form above substance, control above rights, the steamroller above the freedoms? Overriding Talleyrand, will the new administration demonstrate that the PRIistsdid learn something from their past?