The big “how”

Mexico is not the first country in history to suffer from political conflict, institutional structures with little propensity towards understanding and paralysis in decision making.If one looks at the world in general, this is the typical scenario and it is why there are so many poor, backward nations, without much potential. But there are some countries that perform exceptionally well and a few who have found a way to really advance. Decades ago Mexico was among the nations that seemed like winners; today we seem determined to compete for the last spot.


Developed countries have strong and reliable institutions that avoid extremes and allow continuity regardless of the quality of their governments. In the absence of strong institutions, like in Mexico’s case, only an effective leadership that builds trust and finds ways to add society’s impulses with the politicians’ craft can have a similar effect. In recent decades Brazil was able to find just that right combination and has now started to excel. We, on the other hand, are stuck because we do not have that fundamental combination.


Many argue that the country’s main problem lies in the intensity of the conflict which we live in. However, when one takes a look at the sour and vitriolic debate taking place in the U.S. regarding the health care system we can conclude that democracies are not always peaceful, civilized and free of antagonism. Our conflicts are not more intense than those of other democracies. What distinguishes us is that we are unable to resolve any of these conflicts and challenges adequately. Gone are the days, until the sixties, when the old political system concentrated power, gave functionality to the government and fostered development. Since the advent of electoral democracy, we have stumbled in ways that have only become more pronounced. Today we have a dysfunctional political system that has not developed the capacity to make decisions and face the challenges ahead.


The public debate has generated many ideas to correct these ills, most of which focus on the need for the government to have a legislative majority or, why not, to adopt a parliamentary system of government. The concept sounds logical but does not solve two core problems: the first is that it is not clear how it would be possible to agree and adopt the kind of reforms that are needed if politicians cannot agree on issues such as the ratification of some ambassadors, not to mention the budget. The other problem that this perspective does not address is that the presidential system Mexico has, was designed to limit presidential power, and if there is anything that unites Mexicans that is the hope that there is never again an all-powerful president with the freedom to impose his decisions on the population as a whole. At its core, the notion of creating structures meant to achieve a legislative majority close to the president in any of its modalities is nothing else than an attempt to rebuild the old presidential system, at least in some of its facets.


Whether any reform of this kind might eventually be useful, what we urgently need right now is for our politicians to begin to earn their living by solving the wrongs we face through negotiation because without this we cannot even begin to contemplate  the scale of reforms that are being proposed. There are some positive examples that show us that this is perfectly plausible.


A few days ago I had the opportunity to participate in a seminar on Brazil. Four speakers presented different perspectives on the changes that have characterized the country in recent decades. At the end of the session I reached three conclusions: first, the reforms Brazil has undertaken are important but are nothing out of this world, nothing that would not be possible to implement in Mexico; second, the Brazilian political system, although very different from ours, is not simpler, more institutionalized or easier to manage (i.e., building a legislative coalition); and, thirdly, its success has resided in the unique capacity of at least the last two presidents -radically different in characteristics and ideology- to join forces, give continuity to government programs and, above all, become spectacularly effective leaders. In short, Brazil has had a clear leadership; a consistent strategy that has gone beyond governments and political parties; an acceptance and disposition that starts from the president to the last politician of the need to build coalitions; and, in addition to the above, a great willingness to avoid simple moral judgments among political actors and create a foundation of trust and respect, without which agreement on key issues is inconceivable.


The essence of Brazil and other similarly successful nations is that they have construed a reform process not as a sequence of epic battles that will suddenly change the world, but as a gradual process of change that everyone understands, that serves as a compass for the population, and that translates into a growing enthusiasm and a winning attitude. Instead of untouchable and illuminated leaders, these countries have managed to resolve wrongs, set priorities, and build a base of understanding on clear objectives and trust among actors who can cross party and ideological barriers for the sake of the greater good.


In Mexico we have structural problems that sometimes seem insurmountable. The example of Brazil shows that all that is required is a willingness of politicians to meet, look each other the eye and engage in conversations that lead to decisions that everyone can support. That’s what the Concertación did in Chile when the former enemies, the Socialists and the Christian Democrats, and it is exactly what supports the ruling coalitions that sustained the governments of Cardoso and Lula in Brazil.


In Mexico we have exceptional politicians that have been able to build agreements and decisions that transcend party and ideological lines, but unfortunately these have been limited to procedural topics and less complex issues. The same should be happening at the highest level of government as well as the legislative and party leaderships because that is the only way it will be possible to change the country. The absence of predetermined institutional frameworks cannot be an excuse for people not to be able to understand each other, while building an atmosphere of trust and shared responsibility that can make it possible to lift the country out of the hole it is in. Anything else is no more than supine irresponsibility.