A Country No Longer The Same

An old refrain says that the genius of democracy resides in alternation of parties in power, because it compels the opposition to take the situation seriously: as long as the possibility exists of arriving at power, it is condemned to worry about the future. We Mexicans are on the threshold of the possibility of experiencing a new alternation of parties power, but it is not obvious whether the potential new occupants of the Los Pinos presidential residence are clear about the deep-seated change that has characterized the country.

Today, ten years after the first alternation in the presidency materialized, it is fashionable to hold the transcendence of the very deed of power having changed hands in disdain. Many recall the PRI with nostalgia, while others declare that we would be better with someone else. Some have already declared that alternation has failed as the cornerstone of democracy and respect for citizens’ rights. And, without doubt, if one focuses exclusively on the errors, bumbling, misinterpretations, and the insufficient governing ability of the PAN administrations, it is easy to justify any bias that one might entertain. If we limit ourselves to evaluating alternation as simply a switch from one government political gang to another, it is clear that alternation is worth little.

No one can doubt that what the country has become in recent years leaves much to be desired. Wherever one looks, economic performance or citizen tranquility has been poor, to say the least. However, on examining the numbers of the last forty years, one finds that the current situation is not very different. There are certainly many negative aspects that are attributable to the two PAN administrations, beginning with the newly inaugurated Fox government’s squandering of the great opportunity to transform the political system. But the negative tendencies that the country experienced date back to the sixties, when the slump in the economic growth rate began. In the seventies, we participated in an apparent economic improvement, but we have not yet recovered from its cost in terms of legitimacy, inflation, and debt. With Salinas, we were witness to an ostensible rebirth that did not last. To maintain that the country’s problems began in 2000 is simply absurd.

It would be similarly ludicrous to suppose that nothing has changed from 2000 on. The manner in which the post-revolutionary regime revolved the problems of political stability and power was to centralize these. First through hammering it into people, and later by means of incentives and controls of every genre, the PRIist system concentrated the power with which it was able to make decisions and demand compliance. The system, whose bud growth was the bonding between party and presidency (and the permanent exchange among both), involved a grid of structures, organizations, and mechanisms with tentacles that spread everywhere, which would allow for castigating dissidence and quelling rebellion. The system weakened over time, but concentration of power continued being its main feature.

Despite Fox’s failures and his blindness in the face of opportunity and the urgency to renegotiate power relations with the PRI, the very fact of his defeat changed the country forever. Independently of his achievement or failures, the “divorce” between the PRI and the presidency changed Mexico because it threw into disorder the pivot that permitted centralization of power derived from control of the population, businesses, unions, parties, the media, and the country in general. We have only to observe the manner in which an infinite number of organizations, groups, and companies distanced themselves from the PRI– and established themselves as independents- to illustrate the depth of the phenomenon. The seemingly sudden appearance of the so-called “de facto powers” was not so sudden: all of these were already in existence, but there was also some degree or capacity of control over them. The loss of the presidency left the PRI more as a party and less as the system of control of former times.

If one chooses to see the glass as half empty, it is clear that the disappearance of the old system was accompanied by the end of the certainty that control proffered. At the same time, if one regards the glass as half full, citizens abruptly acquired levels of freedom in which they, never before under the PRIist system, had relished. Neither of the two is perfect: today we have the uncertainty typical of democracy, but we have lost our bearings; we have broad leeway of freedom, but public insecurity does not allow us to exercise this.

In addition to what is undesirable, what is sure is that it is impossible to reproduce the old system. First off, it is impossible to go back to subjecting all organizations to a PRI-type regime. Second, beneficiaries of the power decentralization -governors, party and legislative leaders, and de facto powers- would not easily permit interlopers. The governors, who at present comprise a microcosm of the old presidentialism, will not relinquish even an iota of their new power. Third, there are countless legal and financial frameworks that have been employed for underwriting development projects at the state level that are not subordinate to federal control. Finally, it is a fallacy to suppose that the problem of insecurity and narcotrafficking is the product solely of governmental incompetence: the phenomenon is another. Narcotrafficking is a de facto power with appendages that are much more momentous than those of any other interest in the country. The backroom arrangements, understandings, and slush funds that countenanced narcotraffic functionings for decades were the product of the circumstances: there was a government in full control, but there was also narcotrafficking, whose business was purely conveyance South to North. This has now changed; we cannot go back as much as we might wish to, although we must confront this intelligently.

Many PRIists see Putin as a model of power reconcentration and de facto power submission to be imitated. There, as here, many politicians think that the worst that could happen to a country was to enter into a democratic game playing era. However, Putin’s power is not that of Stalin, and the old Communist Party is one of myriad players. It also cannot be ignored that Putin’s strength is due more to high oil prices than to the strength of his economy or the solvency of his government.

The relevant question for the person who aspires to govern Mexico from 2012 on is not one of power concentration, but in its stead, one of the construction of a political system capable of making decisions within a context of effective checks and balances that results in robust and sustained economic achievement. The old system should remain where it correspondingly should remain: in the past. Today, it is key to start to construct the future, because not even the PRI can live from the past.