Building a nation

Earl Long, the three nonconsecutive-term populist governor and self-styled “last of the red hot poppas” of U.S. politics, once affirmed that “Someday Louisiana is gonna get good government. And they ain’t gonna like it.” I hope that, one day, we will have a good system of government in Mexico, but I fear that before being able to construct one, we would of necessity have to free ourselves from myriad myths, dogmas, and truths that are not true. Perhaps we could begin with themes such as our inability to develop a long-term view, so that the country would not have to reinvent itself every six years.


Our current governmental system was born after the Revolution and as a response to the Porfirio Díaz regime. Faced with the chaos in the wake of the Revolution, the National Revolutionary  Party (PNR), grandfather of the present PRI party, was built as a unifying structure of the political forces, groups, militias, and gangs of the moment, but above all, as a mechanism devoted to disciplining these contingents, structuring a system of government, and providing a sense of direction for the country. If one were to take a glance backward, it is evident that the PRI system stabilized the country and, employing virtually any instrument that it considered necessary at any given moment, afforded Mexico years of political peace during which the economy prospered.


But this system responded not only to the chaos of the moment, but also to the Porfirio Díaz government and its sequelae. In the constitutional structure of 1917, and later in the system established by Plutarco Elías-Calles, two principles were adopted that became the norm for Mexican political development for decades that, viewed in retrospect, have had atrocious effects. On the one hand, the system was founded on the principle of no-reelection, which instigated the revolutionary movement. Rejection of the despotism of the Porfiriato was transformed into a one-term system of government, a mechanism conceived of as a way to avoid perpetuation of power and to which the popular catch phrase “no ill can last six years” was consigned.


The second component of the PRIist system, also a response to the Porfirian government, was, as scholar Roger Hansen argued, the institutionalization of the Porfiriato: it eliminated permanent personalism and edified an institution capable of shaping Mexican politics. Perhaps our greatest problem today resides precisely in the manner in which PRIism imbued political continuity.


The no-reelection regime was developed with the objective of avoiding perpetuation of power. In this, the logic and imperative of history was evident and necessary. What this regime did not resolve, or rather, what it did in actuality engender, was the articulation of a system of incentives that in essence thwarts the country’s development. Perhaps this appears too harsh, but let us espy the inherent logic in the non-existence of reelection as viewed from both sides: that of the politician or public official, and that of the citizen.


A system without reelection perverts democracy because it concedes to it a limited period of government (three or six years, according to the office), within which the system has no responsibility at all. During this period, doings or undoings may be undertaken without accountability to anyone, without compliance with campaign promises, and without being required to confront the electorate for the latter to qualify by means of the vote. The structure of incentives deriving from no-reelection in effect removes the citizen from the political equation.


If we place ourselves in the shoes of the legislator, governor, politician, or civil servant, the logic of the six-year term creates perennial uncertainty regarding their subsequent job situation and obliges them to engage in the inexorable manufacture of our next post from nearly the day they get to where they are. In some cases, the search is limited to the political/electoral world, and the sole potential impropriety in which they could engage is to attempt to bias the results in favor of their party or their next electoral race. However, in many others, the system is party to the development of businesses of every ilk, as well as obscure agreements with the media, the unions, or the entrepreneurs. Presidents will be concerned with their legacies and with how they will be remembered by history, but all the rest permanently lie in wait.


The system is so perverse in this respect that no true civil service career has even been created that would confer continuity on public policy in excess of the six-year presidential term-of-office (and sometimes, not even that). While in other nations there is a senior civil service that in fact leads the management of government affairs, in Mexico we have entrusted tenderfeet with the most sensitive responsibilities. For example, no Parisian or Londoner would believe that a metropolis such a Mexico City does not have a city manager who remains independent from the political circuit.


But even more worrisome than these subtleties is the fact that no one is responsible for what transpires in the long term. A Canadian functionary who makes a decision today will most probably be around ten or twenty years from now and will pay the consequences if the decision made was found to be in error. In our case, the system eliminates people in wholesale fashion and releases them, for all practical purposes, from any responsibility.


Perhaps the greatest expense generated by this structure of incentives is that no one thinks in the long term; only individual career trajectories are constructed. Instead of decisions of State, with all of the considerations and consequences that these entail, decisions in Mexico tend to be makeshift, oriented toward what is expedient: they save the day at the moment, but do not solve the deep-rooted problem.


No-reelection has entertained the virtue of favoring the circulation of the political class, of accommodating groups, and of creating space for all of the currents of each party, but it has not impeded the consolidation in state governments of personages who are more appropriate to the feudal era, nor has it stopped sinister figures from going from post to post ad infinitum. The price of no-reelection has been immense. At the same time, installing it would not be easy precisely because of the deeply rooted species of feudalism that we have.


Some years ago, at an encounter between the Mexican and Brazilian presidents, I asked the Mexican Secretary of State what similar meetings there had been between the presidents of the two countries during prior presidential terms-of-office. His reply was that there was no registry, nor were there any minutes, of these presidential rendezvous. A system with no sense of State is also bereft of an institutional memory and does not back continuity of its personnel. This provokes poorly meditated decisions that translate into magical solutions, with the expected results. A country without counterweights ‒and a well-structured reelection system can be literally that‒ does not have the capacity to respond; thus, it becomes paralyzed and is prone to causing a crisis. It is time to begin to construct a real country.