The Jam

Luis Rubio

All governments, in Mexico and in the world, hit the wall at some point. What’s crucial is not the fact itself but whether Mexico’s possesses the capacity to extricate itself from the jam it got itself into. Victory at the polls leads the winning team to believe that the sky’s the limit, that no confines apply to their activism and, above all, that the outgoing administration ended up on the mat because of its incompetence. The dynamic of the triumph (and the overriding prejudices) are such that no one consigns himself to even considering the possibility that the causes of the crisis reside in the reality and not exclusively in the team that they hasten to replace. Getting into a jam is inevitable and the greater the conceit, the worse the outcome because the other side of the coin is equally true: the few governments that do recognize they are in a bind (50% of the solution) end up transforming themselves and re-launching initiatives that can lead them to achieve their objective.

The electoral triumph of today’s President Peña was clear and indisputable, but it is possible that his team deduced a mistaken lesson from the election’s dynamic: that the discrepancy between the opinion surveys and the final result was due to the fact that the decisive vote was the product of the split of the voters who made up their minds last into two negatives, the anti-PRIs vs. the anti-AMLOs. That dynamic implied that Peña-Nieto won because more Mexicans feared López-Obrador, many of these PANists who deserted their candidate, than because of a true preference for the PRI. Such a hypothesis would thus explain the errors in economic management, the cost of ignoring or underestimating the problem of security, the waste of the good-will generated by the detention of “the teacher”, the union leader, and the popular undercurrent against reforms, tax increases, and the renaissance of corruption. The government did not earn a free hand to do as it pleases: its great capacity of execution and its overriding formality are not sufficient; substance matters.

The events of the past weeks are suggestive: although no one in the country is condoning the behavior of the CNTE, the dissident Teachers Union, on paralyzing Mexico City, the population has not shown the government support or confidence in its ability to deal with the challenge. Like the proverbial deer in the headlights of a car, the government was taken by surprise and has been incapable of advocating, defending and winning the population over to the rationality of its educative proposal and is losing the leadership of that of energy. The only person drooling is López-Obrador, who espies carte blanche for his survival venture in the government’s and the Congress’ manner of conducting themselves.

What’s evident to date is that economic leadership has been atrocious and worse yet given the upswing experienced by that of the U.S.: there’s no way to hide the poor performance or where the responsibility dwells. The extraordinary ability to communicate, which stands in stark contrast with previous administrations -mostly via the foreign press, with which it began- turned out to be premature, thus counterproductive. The few advances in matters of transparency that had been reached are disappearing and the return of a PRIist government has served as an excuse for the resurgence of corruption in all corners of the country, without the government seeming to care one bit. These months have demonstrated that legislation of the most diverse sort can be approved and, notwithstanding this, change nothing. There was a moment when Fox, as salesperson, pleaded for a fiscal reform, whatever it might be. The current government is starting to seem like that: as if the content were irrelevant. The problem is that in the content of the reforms and, above all, in their implementation, lies their transcendence. The very notion that a monster like Pemex can be changed by the single fact of changing the law says it all.

All governments begin their mandate confident of being able to count on popular support and that by its sole existence the country will be transformed. History and perspective place something distinct in evidence, that which differentiates great government from small ones. During the past twenty years, three Mexican governments were absolutely incapable of achieving anything because they suffered from the lack of a viable project and one likely to win the support of at least key sectors and groups of the society, but also -and particularly- because they lacked the capacity of political operation that President Peña has shown in spades and then some. In contrast with those governments, the president has the key asset: the know-how. What he doesn’t have is an eminently suitable and viable development strategy, one capable of garnering popular support, at least sufficient support to clearly marginalize the interest groups -political or ideological- that these days have paralyzed the government and the country.

Tony Blair wrote in his memoirs that the worst moment in a reform process comes when everything would appear to be collapsing, when the opposition paralyzes it all and the days seem black from beginning to end. The situation, says Blair, improves when the storm begins to die down and things start to acquire their true dimension. It is at that time that the man in charge realizes that it would have been equally easy or difficult to approve an ambitious reform or a mediocre one: the cost and the process is the same, but the result can be radically distinct. That’s precisely where the government is in a jam today: change what’s necessary or do a mere quick fix on the façade.

The matter of today boils down to what kind of government the country will have and what the relationship will be between the government and the society. Historically, PRIist governments dominated and controlled everything, until they ended producing interminable crises and lost all semblance of control. The PAN tried to manage what existed without changing anything while AMLO proposed restoring the Old Order. The current government forestalled these considerations and rushed to attempt to recreate a system of government no longer viable because in this era attempting to control everything hinders development, because corruption no longer smoothes things over and because an excess of government activism generates crisis. A strong government is not equal to control. The reality calls for a new strategy, one compatible with the complexities of the globalization era and the expectations of a demanding population.

The country requires a government in form and a president above everyday discord. President Peña-Nieto has performed this function with extraordinary ability, but reestablishing presidential authority is not enough; what’s crucial is to turn that authority into the pivot that makes possible the transformation of the country with a vision towards the future.

Blair explains the vicissitudes with which the leader must live and the fragility of the political processes on which he depends, including the personnel responsible for leading them. That is what will define whether the president capitulates in the face of the obstacles he is facing or converts them into an opportunity. The president must choose between accepting the imposition of the CNTE (and all those that will follow) or redefining his government on the substantive issues for the sake of constructing a truly transformative project.