Institutions and Reform

Luis Rubio

The PAN is conditioning its legislative vote for the energy reform on the approval of an electoral reform. The “quid pro quo” proposal makes business sense in that it is understandable within a context of logrolling or trading favors. Some legislators in the world, notoriously the Americans, are famous (but not in a positive sense) for the practice of exchanging a congressperson’s vote for a budget allocation (otherwise known as pork). That tradition is comprehensible within the context of individual votes (and in the absence of party discipline), but is somewhat difficult to picture it when it concerns legislators or parties acting to a greater or lesser degree en bloc. Even so, the logic of those who advocate for like exchanges is impeccable. What seems to be unfathomable to me is the incapacity of our politicians in general, starting in this case with the PAN, to recognize that another electoral reform is not going to resolve the problems of the country. What’s more, it wouldn’t even make a dent on them.

I haven’t the least doubt that some of the electoral reforms of the last decades opened the gateway to huge democratic opportunities, they favored alternation of parties in state governments and the presidency and impelled politicians to be more responsive to citizen demands. Nor do I look askance at the construction of electoral institutions that have allowed the (near) consolidation of the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE). It appears obvious to me that the opposition parties (today the PAN and the PRD, in past years the PRI and the PRD) see small advantages in specific changes in the existing electoral legislation. What impresses me is their allegiance to small causes and, above all, the absence of greatness of vision.

I believe it would not be an exaggeration to employ the classic metaphor of the Titanic: the country is at a standstill, insecurity mounts, and there is an economic downturn, but the politicians are concentrated on the bill of fare of the next festive gathering in their ship of dreams. I dare say that, from my perspective, the country’s problem is not that of financing campaigns or of the state electoral authorities (although plainly both could be improved), but of basic governance. The country must govern itself –or be governed- and that is not extant in many regions, sectors and specific areas. In some of these there are real –de facto- governments in parallel. That is the true challenge of Mexico and is on what the politicians and the government should be concentrating.

Samuel Huntington, professor at Harvard until his death in 2008, was not universally beloved among his students or colleagues, but he was one of the most influential thinkers owing to his mental acuity. While he devoted himself to many issues, the leitmotiv of his professional work was a very clear and concrete one: what’s important is not the government’s form but its strength. Ignoring the politically correct of his era, he affirmed that the U.S. (as a strong democracy) and the Soviet Union (as a strong dictatorship) held more in common than a strong democracy and a weak democracy. For Huntington ideals such as justice, democracy and freedom had little worth where there was not a minimal degree of order and stability that lent them real substance.

I can imagine what Huntington would have said of today’s Mexico: that the institutions are very weak and that their development and strengthening is much more important than is democracy because the latter has no viability inasmuch as the existing institutions do not enjoy legitimacy, their decisions are not accepted by part of the population or, simply, are ineffective. Were we to put the judiciary in the first slot, the electoral institutions in the second and the police in the third, the professor’s argument would appear impeccable.

According to Huntington, an institution’s relevance lies in two main elements: the first is administrative capacity. The second is trustworthiness and predictability. The second is impossible without the first. His analysis of political development, his seminal book entitled Political Order in Changing Societies, established that the essence of development does not lie in democracy per se but instead in the existence of a system of government that works, that maintains order and that makes economic development possible. In Huntington’s view, a functional system of government is one that constructs and develops institutions capable of administrating and, in its wake, creates confidence and predictability. In this sense, institutions become the means through which the members of a society interact and resolve their disagreements, all this made effective with the coercive capacity of the State.

The PRIist system created an extraordinary capacity for administrating and governing a relatively simple society. It did this not through institutions but rather through a structure of exchanges of loyalty. As Susan Kaufman Purcell termed it, a non-institutionalized transactional system. The system’s failure, and its gradual collapse from 1968 on, was due to its incapacity to construct institutions that would supplant the personal arrangements and the concentration of decisions in the person of the president.

No matter how many electoral institutions have been constructed, a monumental judicial reform approved and honest attempts made to confront our problems, the country does not possess the capacity to settle disputes, maintain order and lay the foundations for the country to develop. Insofar as that loyalty continues to be to persons and not to institutions, there can be no trust in the permanence of decisions or laws. Energy and other types of reforms might be approved and ratified, but the country will not advance if it does not have a reliable system of government that depends not on the ability of one person but on the strength of the institutions that characterize it.

Therein lies the PAN’s dilemma: concentrate on a series of irrelevant electoral reforms that have no chance of moving towards the construction of an institutionalized and democratic society, or recognize the opportunity that the political moment has put before it. The PAN has two possibilities: one, coherent with its history, would entail advancing towards a truly transformative politico-electoral reform that would develop effective mechanisms of representation for the citizenry and protection for its rights, limits to state action, particularly as its ability to modify laws to suit its needs and, in one word, a true revolution in the structure of power of Mexico. To build a modern system of government for the citizenship.

The alternative to a big and visionary political transformation would be to use the enormous power that the constitutional reform on energy confers upon it (after that vote, the government will not need PAN any more) to exchange its vote for a truly integral fiscal reform that would limit the government and its spending, expand the tax basis and lead to the rapid growth of the economy.