The “unwritten rules”

FORBES – Agosto 2014

Today Mexicans no longer speak of the “unwritten rules” but these remain as valid as ever. The rules are not written because they refer to the preferences of the individual occupying the presidency. It’s his word that counts and, for obvious reasons, cannot be codified in the law or, when that happens, can be changed at will. From the perspective of the president, the short-term benefit to managing according to unwritten rules is obvious: creates loyalty, can reward and punish and, above all, gives vast powers to advance projects of his choice. The social benefit is also great because, as the ease with which the constitutional reforms were carried out in 2013 illustrated, the country can change quickly. The problem is that there is another side of that coin.

In the twentieth century the issue of power was resolved through the imposition of two rules that were “unwritten” but evident: on the one hand, the president is everyone’s undisputed and indisputable lord and master; on the other hand, it is valid to compete for succession as long as the first rule is not violated. It was a simple and effective mechanism that, however, did not emerge out of the blue. Its success was the product of the establishment of the rule and the capacity to make it stick. The latter was not automatic: it was only accomplished when Cárdenas exiled Plutarco Elías-Calles and submitted General Cedillo. Once the capacity to exact compliance with the rules was demonstrated, the system went into effect and functioned until the PRI ceased being representative of the Mexican society and the unrepresented began to dispute the system’s legitimacy.

The “unwritten” rules of Mexican political life were strict. The PRIist political system of the XX Century operated under the principle of having implicit rules and, more importantly, that the whole legal scaffolding of the country –from the  Constitution to the latest regulatory law– was no more than a mere formality that could be violated at will. Evidently, it is impossible to construct and strengthen the legitimacy of a system, including the acceptance of the rules of succession, when the institutional foundation of a political system is sustained on no more than unwritten rules and a legal system that is a mere formality for the actors involved. This problem is aggravated within the context of the expectations that reforms generate, such as that of energy, that require, to be successful, a legal structure that is reliable for potential investors. It will be difficult for a de facto political system sustained on unwritten rules to comply with this requirement.

The worst harm that the country endured as a consequence of the era of unwritten rules is that no one can believe in written rules at present. Instead of seeing a law as a norm that is obligatory in character, the Mexican sees it as a guide, that is, when it is not an aspiration. No one feels obliged to comply with the law, chiefly when he observes that many others do not do so and that, in the worst of circumstances, application of the law can always be “negotiated”, an absolute contradiction to the existence of the rule of law.

Unwritten rules permitted supporting the concentration of power and served as a means of control and discipline for the population as well as for the politicians. Given their “unwritten” nature, the rules were ultimately unknown to the majority of the country’s inhabitants. The citizens, but especially the politicians, had to infer them. Like every normative system, that of the unwritten rules had its limitations.  A system of that nature works as long as the rules are not abused (that is to say, that they do not change frequently and capriciously) and when they achieve consistent and satisfactory results for the population in general.

The crucial theme is that the Mexican has never lived under a scheme of known and predictable rules that include legal recourse to protect the citizen; that is, rights and obligations, both part of an integral concept of the government-citizen relationship.  Explaining why that was is relatively easy. What is complex is imagining ways in which to break the vicious cycle that the political system of yesteryear has left to Mexicans today. That is particularly important in the light of the inherent contradiction regarding the letter of the law and its application, above all because the PRIist narrative continues to comprise a central component of the ideological perspective shared by a great part of the population.