Institutions and Democracy

Luis Rubio

We Mexicans have confused two very distinct processes that, while at some moment and circumstance could be complementary, can also be contradictory. For it to work, democracy requires strong and effective institutions that ensure participants in the political process of strict compliance with the fundamental rules of political coexistence. In this sense the existence of strong institutions is a precondition for the functioning of democracy. On its part, the strength and viability of any political system depends on institutions. To a greater extent than democracy, the key to political viability and stability resides in the quality and strength of the institutions.

Samuel Huntington, an acute political observer, observed that that there was permanent tension between institutions and democracy; one his many facets of heterodoxy consisted of affirming that there was much more in common between the Soviet Union and the U.S. (this was in the sixties) than between either of these and the so-called underdeveloped countries. In Huntington’s perspective, what placed the URSS and the U.S. on a par was not ideological but institutional; with all of their differences, he asserted, both nations possessed strong institutions, a circumstance that made all the difference.

In the eighties, Horia Roman Patapievici, a Romanian philosopher, stated that the prime objective for any country that aspired to develop itself, “the task is to acquire a public style based on impersonal and transparent rules like in the West. Otherwise business and politics would be full of intrigue”. And he questioned whether Romania’s Eastern Orthodox tradition is helpful in this regard. He went on the explain that Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Russia, Greece, and Cyprus – the Orthodox nations of Europe – were all characterized by weak institutions, compared with those of northwestern Europe. He and many others have intimated that this is partly because Orthodoxy is flexible and contemplative, thus tolerant of the world as it is, having created its own alternative order. Patapievici stated that in his country the Orthodox Church exacted an enormous challenge on the growth of institutions because its dogma of the Orthodox Church impeded the development of reliable and predictable rules: he insinuated that the flexibility inherent in ecclesiastical activity rendered impossible the adoption, on a social and cultural plane, of transparent and rules, known to all in advance. From the time I read those words, nearly thirty years ago, the thought came to mind that we Mexicans confront a similar challenge not so much because of the Church but due to the inherently corrupting nature of the functioning of the PRI.

In past decades, the country’s political mantra has been that there is the imperious need to construct a democratic structure as the form of government. With all of its avatars, Mexicans have advanced dramatically (and extraordinarily) in the electoral ambit but have been remiss, not to say incapable, in constructing the institutional scaffolding necessary to make democracy functional. This is not about an ethereal or ideological element: when a political party requests, reasonably and openly, as the PRD did recently, that the electoral authority organize and watch over its internal elections, there is no alternative other than to recognize that, on the one hand, there is a trustworthy and professional authority but, on the other, that no framework exists of reliable rules for direct interaction among persons, groups or parties in the political arena.

For fifteen years from the time the PRI lost its formal capacity of imposition with the disappearance of its legislative majority in 1997, the quasi-consensus among analysts was that democracy had not gelled in the country and that the great misfortune resided in the absence of mechanisms prone to creating legislative majorities through coalitions among the political parties. The experience of the last two years suggests that the problem does not lie in the incapacity of forming majorities (in that the evidence is overwhelmingly in the contrary direction: democracy did not impede the famous Pact for Mexico from making it possible to approve all of the bills that the government wished), but rather in the inexistence of rules of the game (thus, institutions), beyond those that stem from the skills of specific individuals.

The tangible fact has been that the capacity of political operation of the President has demonstrated that the problem wasn’t one of democracy but of the inexistence of ability in prior political leadership. At the same time, the manner in which that immense litany of initiatives –vaulting over all formal procedure in the legislative ambit- illustrates our enormous institutional weakness. In a word, the problem is not democracy but the political susceptibility to the imposition (or any word that one desires to employ) on the part of an effective political operator.

At the heart of the presidential success lies Mexico’s true dilemma: the experience of these times shows a citizenry incapable or unwilling to defend the few (frail as they may be) freedoms and institutions that the country possesses. The PRI has achieved imposing its forms beyond its ranks and no one –parties or citizenry- emerged to defend the formality, the heart of institutional strength. In a certain respect, corruption is nothing other than an indicator of the existence of alternative mechanisms for the solution of problems. In the political conduct of recent times we Mexicans have shown that we are not  “sons and daughters” of an institutional tradition or of the blacks and whites that are the legacy of dictatorial systems: instead, the experience of these times shows that the system of PRIist imposition –interminable grays- has permeated all of society and has made it incapable of defending its basic rights, and this does not, most certainly, a citizenry make.