Governability: What For?

 Luis Rubio

During his exile in Paris, Porfirio Díaz stated that “governing Mexicans is more difficult than herding turkeys while riding on horseback”. He must have known something about that after nearly thirty years of trying to do so. However, the fact that he lasted so long and the way that his administration ended is suggestive of the country’s problem that is yet to be resolved.


In his book The Politics of Mexican Development, Hansen states that the PRiist system was nothing other than the institutionalization of the Porfiriato. It was, in reality, a creative way of responding to the problems to which Díaz alluded that afforded the country decades of peace and some of economic development. It worked until the ship began taking on water, more or less simultaneously in economic as well as in political spheres: in the seventies the problem reached its limits and, despite much legal, constitutional and political maneuvering the problem’s still there.


The question of governance of the country continues to be the heart of the problem and is noticeable in all ambits: in the lack of security, in weak justice, in the perennial discontinuity of the economic policies, the high unemployment rates, and, in general, the lack of opportunities. If there were an effective and functional system of government, the country would not be undergoing the tribulations of instability, criminality and poor economic growth. The leading question is how to solve the riddle of governability: How can a political regime be created that is concomitantly functional and held accountable?


For years, the politico-intellectual mantra was that a series of reforms would be required and that these, almost by magic, would solve the country’s problems. Now that the Mexican Constitution has been reformed in so many articles that many say they no longer recognize it, one would suppose that we’d be poised on the threshold of development; however, none of that is happening. I do not wish to suggest by this that the reforms undertaken are bad or uncalled for. Quite the contrary: I believe that they can be profoundly transforming. That said, I am convinced that without an effective and adequate government system for the XXI Century the reforms are distinctly insufficient.


Three recent texts led me to reflect on the complexity of the problem and the shortfall of agreement on the nature of the solution. In sharp text entitled The Law of Cynicism*, Sergio López- Ayllón says that “we have a cynical justice system, saturated with rights and obligations without institutions backed by capacities to make them effective. Is it surprising then that we have a credibility crisis? If we want a credible Rule of Law we need serious laws”. In other words, the emphasis that our politicians have placed on the letter of the law has been wrong: our politicians trust that with changing the law the reality changes and their work has been satisfied. As López- Ayllón points out so well, the problem is not one of the laws in themselves, but rather one of structures that can make the Rule of Law possible.


Héctor Aguilarr- Camín** trains his analysis in another direction:  “the governability of a presidential regime largely depends on there always being an absolute congressional majority in the hands of one party, whether of the government or the opposition, so that this party would be clearly responsible for the decisions that Congress makes in all matters”. That is, our problem lies in the lack of concentration of power and responsibility, this after the current government achieved reforms that seemed impossible throughout the previous fifteen years, without any majority.


In an analysis on China*** David Shambaugh minutely examines the challenges that confront China’s political system, in good part because the excessive concentration of power –that has made that government so effective in economic matters over the past forty years- is giving rise to conflicts that appear to be increasingly unmanageable, in addition to limiting the potential of China to access technologies whose development depends in large part on an open political system.


Both countries, China and Mexico, face the challenge of governability in the era f the knowledge economy, which calls for an open but effective political system. There’s no doubt that creating a system of that nature is going to require the construction of institutions capable of enforcing the Rule of Law as López-Ayllón asserts, but also that it is essential to reconfigure the political system as Aguilar-Camín infers.


The challenge of the Rule of Law is enormous and, although there are cases of institutional construction in the world, no example is applicable just as is. What is clear, as the Chinese case illustrates, is that the solution does not lie in a monolithic government with tough party control. Rather, it seems to me that we should begin by understanding the incentives toward polarization that the present electoral system is generating, evaluating the achievements and errors of the successive reforms, –from1996 to date- in order to determine not only how to secure the best representation of the political forces and to avoid the abuses that each party has identified (correctly or not), the gist of all the post 1996 electoral reforms, but also how to construct governing capacity.


The emphasis of the last twenty years had been on addressing the grievances that stem from the PRI era. What is imperative now is to construct government capacity, together with institutional instruments in the hands of the society for it to exact accountability. The key question at issue is whether this can be constructed from the ground up or the inverse. The answer is not obvious.


*Universal Marzo 9, ** Milenio Marzo 24, ***WSJ Marzo 6