The democratization process that Mexico has undergone over the last decades brought with it unanticipated consequences that need to be dealt with because otherwise the alternative is something absolutely unacceptable. The winner of Mexico’s presidential election felt that he was free to pursue his governing agenda not just by simply disavowing the opposition but rather by branding it as the enemy. Instead of a democracy, Mexicans have built (or refurbished for the 21st century) a six-year monarchy, to use the late Daniel Cosío Villegas’ phrase. Rather than using politics to build a common future for all and a much needed interconnectedness among citizens, critical and dissident voices in Mexico are to be shut out. These are the ways of a dictatorship. When this occurs, it does not matter the ideological sign of those in power. What matters are the things happening in everyday life.
Many of the excesses of president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s government are undoubtedly a visceral reaction to the excesses of previous Mexican administrations both in form and substance. This can be seen in the current government’s ways of destroying institutions and treating the members of its legislative majority in Congress as if they were mere employees. But the fact that a president can engage in such excesses evidences the enormous fragility of Mexico’s system of government. The Covid-19 pandemic has only magnified this fragility. Within a democracy, making and changing laws is the basic function of the legislature which under the separation of powers doctrine is an equal branch and a check on the executive’s power. However, as essayist Santiago Kovadloff has said of Argentina, “we make changes to the Constitution much more than we comply with it”. In Mexico, the president is the one presiding over, the one making laws, the one executing policy and, also, the one violating the Constitution while pretending he is governing. In reality, the president gives orders and subjugates others.
In countries where only one voice counts, reversing changes is similarly swift. What president López Obrador is doing (by going against economic reforms, institutions, trust funds and independent agencies born under previous Mexican administrations) can only be explained by a spirit of revenge and backwardness stemming from a negation of time and of a new set of circumstances.
Without a doubt, what has made possible the current dismantlement of Mexico’s administrative, political and regulatory structures has been the little legitimacy they enjoyed. However, by acting in the same way (and in fact even more arbitrarily because he has not even paid attention to the forms), president López Obrador is sowing the seeds of the subsequent counterattack against him. The Mexican people, which he treats as subjects, will end up seeing the López Obrador government through the same lens it has used to assess previous governments. No one, not even López Obrador, can challenge the law of gravity.
One could ask how is it possible that the president López Obrador has such great powers as to carry out his centralization program without any counterweight. The answer is very simple: Mexico remains a predemocratic nation in which the members of the president’s party in the legislative branch are willing to be subservient to him and, at the same time, he is willing to use them in that fashion without any shame. Instead of representing the entire population, legislators in Mexico respond to their boss, in typical predemocratic style.
The key question is what will Mexican legislators and judges do when mistakes and deficiencies catch up with President López Obrador and they have to begin to demand answers to everyday problems. We are talking about the kind of problems that grow faster than the number of deaths caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. If there is one constant feature in Mexican politics is that the king is king while he is in power. The moment this ends hell breaks loose. There is not one single president in this modern era of Mexican politics who has not gone through that ringer unscathed, although some fared better than others. Stirring up revenge only increases the chances of it happening to you.
The other feature of Mexican politics is the unlimited lack of ability of new administrations to recognize the achievements of previous governments and to build on them. In their mind, the past was always bad and things have to be reformed because the new owners of the show are more intelligent and competent than those who came before. Arrogance is so powerful that it blinds you, starting with those most power hungry. A country of 120 million like Mexico is being governed as if bossing a tiny village in the middle of the southern state of Tabasco, López Obrador’s home state. The problem is that, despite the mistakes and corruption, Mexico is a key nation in the world and Mexican citizens, while belittled, have the right and the aspiration of improving things and move forward. In the long run, the citizenry always get it what it wants. Information will continue to leak even if the Mexican president closes all media.
However, Mexico’s outlook is not promising. Denying the number of Covid-19 deaths, the depth of the country’s economic recession and the number of unemployed Mexicans does not serve other purpose but to contribute to deepen and to extend the duration of two simultaneous crises: the health crisis and the economic one. The López Obrador government is ignoring Mexico’s citizenry. Yet, Mexican citizens cannot ignore reality: the blow to their income and the blow against their chances of survival.
It is urgent to review the content of Mexico’s democracy in order to re-engineer the way of governing the country. The absence of a reform of Mexico’s political system has caused the subordination of the legislative branch, the dysfunction of the federal arrangement and the excessive powers -both real and on paper- of the López Obrador’s presidency. The alternative path is not appealing.
* Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI) and of México Evalúa-CIDAC. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @lrubiof