For years, Mexican citizens have been disenchanted with politics. First, economic reforms in the late 1980s were supposed to restore Mexico’s capacity to grow, and then the arrival of democracy around 2000 was supposed to curb corruption and bring Mexican politicians –allegedly the people’s representatives- closer to their constituents. Neither happened, at least not entirely. Several Mexican administrations have come and gone since the year 2000. First, there was Vicente Fox’s administration that promised to cast out the PRI party “out of Los Pinos” (Mexico’s presidential residence). Then came Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration attempting to “move Mexico”. Now, Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration promises a period of “brave honesty”. Changes, many changes, but the country’s reality remains the same for the overwhelming majority of the Mexican population.
The phenomenon is neither new nor particularly Mexican in nature. In an essay on citizens’ political skepticism in democracies (The Need for Political Skepticism, 1928) British writer Bertrand Russell speculates on the voter’s motivations each time he goes to the polls: “Most [citizens] are convinced that all the ills they suffer are remedied if a certain party comes to power. That is why the pendulum swings. A man who votes for one party and remains unhappy deduces that the other party is the one who was going to make him successful. When he has become disillusioned with all the parties, he is already old and death stalks him; his children retain their youthful faith and the ups and downs continue.” Is Mexico condemned to that pendulum of mediocrity?
Mexico’s 2018 presidential election has been correctly described as a result of citizens being fed up with tons of politicians’ promises and grandiose speeches for decades. The Mexican population was exhausted and overwhelmed. Although majoritarian, the vote for López Obrador in 2018 was also, in a significant part, a vote against the Mexican administrations that preceded him. López Obrador won the Mexican presidency after three successive attempts -not because of the mere election- but because his project (or his promises…not much project exists). it was repulsive for the majority of citizens. It was the mistakes, corruption, and failures of López Obrador’s predecessors that decided the election.
The ease with which president López Obrador has been dismantling the Mexican politics’ status quo demands we Mexicans reflect on what had been built and how. Beyond a few complaints by specialists and opinion-makers, the president López Obrador has been able to eliminate, disassemble, or make irrelevant various entities and organizations that he deemed an obstacle to his centralizing goal. The message is clear: these independent agencies might be important (and, in some cases, key) for certain functions or markets, but they did not enjoy social recognition. That might have been a pipe dream in the case of highly technical or specialized institutions, but all have been equally victimized. It is symptomatic that the government itself has been careful with the two institutions that are best known to the general population, the Supreme Court and the National Electoral Institute (INE), implicitly realizing that eroding them further would be costly.
The lesson I glean from this experience is twofold: on the one hand, that to have validity, relevance, and significance, institutions must enjoy widespread public recognition. Many times -especially when it came to technically-oriented government agencies- the idea that it would be burdensome but above all unnecessary to go through the legislative route to elevate an institution, led to the creation of institutions by decree, which expedited things, but also made them politically vulnerable. Of course, the López Obrador government’s onslaught has not spared constitutionally created bodies, so this assessment is only partially valid. The broader point is that Mexico’s institutions are not for technicians or specialists but for citizens and consumers who in the end are, or should be, the government’s reason for being, and it is they who must be won over to achieve policy objectives.
The other lesson is that the Mexican population clearly cares less about labels than about results. The priorities for the average Mexican citizen is not ideological. It’s not having to elected between a market or state economy, but rather that there is growth, good jobs, and greater benefits for the community. The discussion regarding how Mexican the best way to achieve these objectives is disputed. There’s no doubt in my mind that Mexico requires highly competitive markets to do so- but it is clear that what’s important for the consumer is optimum performance. The same holds for the political system: Mexico democracy is not only fragile, but also puny and dim. With each passing election and opinion poll, the Mexican public has grown less and less optimistic about democracy and more eager for a system of government that works and makes commendable results possible.
In light of the coronavirus, how to best achieve development is much debated around the world. China has been forceful in its fierce, unequivocal and unapologetic defense of authoritarianism as a better system of government, superior to democracy. What’s clear is that the only thing that matters to Mexican citizens is the quality of governance, that is, the government’s ability to create conditions for progress and prosperity. The rest is pure demagoguery.
* Luis Rubio is chairman of México Evalúa-CIDAC and former chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI). A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @lrubio