Governing is the art of managing the gap between citizen expectations and day-to-day realities says Argentinean economist David Konzevik. Mexico is a living example of the huge rift between both elements and also of the inability of its government to bridge it. The question here is why.
Mexico’s most recent midterm election provides us with a clue to the country’s key problems which several Mexican administrations have avoided for decades. Independently of the electoral result, the midterms made evident two clear patterns among the Mexican electorate. On the one hand, a recognition of the immense change for good that Mexico has undergone throughout the last decades. One needs to look no further than the impressive urban vote -all the way from Mexico City to the cities in the border with the US- to see an active, demanding and resolute side of the country that fully envisions a promising future. On the other hand, the midterms showed the underdevelopment that continues to be the definitive trait of a large part of southern Mexico and other areas.
In a way, not much has changed since Mexico’s decisive 2018 election when Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected president. The country exhibits enormous inequality levels which have been exacerbated (not diminished) by the president’s own tendencies. Rather than advancing toward the goals that López Obrador brandished in his campaign, Mexico has withdrawn into itself, and the country’s problems are now more accentuated.
It would be easy to assign the blame for Mexico’s current state to López Obrador only. Yet, that would ignore that the issue at stake are the institutional structures that made it possible for a president to change so many things without any checks and balances. Some Mexicans like what López Obrador has done as president. Other Mexicans disapprove him. Yet, both points of view elude the underlying stumbling block: Mexico does not need a savior or a tlatoani, the ruling monarch of Aztec times. What Mexico needs is a system of government that works, that solves problems and that builds a suitable environment for the country’s development. Such idea implies providing Mexicans with effective services (education, health and public safety) and creating the structures that make long-term development of the country possible.
At the heart of the Mexican dilemma lies the difference between the economic and political reforms that the country undertook during the past decades. Mexico’s economic reforms since the 1980s followed a very well-articulated model despite mistakes and implementation biases. Meanwhile, Mexico’s reforms in the political realm occurred in reaction to other developments and they did not have a sense of direction. Mexico’s political reforms of recent decades were designed to appease political actors and interests starting with the very man who is now president of Mexico and who spent decades in the opposition. These reforms did not built a wide and inclusive system that could encompass all Mexican political forces. The result was what Mexicans have lived through since then: a dysfunctional and distant government that does not serve the needs of the population. In addition, Mexicans live in a divided country where special interests protecting the status quo impede progress of vast regions.
A film about the 1993 Oslo peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians shows the disparity of views between the two sides. The first Oslo negotiation produced agreements on general principles. It was not simple, but what emerged was an outline of what could be worked with. However, it was not until they began to discuss the details -like trash collection or taxes- that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators had to bring down to earth such big general principles so that everyday governance could be achieved. The true negotiation did not start until they approached what makes a country work. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process failed for other reasons. But the example seems highly relevant for Mexico.
Mexico’s process of political reforms never arrived at a juncture like that. Of course, the Mexican political forces reached agreements on electoral matters or on issues dealing with the Supreme Court. One could think other less visible but no less transcendental key agreements like agreeing to an independent Mexican central bank. Notwithstanding this, Mexican political actors never entered a negotiation on issues that really mattered to the population in its day-to-day life.
Among the issues that were never agreed upon during Mexico’s process of political reform were: the relations between Mexican state governors and the federal government, the distribution of state and federal monies and the much broader separate sovereign arrangements between states and the federal government. Mexican political forces never discussed and agreed on a public security system not dependent on the army, the nature of the justice system at the local level, the nature of political parties, the accountability mechanisms for members of the federal cabinet, how to guarantee freedom of speech and the financing of Mexican media. Without coming to an agreement on those “details” it would be impossible to solve “small”, everyday life problems affecting Mexicans like garbage collection and criminal extorsion.
Mexico’s landmark 1996 electoral reform solved a specific problem, but simultaneously created a much larger one. The reform solved the issue of how the opposition could compete for power for opposition through free and fair elections. It did not solved the issue of the way Mexicans would govern themselves. All the different problems that Mexico faces today stem from the dismantling of a one-party political system that controlled everything but which was not replaced by a new one that solved citizens’ demands. Since that moment, special interests from all sides rose to the top and rendered possible the arrival of a hyper-presidentialism with no checks. No country can make progress or prosper under such circumstances.
* 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