Any Reform At All?

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“The devil is in the details” counsels an old refrain. In the case of the political reforms that are being debated at present in the public forum, something very peculiar has taken place: from a rotund negative for reform, we have proceeded to the logic that what is important is to approve a reform, any reform at all, independent of its content. As if it were a process of mass production, what is relevant is that Congress get the job done, not that the agenda contribute to improving the life of Mexicans, or, at the very least, to facilitating decision-making in the political system. This sounds more like an effort to satisfy the chorus than an attempt to transform and improve the system of government that we have.

What is important in a reform is the objective that it pursues and the probability that this objective will be achieved with the changes that are carried out. Changing just to change is not only senseless, but is also dangerous because it contributes to continuing to undermine the institutions, and, above all, because it can exert unanticipated effects that are much more damaging than the status quo. Worse yet when voices are few and interests are many.

In the abstract, many of the reforms proposed make absolute sense. But our history is rich in abstract discussions that on coming alight upon a law, a decision or the creation of an institution, frequently do not achieve the objective that these proposed. In the 19th century, many of the debates sustained by monarchists and republicans, liberals and conservatives regarding how the nature of the country desired was to be constructed, in many cases had more to do with the preference for imitating Europe or the U.S., respectively, than with understanding the reality of Mexico and responding to it. In a certain manner, the system that engendered the PRI was the first autochthonous response in more than an entire century of independent life.

The present discussion recalls much of the 19th century: the importance of adopting this or that institutional design because it functions well “there”. In stating this, I do not wish to suggest that Mexico is in any way a unique country, so distinct from the remainder of the human race that it cannot imitate or adapt successful institutions from other latitudes. Instead, my concern resides in the pretension of adopting institutions or institutional designs without adapting these to our reality. In too many cases, the proposals respond not to what works in other latitudes, but rather, to very-short-term electoral and political calculations. When this is the tonic, it would be better to begin by negotiating deep-rooted political agreements among the actors themselves rather than to bring about legislative processes that will never be fulfilled or that, from the out start, will never enjoy full legitimacy.

There are, of course, diverse reform proposals that possess all the sense in the world and that certainly would enjoy broad agreement. For example, who could object that the line of succession be precisely defined, in black and white, in the case of “absolute” absence of the President of the Republic, a theme that, for explicable reasons (more than one President was assassinated to make way for his Vice President…), the Constitution never achieved.

On the other hand, there are proposals that simply have no reason to be. The notion of converting the Public Prosecutor into an autonomous entity not only has no beginning or end conceptually or in the existing reality, but also can even be extremely destructive. The Public Prosecutor must respond to the State authority, whether it be the Executive (as in the case of the Attorney General (PGR) at present), or to the Judiciary, or to both (as in the U.S.), but not to itself. I share the idea that it is fundamental to end the monopoly of penal action in order to professionalize and de-politicize the office of the Public Prosecutor, but that would not be equivalent to leaving it to its leisure. Can someone imagine that would occur with a Chapa-Bezanilla (a former Public Prosecutor that was inspired by his own vendettas) without a boss or control?

Some of the proposed reforms have sense in the abstract, but clash with reality. In a democratic and civilized country, one would expect that the Cabinet would be ratified by the Senate. But Mexico has not reached this stage of development, and ratification could become a negotiation process aimed less at developing a proper check on presidential power than at limiting the president’s powers through the back door. This is the perfect example of the type of reform that is necessary but that is not conceivable until broad and profound agreement has intervened concerning power: how it is distributed; how it is recognized, and how it is legitimized. In the absence of this, the only thing that would be achieved would be heightened paralysis, or the de facto transfer of the executive power to the Senate.

There are reforms that possess no greater purpose than that of satisfying the critics and faultfinders. Reducing the size of the legislative chambers cannot, nor should it, be an objective in itself. It would first be relevant to respond to questions such as whether the type of hybrid that produces the direct and proportional election is adequate for our circumstances, whether a Senate should have a component of proportionality, or whether the present distance between the legislative power and the citizenry contributes to better government. Setting our sights on the numbers implies beginning at the end and obviating the themes at the core: accountability; who nominates -in real life- the candidates; and what is the best way to distribute responsibilities, monies, all of this within a framework of broad legitimacy. None of the proposed reforms advances in this direction.

What is important does not lie in the specifics of the reforms, but rather, in the fact that the rationality that lies behind these is greatly concerned with the short-term political calculations of the relevant actors (calculations that could well include satisfying the critics), and has very little to do with the construction of a better decision-making process, with a fairer and more effective system of government, and above all, in a framework within which the population can develop and enjoy the benefits of their own efforts. None of this appears in the reform proposals.

It is not necessary to regress too far in time to observe the manner in which a reform process set forth in the abstract and without recognition of the day-to-day reality can end in disaster. Many of the economic reforms and privatizations of the 80s and 90s sounded logical and sensible, but the required scaffolding was never constructed: the details for these to be successful. As in the fairy tale Alice in Wonderland, the entire country entered into a process of transformation that, with few exceptions, many extraordinarily positive and important (like NAFTA), did not end well.

As Charles De Gaulle would have said, reforms are too important to be left in the hands of politicians. There are times at which paralysis is not the worst that could be happening.

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Luis Rubio

Luis Rubio

He is a contributing editor of Reforma and his analyses and opinions often appear in major newspapers and journals in Mexico, the US and Europe (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, National Public Radio).