Checks and Balances

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A mature society, democratic and functional –the sine qua non for economic growth and peaceful coexistence- can only exist when effective checks and balances have been constructed. The problems that Mexico encounters these days, and that without doubt will confront the next government, derive from this fundamental void.

The president elect offered in his campaign something that Mexicans crave: an effective government. That offer corresponds directly to one of the greatest lacks of recent decades: there have been governments of distinct characteristics, but with very little capacity of execution, that is, they were hardly efficacious. The problem is that efficacy not only depends on executive talent in an administration: equally transcendent is the institutional context within which it operates.

Seen through the optics of the team that prepares itself for governing, the last thing it wanted was restrictions to its capacity to act. The best scenario for them would have been one of absolute control of the legislative branch for it to devote itself to “what is relevant”, to decide and to act. To leave to one side discussion and the blah blah blah (as PRIists previously referred to Congress) to do everything that was urgent for the country. Fortunately, both the electoral result and the recent evidence with the labor bill make it impossible to advance without negotiating a grand agreement based on the careful orchestration and summing up of disparate interests.

The government-to-be has thus the unique opportunity to change the current reality: to build the institutional structure that eluded the PRI through the 20th century, a country of institutions. The irony is that what a PRIist government will be required to carry out is that this would have been more natural and logical for a historically opposition government.

Constructing checks and balances should not be observed as a concession to the society or to the opposing parties. In the campaign, the PRI candidate himself encountered the vicissitudes of diverse power groups that attempted to impose positions on him and to limit his perspective. That is what any society characterized by diversity and dispersion (political, geographical, economic) entails. Some of these powers flexed their muscles in the last months, but that was just a taste of what’s sure to come. Little by little each of these will begin to attempt to impose its preferences, forcing the new president to respond. At that moment he will come to grips with a fundamental fact: the existence of checks and balances is good for everyone.

In its essence, a society with checks and balances implies that no one can impose their will on the rest: the president cannot impose his, the television networks cannot impose theirs, the unions and their leaders cannot impose their, big business cannot impose theirs, the political parties and their perennial candidate cannot impose their. In sum, no one, from the government to the most modest of citizens -and including those (frequently brutal) de facto powers – can impose their will. The existence of checks and balances implies that the society is institutionalized, a circumstance that limits everyone across the board.

The great challenge of the Mexican society is institutionalization and this is nothing other than the development of checks and balances. When there is an effective system of checks and balances, each of the society’s actors and powers knows what to expect and, more importantly, finally recognizes that only joint action can achieve progress. The system wins when everyone wins, not when one can impose his terms on the others. It sounds like a fairy tale, but this is the essence of democracy: it only works when there are solid institutions that confer functionality on it.

When there is equilibrium the parties become the gears of a grand machine that makes society work. This equilibrium does not result from imposition from the central power, but rather is a product of a negotiation by means of which everyone ends up constructing the best arrangement possible. Unfortunately, despite that there were times (above all with Fox) when an arrangement of this nature could have been constructed, it never came about. Now this arrangement becomes not only crucial, but necessary. Necessary so that the next government can be both effective and successful.

The great challenge of institutionalizing the country consists of constructing checks and balances that, respecting the rights of all the powers, marks lines in the sand so that none can abuse the rest. That is, this requires a political negotiation that yields the best arrangement possible in which all fit but with delimited rights and power.

An arrangement of this nature does not imply the expropriation of rights nor imposition although, as in all political processes, it entails concessions and exchanges: precisely what the President elect has begun to do during this transition phase. What it does imply is an implacable and merciless devotion to the institutional, where the objective is a political arrangement that grants functionality on the system of government. This is about what we have not had since the eighties, a decade in which the old and by then exhausted Callista-PRI pact collapsed.

The efficacy of a government can be measured by the speed of its response, something that today’s president-elect Enrique Peña-Nieto demonstrated plenty of as governor. However, from the optics of the presidency, efficacy acquires a very distinct function to the extent that the strength of a country is not only gauged by the daily efficacy of its government but by the capacity to resolve long-term problems, as well as by the solidity of its institutions. Taking this to its most elemental example, while at the state level the approval of a governor can be sufficient guarantee for carrying out a determined investment that will begin and end during the governor’s mandate, at the federal level what counts is the reliability of the judicial processes, compliance with contracts and, very particularly, the impossibility that a company, union, a political group or a public power can abuse the others. Anyone who remembers the way that some of those “de facto powers” responded in the face of the mere possibility that the government might bestow a concession on a third television chain knows well that the Mexican political system will not be trustworthy as long as there are no checks and balances necessary to ensure that no one can abuse or impose their preferences on the rest.

The essence of what the country requires resides not in the approval or reforms of more laws (though that may be an outcome of the process) but in the construction of political agreements that lead to the transformation of the government (for it to be truly effective), to the legitimacy of the winner in the election and, as counterpart, to the legitimacy of the opposition and to the creation of an effective accounts-rendering regime. When Mexico has this, investment, employment and wealth will not stop thriving.

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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).