The avatars of the bill on labor matters are suggestive of everything in which Mexico has advanced but also of the enormous distance it has yet to cover. The very idea of a preferential bill indicates that there is awareness of the need to adapt existing institutions, procedures and mechanics to times distant from those of exacerbated presidential power. But the way that the “preferential” procedure was likewise constituted patently demonstrates the insufficiencies that persist or the disinclination to take a leap toward a society with real developmental potential.
The specific issue of the preferential bill is that it lacks teeth. In France, where the procedure was conceived, when the president sends up an bill under this heading the legislative power has a peremptory period during which it can act but, if it doesn’t, the bill is automatically approved.This confers on the president an instrument for forcing the legislature to respond to his proposals, avoiding key issues going into deep-freeze, thus advancing the development of the country. In Mexico the idea was adopted but not the mechanism: peremptory time periods are established but nothing happens if the legislative power fails to vote or becomes paralyzed, as occurred. That is, there is no guillotine, the name commonly used for the procedure in France. Also, à la mexicaine, the problems that inevitably would present themselves in a bicameral system were not resolved. It advanced but didn’t reach the finish line.
A few hours prior to writing this text I had the opportunity of watching a documentary on the 1982 expropriation of commercial banks in Mexico. Beyond the topic of the documentary, what was extraordinary is the contrast between a Mexico that has disappeared and the one that exists today. Amazing the manner that the functionaries and governors, the politicians and, in general the society, conduct themselves. Despite the shortages and insufficiencies, such as that illustrated by the preferential initiative, there is no doubt that the country has advanced dramatically.
What hasn’t changed is the notion that everything can be controlled from above, that the concentration of power is good and that any limitation of this constitutes an affront to the country’s development. Judging by the performance of the country in recent years this would be considered, at least in some measure, absolutely logical. For many, the problem is the weakness of the presidency, a concept that is somewhat strange given the history: it’s not as if the country developed by holding itself up as example to the world during the years of the PRI’s authoritarian rule that then, suddenly, under different management, everything collapsed.
The equation at which Mexico must arrive is very simple: it requires State capacity –the possibility of deciding, acting, foreseeing and resolving problems- and it requires institutional counterweights. The former won’t work if the latter don’t exist and vice versa: the capacity of the State is crucial for development but for this to come about checks and balances are required in the society so that it favors decision-making without excesses or abuses. Today we have two good examples of how pernicious a misunderstanding of these fundamental balances can be: we have the amparo, sort of habeas corpus, that is so broad that it ends up paralyzing governmental action and a preferential initiative without teeth or transcendence.
Our situation is not exceptional; there are dozens of nations that have attempted democratic transitions with neither plan nor compass and that, like Mexico, have ended up stuck at the middle of the river. Given an effective, capable and convincing leadership it is feasible to build the institutional scaffolding required, above all because there are many examples of success stories in the world. For that Mexicans would have to do away with the propensity, if not a collective decision, to imitate the poor examples.
There are many sources of counterweights in the country, but there is no balance among the branches of government, which is what comprises the concept of checks and balances. The de facto or veto powers, the amparo, the unions and other power factors constitute formidable counterweights for the functioning of the political system. So formidable are these that they have ended up by paralyzing it. What is lacking is the counterweight that the other component of the binomial represents. For example, it is clear that the original intent of the preferential initiative was that of imitating the French case. With this logic a counterweight was supposed to have been created for the legislatives arena; however, at the last minute, during the approval process of this law, the key factor was removed: the so-called afirmativa ficta (automatic approval). The problem is that one thing does not work without the other. We ran only to remain in place, but now saddled with enormous potential frustrations.
In the absence of the “checks and balances” binomial, many of the instruments, motives and mechanisms of the old authoritarian system persist, making it impossible for the government being able to be functional and effective. One party having the legislative majority does not guarantee, as illustrated by seventy years of PRI rule in the 20th century, that they will make good decisions or that the country will prosper. I have no doubt that a government more dexterous in political operation will make it possible to dodge the pitfalls that were impossible for recent administrations to resolve. However, in addition to the capacity of political operation solid and functional institutions are required that permit governing in a normal manner.
In an article entitled “Fragile Constitutions”, W.H. Hutt affirmed that “the essence of an effective constitution is that it is built on distrust, not on faith”. In Mexico we tend to do exactly the opposite: we shore up everything on the faith that everyone will behave according to a preconceived plan, a reasonable concept in the era of hard presidentialism, but incompatible with the size and diversity of the Mexican society of today. Thus the most important task of the government, but above all of the entire country, resides in the construction of an effective system of checks and balances.
The back and forth of Mexican politics will not disappear until there is a system in which everyone loses when they don’t do their job, that is, when none of the political actors can elude their responsibility without their fault being evident and costly. The lack of a system of balances rewards conflict, fosters paralysis and is a permanent source of intrigue and distrust. As long as we continue to live in an environment that rewards the one in which, because of the absence of balances, some systematically boast of defeating others, newspaper columns will be filled to overflowing, but Mexican democracy, and the development of the country, will continue to be paralyzed.