Government and Democracy

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In one of our first arithmetic lessons, we all learn that the order of the factors does not alter the product. That which is so clear in keeping accounts is not always valid in politics: there it does indeed matter who does what and when. The democratic euphoria of the last decades and its results obliges us to reflect on the conditions that are necessary for a country to achieve the construction of a functional system of government and one that is simultaneously responsive to citizen demand.

In the last half century a series of transitions toward democracy have come about that have been exceedingly successful (Spain, Korea, Taiwan) but also others that clearly failed. The protests that a quarter of a century ago were violently snuffed out in at Tiananmen Square were nothing other than one of the manifestations of attempted transitions, few of which were as successful. Cases such as Arab Spring, Ukraine, Russia, Iraq, Thailand and Mexico, each with its characteristics and circumstances, illustrate the complexity involved in constructing a regimen at once functional and democratic.

Some of these show the contradiction that frequently lies between the demand for transparency and accountability on the one hand, and the capacity of the government to indeed be transparent and accountable. Beyond the disposition of the governor to respond to the citizenry, perhaps the main obstacle to successful democratic transition has less to do with the persons than with the structures of governance that would need to be modified.

The preponderant characteristic (and common denominator) of transitions to democracy is the authoritarian precedent, a circumstance that explains much about the former capacity to govern and function. Authoritarianism made governing easy; its disappearance makes it very difficult to govern, as is the case of Mexico at present.

For years now it has been evident that the “old” system worked in good measure because of its immense capacity of imposition. The PRI-presidency link-up permitted the swift implementation of presidential decisions in a generally effective manner, while the system of control that the party and diverse instruments of the government made it possible to avoiding or “pacifying” unmanageable dissidents. Time eroded the system of control and the first alternation of parties in the presidency “divorced” the PRI from the government. What followed was not a seamless transition but rather a partial collapse of the functions of the government. It is possible that more skillful hands would have been able to drive a process of change with greater success, but what is clear is that, instead of focusing itself on the construction of a new political and institutional regime, the country entered into a downward spiral of progressive deterioration. In some ambits, the deterioration was partial, in others dramatic (e.g., security). The whole gave rise to a disorderly country that constituted the very invitation that the PRI needed to be able to affirm, in the words of one of its lofty personages, that “we may be corrupt but we know how to govern”.

Recent times have not proven the veracity and validity of the second part of that statement, and perhaps that’s where part of the explanation of our current difficulties lies: the problem is not one of persons but rather one of structures and although it is persons who shape the institutions and structures of the government, the relevant fact is that in these last decades little has been done to construct government capacity which is, at the end of the day, the key for the country (any country) to be able to function.

In recent decades, multiple governmental or State institutions have been constructed: from electoral and economic regulatory entities to human rights commissions and those devoted to the access to information. Each and every one of these institutions have been advancing within their ambit and creating new political realities, enlarging spaces of citizen participation and obliging the diverse levels of government to respond. What those institutions do not do –were not designed to do- is to improve the capacity of the government, which is the essence of a properly working government in key areas such as security and justice.

The case of transparency and access to information is suggestive: the IFAI was created as an entity dedicated to guaranteeing access to information, a necessary condition for political development in every democratic society. What it didn’t do was create the mechanisms necessary within the governmental entities so that the government could respond. The result was a clash of paradigms: the existing system of government, constructed to control the population and not to inform it, did not possess the instruments (or the internal logic) for responding to the citizenry or the filing systems adequate for doing so effectively. Thus, instead of creating a cooperative system of citizen and institutional development it triggered a collision between bureaucratic logic and that of the political activists.

The case of transparency illustrates the nature of the problem: Mexico urgently needs an integral transformation of its system of government. The present structures derive from the era of the end of the Revolution, a time that is in no way similar to the realities and citizen demand of today. Where cooperation is required we have conflict; where it is urgent to support adaptation (for example, of teachers fearful of not passing an exam) all incentives favor confrontation. The logic of the control of yesteryear is incompatible with the reality of a globalized economy and a country keen on developing itself. A XXI-century system of government is urgent.

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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).