President Peña’s neo-Obregonist governance policy

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“No one can survive a 50 thousand pesos gunshot”: a quote attributed to former President Álvaro Obregón and an example of how politics were carried out during the third decade of the 20th century. During the past days, the federal government of Enrique Peña Nieto and his party – an offspring of those that triumphed in the Mexican Revolution – has followed similar tactics as to calm trade unions, such as the National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE), the ghost-like Mexican Electricians Union (SME), and in a somehow preventive manner, the Oil Workers Union (STPRM). The first two have been characterized by hindering governance in recent times, while the latter will be an essential actor in what may come before, during and after the energy reform.

Nowadays, most of CNTE professors have returned to their home states (mainly Oaxaca), not without negotiating beforehand the payment of “lost wages” (while they were protesting and not working), in addition to “recovering “ their bonus fees for the beginning of the school cycle (almost two months after the official school year). At the same time, a group of 1,500 SME workers negotiated the payment of their monthly pensions of 15 thousand pesos, with the approval of their leader, Martín Esparza. Meanwhile, PEMEX and STPRM, headed by the “illustrious” Carlos Romero Deschamps, signed an agreement that enforces the revision and subsequent decrease of the company’s workforce. In this case, it is not known what sort of monetary incentives the government could have offered in order to implement such an arrangement. The aforementioned events are the framework of Peña’s way of governance, which has used one of the mechanisms used by the PRI in its old ways: co-option.

All around the world, politics sometimes implies, using money to conciliate negotiations that would otherwise be implausible. However, “backhander” politics is one of the most mundane tactics used to reach agreements. Likewise, and at least in the case concerning Mexico, it has stood out as way of defending ancient feuds that have been an obstacle – and still remain so – for the country’s development. “Rentier governance” in Mexico allows groups of interest, political clienteles as well as companies, to fight intensely for defending regimes and privileges, in the exchange of, for instance, stop disturbing (for the moment, at least) the peace of the general population, especially those living in Mexico City. This is a less than optimal policy in the long term, particularly so if the budget is tight. The poor economic growth and the incapacity of the federal government of recollecting taxes, show the limits of this particular way of keeping control.

“Backhander politics” has the problem that those resources needed to co-opt the most powerful groups tend to increase over time and put an important amount of pressure on rising public budget. Despite that the federal government knows that it could use less expensive but more politically costly ways, such as using public force in case a crime is committed (like damaging private property or communication lanes, theft or some others that have occurred during past protests), it prefers to use old ways. PAN governments mildly tried an alternative measure: sometimes agree they came to an agreement and sometimes they ignore them. In the end, none of those models hold any answers.

It is essential to acknowledge that the government’s ways have an uncontestable logic: due to its own mistakes and awful timing, the most important risk was seeing all non-partisan opposition forces unite. Both the affected interests in education (CNTE) as well as López Obrador, his followers and some other groups threatened to become a force to be reckoned with. Breaking this possibility turned out to be a very important guideline and, it could be argued that, if that was at stake, any additional cost would be minimal in comparison. Nevertheless, however effective the management of the situation was, their potential consequences cannot be ignored, especially regarding the pernicious incentives that this solution has created. Now, all interests in the country know the government’s weakness as well as its limits. That was always the problem of secret and unutterable agreements: unlike institutional solutions, they never remain.

Certainly, pacifying SME, demobilizing most of CNTE teachers and controlling STPRM were essential for the purpose of tying loose ends with the potential conflicts that may arise with the approval of energy and tax reforms. In the face of an inability (voluntary and structural) to apply the rule of law, buying governance suddenly becomes an option. That way, the federal government not only took former President Cárdenas speech “word by word” while designing its energy proposal but is also copying former President Obregón and his famous quote when applying the latter’s formula for governance. Time will tell.


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