Alexander Woollcott met G.K. Chesterton for lunch at a London restaurant and asked him about his view on the difference between power and authority. “If a rhinoceros were to enter the restaurant now, there would be no denying he would have great power here. But I would be the first to rise and assure him that he had no authority whatsoever”. Thus is found the relationship of the government with the Mexicans: much power but little authority. Authority is won at the voting booth and, later, in the daily exercise of the governmental function.
In Mexico, we have endured decades of poor governmental performance, the product, to a great extent, of a system of government that has come a long way but has ceased to satisfy the requirements of such a large country, diverse and connected to the world. Instead of solving the problems, Mexicans have sought subterfuges for not doing so or, with rare exception, have adopted mechanisms for isolating determined matters (such as foreign investment) from the erratic nature of our governors. Those tools have allowed Mexico to navigate through the problems of the day, but impede the country from taking the “big step forward” toward a new stage of development.
Illustrative of the problem is the fact that we’ve gone on for 40 years reforming different aspects of national life but haven’t been able to resolve the heart of the problematic. With that statement I do not pretend to make little of the reforms that have been undertaken from the 80s on, or to deny the extraordinary advances that have been achieved or to make it appear that it is easy to confront ancestral problems and deeply entrenched interests. The premise is that the objectives cannot be achieved that have been pursued by means of that set of (uneven) reforms without the system of government being modified, because much of what hamstrings the attainment of the reforms and their success remits to the way the political system functions.
For starters, the system was conceived, constructed and administered from the logic of a concentrated power, one in full control of the country and disposed to employ its strength to silence any dissidence, however exceptional such actions were. That characterization of the system was valid for a few decades from the creation of the National Revolutionary Party (PNR) in 1929, but its very success came to alter it. Eighty five years later, the Mexican society in no way looks like that of those former times: its size, diversity, knowledge, international connections and geographic dispersion are radically distinct.
The problem is not that the country could become unhinged from one moment to another but, instead, that it does not emerge from its lethargy, however many attempts have been made of the most diverse types: economic and political reforms, alternation of parties in government, adoption of external mechanisms to confer guarantees and appointing civil servants from the citizenry or from opposition parties to sensitive functions. The transit of the PAN through the presidency or of the PRD in Mexico City are convincing examples that the system survives independently of who is nominally in charge. In this circumstance, it is not by chance that the focal points change but the problems abide. The government that promised efficacy with a persuasive performance record became bogged down immediately when time came to implement its own reforms because there are no appropriate mechanisms for the presidency to interact with the political parties and the state governors but, above all, with the citizenry.
A reform of the power would only work if it were the result of a negotiation not only involving all of the relevant parties, but also the citizenry. That is, in order for it to enjoy legitimacy as well as defenders throughout the country, such a reform would require virtually universal support. In a word, it would have of necessity to be foundational.
Some months ago a politician from the (very) old guard voiced a reflection that could orient the prospective discussion. His focal point was the absence of a clear sense of what could be called “national interest” for purposes of development. He noted that up to the seventies there was the so-called “Ministry of the Presidency” that oversaw planning and budgetary functions, but also the drawing up of laws. The legal director of that entity operated as the nation’s attorney-at large, in the sense that he kept watch over the whole. Although it was a single-party era, the concept that it delineated was significant: when that Secretariat was dismantled, the function of the legal director passed to the Presidential domain and, with that, it changed radically. While previously it had seen to the entirety of the nation and procured the promotion of solid institutional structures, it now became the defender of the interests and affairs of the President. The phenomenon was exacerbated to the degree that the society grew more complex and opposition political parties appeared that refused to accept the presidential view as equivalent to that of the nation.
The politician’s message was very simple: the problems are increasingly complex and cannot be solved with partial measures: there is an urgency to think big, build a new institutional platform that attends to and resolves essential themes that the country confronts and that are the source of eternal conflict: from the electoral to the functioning of the legislature, corruption and torture. That is, it is imperative to construct the institutional structure of the XXII Century, taking a quantum leap that permits forgetting today’s enmities and making possible the consolidation of a modern country that thrives, cares for its population and thinks highly of its government.