The Future and The PRI

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“Sometimes in error, but never in doubt” is a characterization that could be easily applied to the PRI. The “Party of the Revolution” stabilized the country after the revolutionary era but never achieved overcoming its original sin, a system devoted fully and exclusively to the interests of the so-called revolutionary family: to control power and to advance their business dealings. The risk of this election dwells in going back to that world of complacency. Mexico clearly requires an effective government and the way in which both of the PANist governments that succeeded the PRI defeat in 2000 evolved was everything except effective. The solution, however, does not reside in going back to a system in absolute control.
The PRIists are proud of their skills at running a government. However, their proven abilities to execute the functions of governing are not equivalent to a good government: through the 20th century, Mexico had many decades of deft governments but not of good governments. Had those been good governments, Mexico would be a prosperous and wealth nation, like Korea or other countries of similar development level. Clearly Mexico needs an effective government, but also a good government. The question is how to achieve that successful combination.
The PRI that today is flexing its muscles is not a modern or visionary PRI. Its view is decidedly concentrated on the rearview mirror, in what for many PRIists should never have been abandoned. It is the idyllic world of the professor: a government in control, a society in subordination, and a growing economy. The sixties.
For the old, PRI, political system, Mexican society never existed except as a manipulable instrument. I do not wish to suggest with this that the PRIist regimen denied the opportunity of economic development because evidence to the contrary is enormous, but it did do so in that its objective function, its raison d’être, was that of serving the interests of the revolutionary family: preserve power and exploit it to its benefit. That is what absolute majorities make possible: to impose their will.
When the PRI lost the presidency, it created the opportunity of transforming the political system and, in the way in which other nations surmounted their previous traumas, building on what already existed. Unfortunately, the two administrations that succeeded the PRI (and, in fact, the last three) lacked the vision, the grandeur, the capacity to transcend what they had inherited. We citizens ended up with a frail democracy that has not satisfied the expectations or changed the course of the country. The conclusion many reach is that the problem lies in the lack of legislative majorities to push the government’s agenda. I differ: the problem dwells in the incompetence of our recent presidents, in their inability to build majorities and transform the political system. It is not the same thing.
This failure is the main explanation for the PRI’s current situation. In frank contrast with the political parties of the old regime in other societies, the PRI had it easy: it didn’t have to reform itself to become electorally competitive again. The risk now is that it is the society that has to pay the piper.
Beyond the surveys and the differences in perspective between young and old –those who lived through the era of the abusive PRI and those who are living through the current disenchantment- the tangible fact is that the country itself is a great disorder. The PRI’s proposal to restore order is thus quite convincing: an effective government. The problem is that efficacy does not imply good government and that is the history of PRI. The paradox that no one apparently wants to see is that, beyond the generalized incompetence that the last three governments evidenced (two of PAN, one of PRI), the problems of the country hearken back to the fact that PRIist structures and interests were never substituted by functional institutions and duly structured checks and balances. That is to say, the problem that continues to this day is that the PRIist system persists despite the fact that the era died several decades ago.
Nobody can doubt that the country needs an effective government. In the PRI era, efficacy was almost guaranteed because the system was so powerful and ubiquitous that it made it possible for even lousy administrations to function in effective fashion. However, since the PRI split in the middle of the 80’s, its capacity to impose the presidential will drastically diminished. Ever since then, the success of a government has depended on the political skills of the individual in the presidency: it is no coincidence that between 1982 and the present only Salinas was effective.
In the past two decades, the country has decentralized in amazing fashion, but it has not developed a system of effective checks and balances that could confer stability and predictability. It is this factor that creates so much uncertainty: the possibility that the PRI might return to restore the old, oppressive, system or that Lopez Obrador would destroy the few things that have decisively advanced. Our problem is of absence of counterweights and that cannot be fixed with an “effective” government and much less so with absolute majorities in the Congress. Mexico requires a political negotiation among the political parties so as to create and institutionalize an effective system of checks and balances that can take the country to a new stadium of development.
Mexico has greatly changed, but not always for the better. The reality of the power in the country is already not one of political centralization but rather one of dispersion of power with an enormous concentration in partisan leaderships and governors, in addition to the so-called “de facto powers”. In outright contrast with the old PRIist era, the multiplicity of contacts that characterizes the average Mexican with the rest of the world is impacting. The only reason that the country has continued to get ahead in the past twenty or thirty years is precisely that Mexicans found ways of functioning independently of the government. It is the aftertaste of the old system -that of PRI and of Lopez Obrador- that keeps the country paralyzed. There’s nowhere to go back to.
The challenge for Mexico consists of dismantling, now definitively, once and for all, the corporatist structure that persists and that can be appreciated in state-run corporations, corrupt unionism, and in the private businesses, many of which are illicit, of PRI’s exalted personages. That is, to affect bases and support structures of the very PRI. What Mexico requires is taking liberalization –in the economic and in the political realms- to its maturity and this implies affecting interests that are fundamentally PRIist. The question is whether the beast can survive the dismantling of its entrails, and whether by controlling the presidency and the two legislative chambers, it would have the incentive to do it.  I doubt it.
The Mexican wants order, a factor that has strengthened the PRI in this electoral contest. But order without content is not an answer. To restore order and to end up constructing the pathway to economic growth it is imperative to break with what Mexico has been for so many years, that is, with the PRIist system. Who could accomplish that? Only a president with the political skills but one guided by the imperative of having to build a political arrangement with the other political parties. Returning to the era of absolute majorities would be an enormous regression.

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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).