The Old Authoritarianism

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The recent elections illustrated, once again, one of the greatest paradoxes that characterize Mexico. The country has taken extraordinary steps in electoral matters but, nonetheless, there is no let-up of conflicts, of insults and above all distrust. Although diverse political parties and, now, independent candidates, participate actively, there persists in a good part of the electorate –and in too many political parties and candidates- the notion that an election is legitimate when I win but not when I lose. What does this tell us about Mexico, about its politics and about its capacity for transcending that permanent source of conflict and illegitimacy?

The issue is not new. The current political system represents an evolution of the old PRIist system; more than a change of regime, what actually occurred in past decades was that Mexico went from a one-party regime to one in which three parties share the same privileges and prerogatives that the PRI enjoyed exclusively in former times. However, the first paradox is that those three political parties have been losing ground in the face of the uncontainable growth of partisan options, many of these pathetic. In this way, although it is extraordinarily difficult to create (and preserve) a new political party, the latter do not stop proliferating. The financing that accompanies the parties with registration explains this second paradox, but it does not cease to be significant that it is so difficult to maintain the registration, as if it were a mechanism designed to safeguard an oligopoly. What is not in doubt is that the partisan-electoral system keeps its distance with respect to the citizenry, protects the political parties and the government from the population and keeps alive the authoritarian culture from which the system sprang from the outset.

The contrast with nations at the South of the continent is suggestive. While there are very repressive dictatorial regimes in many of those countries, in Mexico the PRIist system achieved stability without only exceptionally resorting to repression. Its proclivity for control and co-optation confirmed for Mexico a long era of progress. However, when those nations were democratized, their citizens were incisively able to distinguish the new regime from the one that preceded it. The contrast was black and white: no one had any doubt that a civil was distinct from an authoritarian regime. That distinction in Mexico was never possible: the PRIist regime was authoritarian and its culture and legacy have been preserved, not only in the PRI and its derivatives but also even among PANists who denounced the regime ad nauseam. The nodal point is that authoritarianism continues to be a discernible characteristic with respect to the way political parties elect their candidates, recognize or reject an electoral result and, perhaps more than anything else, in the distance that exists between citizens and governors.

Authoritarianism works as long as the population submits to it and accepts the control, that is, as long as this is perceived as legitimate; the anger against corruption shows that that legitimacy no longer exists, which renders an authoritarian system unsustainable. Recent events have evidenced that the population has learned to make use of their vote to reward and punish; it would not waste its disgust but would rather channel it. The sole fact of the three big parties losing representativeness is unprecedented and revelatory. Mexican authoritarianism might be profoundly deep-rooted in the society and in its manner of acting and proceeding, but it has lost all legitimacy.

This reality positions us right in the line of succession for 2018. Within the government the smell of the old times is in the air, anticipating the hand-picked candidate in the old PRI style. Something contrary to this is perceptible in the legislative PRI and, much more clearly, in that of the state governors. As long as the President maintains his team intact, a collision can be anticipated. Contrariwise, were change to take place and were an assorted portfolio of potential candidates proffered on the part of the President’s party, the probability of internal combustion would diminish. The way that the PRI solves (or does not solve) its dilemmas will set the standard for the remaining parties.

Each of the opposition parties experiences its own process and crises. Some pre-candidates are obvious, others dispute party presidencies and candidacies. Something particularly prominent is the appearance of a new political “species”: that of the pre-candidates whose common characteristic is being ex-PRIists. Today the possibility does not seem far off from the 2018 elections being solely between PRIists and ex-PRIists, under distinct party or independent denominations. What would such a scenario tell us?

The power monopoly that the PRI exercised for so many decades procreated a political class that was endowed with skills in the management of power, a circumstance from which the other parties were exempted, explaining to a certain degree the PANist debacle. That provides an explanation for the presence of so many potential players originally from the PRI in the public arena. The crucial question is whether some of those potential candidates and parties would have the capacity and vision to propose a reform of the structure of power that would transform the country to its core. If the authoritarianism of yesteryear no longer works, what would the probable candidates replace it with?

On the interaction between the proposals and coalitions that those individuals forge and what happens in the government and the PRI rests the determination of the future and viability of Mexican politics.



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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).