Government vs. Elections
In the Odyssey, Ulysses returns home having learned to distinguish what is essential in life: to separate the sacred from the profane, as well as the existence of limits for the exercise of power. Ulysses had destroyed the sacred citadel of Troy to obtain food for his companions, a pragmatic calculation that entailed the desecration of what was worthy of respect. The experience teaches Ulysses that he must learn to be reverent before the sacred, a metaphor that Homer employs to explain the limit of things, the need for self-restraint.
Political debate in Mexico is critical and on occasion violent, but always amusing, above all because it reflects what is natural: the interests, but also the passions. What is peculiar about the debate is the personalization of the matters: whether former President Calderon started a “war against drugs” or whether López Obrador had the 2006 election stolen from him. As Leonardo Curzio states, we have had more than two decades of alternation of parties in government in a multiplicity of states, municipalities, and in the presidency of the nation, but the political fight on electoral issues pretends that the old PRI era remains untouched. Things change, the actors blend in, and the nature of the problems ends up being another, requiring responses that have to be distinct.
Our problem is one of government–governance-and not of an electoral nature. Of course, I have no doubt that the electoral processes could be and should be improved and advance to a stage in which practices in breach of the spirit of the law would be eradicated, thus finally reaching absolute legitimacy of the results. However, the fact that we have not made a clean break from these vices suggests that the problem we are facing is not found in the electoral ambit, since it is evident that those who play the electoral games as if their lives depended on it are the very ones who make the rules and are willing to violate them as soon as the ink is dry on the government gazette.
Mexico has a nominally federalist government, but it has in fact a centralist spirit. The phenomenon of the supreme boss (jefe maximo) or caudillo, installed in the presidential seat is reproduced at the state and municipal level. Formerly, with an asphyxiating centralism, the president served as a counterweight before the governors, restraining them from their worst excesses. Now, with a centralist system in ruins but that remains ubiquitous, we have kept all of the vices of centralism without its sole potential virtue, that which today characterizes China: being able to focus all of the resources on development, whether the population likes it or not.
Our federalism exists only on paper. There are no institutional structures to make it work, above all at the state and municipal level, where the old asphyxiating centralism survives, but dedicated nearly without exception to the enrichment of the current governor. Nonetheless, there are exceptions that are revealing: independently of whether the temporary governor becomes wealthy, there are states in which the realities of power –i.e. the existence of de facto checks and balances- make excess much more difficult. For example, it is not a coincidence that there are many fewer scandals of extravagant corruption in states such as Querétaro and Aguascalientes, where the presence of enormous foreign investments have become a factor of stability and systematic advance (in infrastructure, security, etc.) not present in more diversified states or in less successful states in attracting these investments. With this I do not wish to suggest that these states have a better system of government, only that there are real checks and counterweights and these alter the logic of the exercise of power. That is, the incentives of the governor are very clear and restrictive.
Just as presidents formerly “supervised” the governors and, frequently, removed them from their posts, today many governors follow suit with the municipal presidents. The methods have changed in some cases, but the phenomenon remains the same: the notion of the “single command” for security purposes is precisely that, the search for subordination with the pretext of insecurity. What has not improved –nor changed- is the way of “governing.”
Government (and security) start from below. If we want to have a well-governed country we will have to build a municipal government system that works and that begins with a property tax, because this is the way a link of checks and balances is established between the citizen who pays and the municipality that spends. From the bottom up: just the opposite of what exists today.
When the state of Michoacán “exploded” at the beginning of this presidential term, the government sent in the Army and the federal police to stabilize the place, at the same time deploying a government agent who devoted himself to purchasing the will of the people with neither rhyme nor reason, but also without success. It would have been much better to take advantage of the presence of the federal forces to build local capacity: new police officers, a proper tax system, a strong citizen counterweight and so forth. In other words, build a new system of government.
There is no lack of opportunities, but the correct diagnosis continues to be absent, probably because that would change the balance of power that is, at the end of the day, our underlying problem.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author. This article was originally published on the Mexico Institute's 2018 Elections Guide.
About the Author
Mexico Institute Advisory Board Member & President; Consejo Mexicano de Asuntos Internacionales (COMEXI); Chairman, Center for Research for Development (CIDAC), Mexico
The Mexico Institute seeks to improve understanding, communication, and cooperation between Mexico and the United States by promoting original research, encouraging public discussion, and proposing policy options for enhancing the bilateral relationship. A binational Advisory Board, chaired by Luis Téllez and Earl Anthony Wayne, oversees the work of the Mexico Institute. Read more