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Geopolitics

Mexico, The False Choice Of Stability Or Democracy

The Mexican government's recent actions suggest the ruling party yearns for the days when it governed unchallenged through cronyism. But order comes at a price.

In Mexico City, the state and the people.
In Mexico City, the state and the people.
Luis Rubio

-OpEd-

MEXICO CITY Amid the uncertainties of modern Mexico, many must miss the days when one party ran the country: for 70 years, everything — and everyone — seemed to know its proper place.

That was 20th-century Mexico, governed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which held all the reins both public and hidden, until its grip was loosened in the 2000 presidential elections.

The rules were clear before, values consensual and the risks, known to all. Those who were in the system knew there were ups and downs, but they soldiered on, loyal to their superiors and hopeful of receiving their political rewards one day. And that created an order respected practically by all. Dissent led nowhere.

The old PRI system didn't rest on the laws or lawfulness, but rather had its own foundations in a web of unwritten rules. These were, simply put, loyalty to the president and respect for outward forms. And these, curiously, were factors in the stability that characterized Mexico for decades.

While this was not what the forgers of modern Mexico envisioned in the early 20th century (President Plutarco Elías Calles called for a "country of institutions" in 1928, speaking at the formation of the National Revolutionary Party, the PRI's precursor), the new regime did impose order and stability after a decade of revolutionary turmoil. The modern-day voter may find these woefullly inadequate, but for a time Mexico enjoyed stability, in stark contrast with most other countries in the region.

José López Portillo, president between 1976 and 1982, once said he was the last of the revolutionary presidents. The man blamed for the economic crisis of 1982 broke all the system's rules and with that ushered the country into the age of economic failure. Until the 1980s, all the presidents that followed the 1910 revolution had either been soldiers or lawyers. Attachment to established patterns, repeatable and predictable as they were, created an implicit bottom line on which society could rely.

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Lopez Portillo hosts U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 1979. Photo: Wikipedia

So while individual politicians rose and fell, society knew there was a minimum level, an order, from which they never deviated. Some presidents might veer to the Left and others to the Right, but none abandoned the established canons of their time. Attachment to established forms furthermore generated business confidence, and the presidents knew that was a crucial ingredient of stability. Everyone played at the game.

Ushering in instability

The time of crises began in 1976, and ended (one hopes) in 1995. In those 20 years, the country lost the historic stability that was a source of economic confidence and viability. This was partly due to transitions happening abroad, but the greatest "change" impacting Mexico was the system's refusal to advance. Doggedly attached to the past, it would not adapt to transformations happening inside Mexico (sometimes blatantly, when it crushed the 1968 student protests) and in the global economy.

In the 1980s, the technocrats came to the rescue, and they had new criteria and new ways that clashed with the old system. The economy was liberalized, state-affiliated bodies were privatized and new economic management forms were adopted. These were more attached to international norms than to history, though unfortunately, things were still not clear or simple. A certain margin was left to allow for personal favors, which made it impossible for the country to become fully modern.

Yet it was a time when the economy, and the blessed "forms," were changing, and that meant in effect the economy's partial liberalization. While there have been some good years of growth, instability has been our economic leitmotif since the late 1980s.

Mexico has so far failed to fully abandon the past, and is therefore failing to build a different future. And nowhere is this infirmity so starkly illustrated as in the present PRI government of Enrique Peña Nieto, whose maxim seems to be, forget the future and let's go back to the good old days of political primitivism.

Order is necessary for a nation's progress. Without it, everything is illusory because the propensity toward disorder and instability is permanent. Clearly the country doesn't need a top-down system of "order and progress" dictated by the state, but instead institutional mechanisms within its precarious democracy to assure that minimum level of stability and trust the old system enjoyed.

The world today is quite unlike the mid-20th century, but one thing is constant: People need to trust their government. Even Mao and the Lenin understood that. But as the Mexican peso slides in value these days, our government seems not to.

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