MEXICO CITY — The word democracy has become trivialized in Mexico's political discourse. Many who despised the old presidential system and devoted themselves to fighting it now despise democracy. If the problem used to be that the president had too much power, now they say he doesn't have enough.

Fundamentally, democracy exists to protect the rights of citizens against their rulers. But democracy in Mexico is an instrument used to elect rulers, then ensure nobody meddles in decision-making.

What is the right balance? In the context of appalling political management and at the start of a crucial political year, we need to debate why the country is not progressing in spite of so many changes and reforms undertaken in different areas. That is the only way to find a way out of this dangerous moment.

Two issues people agree are of foremost relevance: the government's inefficiency and the rock-bottom quality of public services. People will see these related issues in causal terms: The government provides bad services because it is badly organized. Certainly there is a relation here but one must understand the causes because a mistaken diagnosis will produce the wrong solution.

Since at least 1963 when so-called "party MPs" were created, the country has seen many political and electoral reforms that have at best yielded partial results. Only some have improved the system such as the 1996 reforms that created a professional electoral system. Reforms have tackled existing problems among politicians but none have managed to find a way to listen and respond to ordinary citizens. Most of these reforms merely ended up redistributing power among those who already held it.

As Albert Einstein once famously said, madness is expecting different results when you keep doing the same thing over and over again. Why do politicians think superficial interventions will solve the country's political problems?

I do not dispute the need for reform, but do they really work? Dozens of political and electoral reforms, and hundreds of economic, tax and social rights reforms, have not managed to raise people's confidence in those running their affairs. People still don't believe that their streets will be paved nor do they feel physically and legally secure.

The obvious and the blind

When one wonders why the economy is not growing faster, the answer is obvious to people. And it's so obvious that politicians refuse to see it. It's all because there's little confidence in the way the government functions. The system is designed to extract people's money, and safeguard the privileges of those inside and around the political system. Meanwhile, citizens fear government abuse and live amid uncertainty regarding their personal safety and the security of their property. Even paying taxes is complicated.

The Zocalo central square in Mexico City — Photo: Rory Finneren

The old political system from the time of President Plutarco Elías Calle in the first half of the 20th century concentrated power and created institutions out of conflict in the period following the 1911 revolution. Today's problems are, to some extent, the result of the success of that structure while they also reflect a growing population, and social, political and economic diversity.

While much has changed thanks to past reforms the old system still continues — with one big difference: the system that used to work well enough to meet people's minimum needs, simply no longer does. Both problems and expectations have changed. While politicians look around for small fixes to patch things up, the country needs a government that actually functions. Any future reforms would have to be based on a clear and simple purpose: to solve the problems of ordinary people and make their daily lives easier.

If this happened, it would set off a veritable political revolution in Mexico. So far, the proposals have been to return to what used to work, meaning the re-centralization of power. But that was an option that disappeared the day the economy was liberalized.

What we need today is a political system for the 21st century, not the continuation, even through modern institutions, of the Porfiriato - our Mexico's Victorian period. That means transparency and accountability instead of privileges. If we do not set this as our fundamental ambition, nothing will change.

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