Geopolitics

Mexico: How Weak Institutions Paved The Way For One-Man Rule

The weakness of institutions in Mexico once gave its presidents leeway to reform the state. Today President López Obrador is using it as a tool to accumulate more and more power of his own.

Thousands of Mexicans gather to listen to Mexican President Lopez Obrador give a report on the achievements and commitments of his administration.
Thousands of Mexicans gather to listen to Mexican President Lopez Obrador give a report on the achievements and commitments of his administration.
Luis Rubio

-Analysis-

MEXICO CITY - A viral tweet in October foresees the British prime minister flying to Brussels in 2192, to ask for another delay to the fateful Brexit deadline. Nobody knows when the tradition began, the tweet quips, but "every year it attracts many tourists from all over the world." The complex negotiations between Britain and the European Union have prompted all manner of jokes, for reflecting on institutions so solid as to force legislatures and legal bodies on both sides of the Channel to track a litany of procedures, votes and fine print.

The tongue-in-cheek Tweet suggests the weight of institutional governance can be paralyzing. What few mention are its advantages: assuring stability and predictability for ordinary folks and families who must take decisions every day about their lives.

Let's consider the subject of constitutions. In Mexico, constitutional changes were historically a way for state governors to vie to be first in making sure the legislatures of their states would duly ratify the amendments sought by the president. It was a way to win his favor. The reform's purpose was less relevant than the "need" to endorse the president's authority. The process has been refined in this administration, as the presidential party's majority in 19 states is making lobbying by governors unnecessary. Governors need only be instructed to enact the national executive's decisions.

Man and institution in Mexico City. — Photo: Hector Adolfo Quintanar Perez/ZUMA

In contrast in countries with strong institutions, it is extremely difficult to amend the constitution. In Denmark, it requires parliament's approval, then a general election, then a vote by the new parliament. In addition, at least 40% of the electorate must approve the amendment in a referendum. That is, it is a laborious process, designed precisely to ensure that any change to the constitution enjoys wide public backing and cannot be imposed by a party, government or administrative diktat.

In India, a vast, poor and uniquely complex country — and a consolidated democracy nonetheless — a legal project's progression requires untold procedures, with political and administrative layers that again assure widespread political support, and thus legitimacy and permanence. Such structures hinder the initiatives of presidents and prime ministers, but assure stability for citizens.

It was just these kinds of structures President Andrés Manuel López Obrador sought to eliminate with massive dismissals in government ministries early in his presidency. But the activities around government must function, at least within the concept of separation of powers, as checks to ensure no single power will exceed its prerogatives.

Institutional weaknesses actually allowed for certain great reforms.

Under the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party, for most of the 20th century), Mexico was always cited as a highly institutionalized country, as public policy was supposedly enacted with disciplined politicians seeking to duly carry out their responsibility. Time proved all this to be a myth, because with the end of a strong presidency and its ability to penalize domestic political actors, the idea of abiding by norms has melted away.

From a country that seemed bound to certain rules of the game (the most relevant of which were always "implicit"), we became a society without self-discipline, and with so many groups and people ready to use any means to forward their interests. Today, we have returned to a system of personal rule and authority.

The institutional weaknesses of Mexico actually allowed for certain great reforms between the 1980s and 2018, as the presidency changed its methods over time, to modify laws in ways that might be impossible in Europe or the United States. The absence of institutional controls then became an advantage for acting decisively and tackling exceptional circumstances, like economic crises of the past. Today, instead, that weakness has allowed the president to simply dismantle anything he wants.

Consistency in public affairs is assured only by solid institutions, which are the essential condition of civilization and democracy.

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