December 06, 2013
The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) governed Mexico, at times with an iron fist, for 70 years until it lost the presidency in 2000. It returned with Enrique Peña Nieto’s victory in this year's presidential elections. But have politics changed in Mexico? Will the PRI resort to its old ways, asks Luis Rubio,* or will it help build a modern system to face the challenges of the 21st century?
MEXICO CITY — In her book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, Anne Applebaum argues that when Soviet-imposed communism collapsed in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, the countries with the most successful transitions were those that had developed “alternative elites,” and had already debated questions about modernizing the economy and expanding civil rights. Where people had forged collaboration and trust-based relations, transition to democracy was smooth and almost natural.
In Poland, the Solidarity trade union led by Lech Walesa had been articulating different forms of government for a decade before transition. In Hungary, economists had been comparing economic development models. And where such debates were absent, communist politicians retained power disguised as democrats. I wondered as I read her book, which of the two models does Mexico resemble?
The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)’s return to the presidency after a 13-year absence has provoked tremendous expectations given the “love-hate” relationship many Mexicans have with a party that held almost all powers from 1929 to 2000. Mexicans inevitably have a different question: What do the changes imply for our rights, for the country’s development, our family earnings and security?
If success depends on the development of an alternative elite, how do we compare to the Eastern Bloc countries? Mexico has for decades developed an extraordinary, technical capacity for managing the affairs of government, while civil society has evolved and taken ever-more sophisticated forms, which suggest similarities to the successful states.
But traits like the dysfunctionality of recent policies suggest similarity to the other, less successful group. In contrast with the totalitarian Soviet model, the Mexican political model allowed the (limited) development of opposition parties and, begrudgingly, tolerated their occasional victories.
A new path?
It would be logical to think that with their growing presence in local, then state-level government, those parties would have developed a capacity to govern. Yet, barring notable exceptions, this has not been the case with the two main opposition parties: the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD). The fact that almost all candidates fielded by PAN-PRD coalitions have been former members of the PRI says it all.
People have proposed a range of explanations for this fact, from the absence of democratic-minded politicians, or the PAN’s “lack of motivation” after the Herculean achievement of winning the presidency in 2000. Some have even said that the PANistas — as “Christian Democrats” — have a political culture fundamentally at odds with government. They lack the malice required to exercise power.
Applebaum wrote in a Washington Post article that alternative elites do not emerge from the void, and may require years to establish themselves. They needed years to do so in Eastern Europe, and may just be emerging in the “Arab Spring” countries. Are the PAN and the PRD opposition parties, both in deep need of fundamentally redefining themselves, in a similar point in their evolution?
The PRI government, meanwhile, may secure its position, remove obstacles that have half-paralysed the country and achieve the dream of retaining power for as long as it can. It may also turn in a mediocre performance that will see it again swept out of office.
Most reforms of the past decade have been unplanned, mediocre and the source of heated national debate. Events in coming years will depend on all the actions taken by citizens and their organizations, on how political parties evolve and on the government’s level of success.
The government’s powers and responsibilities give it the opportunity to create the conditions for the development of that alternative elite. Instead of allowing itself to return to the old PRI inertia, it could actively work to create a political system compatible with the challenges of the 21st century. Mexico has survived the alternation of parties in power, but has yet to consolidate a modern system of government. It can continue in a state of mediocrity, collapse or try the path of true development.
*Luis Rubio is president of Mexico’s CIDAC (Centro de Investigación para el Desarrollo), an independent political and economic research body.
America Economia is Latin America's leading business magazine, founded in 1986 by Elias Selman and Nils Strandberg. Headquartered in Santiago, Chile, it features a region-wide monthly edition and regularly updated articles online, as well as country-specific editions in Chile, Brazil, Ecuador and Mexico.