By Luis Rubio*
How are the high-speed train to Querétaro and the brand new National Electoral Institute (INE) alike? Unfortunately, the similarity is less altruistic than is desirable. Some months ago, the Secretary of Communications went to Congress to defend the high-speed Querétaro train project, but as soon as he arrived at his office, he turned on his heel and announced that the project was suspended. The order had been issued from the top. His boss, employing his executive powers, had decided to cancel and the Secretary, being the subordinate, disregarded the evident contradiction and announced that the project was null and void.
The case of the INE was similar, except that the President is not, or supposedly is not, its boss. The issue at hand is the spot of the PAN in which the President’s trip to London with an entourage of (supposedly) 200 invited guests is highlighted. As soon as the spot materialized, the PRI protested: the INE conducted its evaluation and concluded that the PAN advertisement did not violate the established rules and rejected the protest, allowing the ad to continue to appear. However, the next day, the INE received a letter from Presidential Office in which the prohibition of the advertising spot was requested, to which the INE Board acceded, canceling its decision of the day before (an action later overturned by the Electoral Tribunal). The problem is that, in contrast with the Communications Secretariat, the INE is a supposedly autonomous entity. In this decision it demonstrated the limits of its autonomy.
The theme is not a new one. The Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), predecessor of the INE, comprised board members appointed for an eight-year term, but on two occasions the law was modified, which altered not only the respective legislation but also the Board’s composition. Thus, none of the Board Members at that time lasted the previously established eight years. It begs the question: Was the law modified to remove the Board Members? As there is no way to prove the opposite, one must, and can, conclude that at least the supposed autonomy was not a force to be reckoned with in removing them. That is, autonomy is only valid as long as it is not being exercised. In consequence, one might suppose that the present INE Board is acting to preserve their eight-year stint on accepting their subordination to the President.
The same phenomenon has been repeated in regulatory agencies (telecommunications and competition), which also have been modified frequently. Now there are even party quotas for the integration of the Supreme Court. The affair would be ludicrous were it not so grave and disturbing.
The conformation of autonomous organs was a creative idea for responding to the enormous credibility crisis that has battered Mexican society for decades. The objective was to create “islands” of credibility sustained by irreproachable Individuals who could “lend” their credibility and honesty to the society, conferring certainty on it in order for, at least in the specific ambit, there to be trust that things would be done well. The first case that I remember was that of the Human Rights Commission that, with ups and downs, has satisfied that mandate at least with some decorum. While it cannot be measured with the same yardstick, NAFTA was conceived with exactly the same rationale: confer trust on the investors that the rules would not change at whim.
The IFE, in the most conflictive matter, supposedly proved its relevance in the 2000 election, given that the PRI was defeated and the IFE testified to this without disputes breaking out. In retrospect, it seems evident that IFE of that time achieved the credibility that it did more because the PRI candidate, Francisco Labastida, and the then-President Zedillo had the integrity to recognize the election than because of the autonomy of the IFE Board. As soon as a later candidate disputed the results, autonomy wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.
The phenomenon is not attributable to the government, because every political class, of all of the political parties, is an accessory to the same thing: it is the parties that have created party quotas for these agencies and collegiate bodies; the political parties that have torn down the autonomous entities whenever they felt it convenient or expedient and it is they, with the collusion of diverse administrations, that have created absurd laws that exclude the citizenry from participation in politics, distancing their supposed representatives from the population and impeding the latter from freely expressing themselves on matters that, in a self-respecting democracy, would be an incumbency for the population before anyone else.
The Pact for Mexico, as important as it was for the process of reforms, was based on the explicit exclusion of the legislature, the alleged representative of the citizenry. That is, there wasn’t even the pretension of the reforms being approved by the representatives who, steeped in the old ways of the PRI, did no more than raise a finger. Worse, the Pact was accompanied by a structure of corruption for the benefit of all of its members, which explains to a great extent the massive loss of prestige that all of the partisan institutes enjoy today. Were it not for the fact that there are explanations for each of these instances, one would think that the entire political project of the last decades has consisted not only of the obvious (change so that everything could continue the same), but instead to deceive the citizenry with the promise of a democracy that would never arrive.
Writer Erica Jong said: “Take your life in your own hands, and what happens? A terrible thing: no one to blame”.
That’s our political class to a T.
* Global Fellow and Member of the Advisory Board of the Mexico Institute at the WWICS and President of the Center of Research for Development (CIDAC).