An End of Power
By ENRIQUE KRAUZE
At the beginning of 1976, when then-President Luis Echeverría had tagged López Portillo to be his successor, the renowned Mexican economist, essayist and diplomat Daniel Cosío Villegas reflected on the power/popularity equation in the presidential succession. In the Mexican political system at that time, there were several unwritten rules that used to be complied with on time. In the case of popularity, the norm was that the president in turn began to lose it in his last year of government. That is why the presidents pledged all the public resources at their disposal to exalt themselves and their works. In general, they failed in that endeavor, not only because of the weariness caused by self-promotion but also due to the exposure itself, which was generally accompanied by the hope of a president who would be better than — or at least different from — the outgoing one.
What happened to the power of a president whose popularity was waning? In general, it also decreased, but it could be maintained and even increased, because, unlike popularity or unpopularity that manifests itself freely and spontaneously, at that time, power was exercised within the official political apparatus.
In other words, an increasingly unpopular president could increase his power, regardless of whether he had already chosen his successor. And that was the case with Echeverría. Months before he had conceived the sweet dream of re-election, something that is forbidden by the Mexican Constitution. Understanding that it was impossible, Echeverría tagged his friend López Portillo, who responded to the gift with unusual obsequiousness. Echeverría took advantage of this attitude to also designate the new commanders of the incumbent Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), verbally support the candidate (who even declared his desire to incorporate Echeverría into his cabinet) and advance the lists of candidates for PRI representatives and senators. The plan was clear: if no re-election, at least maximum influence.
Cosío Villegas reached three conclusions about the political situation, which stemmed from the “personal style of governing” of that loquacious and ubiquitous president:
“First, that one of the most salient features of this way of being is an invincible reluctance to create and maintain a clear and stable public climate; on the contrary, it seems impossible to repress his inclination to continually disturb him with unexpected acts and words,” Cosío Villegas wrote.
“The second, that although it is the very condition of the politician to achieve, maintain and increase his power, in the case of Echeverría, the extreme of alienation has been reached, that is, the use of power … with the sole purpose of demonstrating, even boasting, that one has that all-encompassing power, and that nothing and no one dares to limit it…”
The third conclusion that Cosío Villegas reached was that “partly because of that insatiable thirst for power and partly because of his personal temperament, Echeverría has ended up believing himself to be a Messiah, that is, the one chosen by God to reveal the truth to the world.”
The good prophet Daniel anticipated that Echeverría would arrive on Dec. 1 — the official end of his six-year term — with a 70-percent share of power compared to the 30-percent share of his successor, but he did not rule out that at the end of the year that proportion could not only be reversed but that Echeverría could even lose that slice. “Well, it must be admitted that a Mexican president has the necessary resources to quickly and definitively bring down the most handsome man who stands in front of him,” he wrote.
Cosío Villegas died in March 1976, without knowing the outcome that confirmed his prophecy. Echeverría abused power throughout that year (the coup against the national newspaper Excelsior, for example) and it was even said that he ordered a telephone with the presidential line to be placed in his house in Mexico City’s posh San Jerónimo neighborhood. But already in the chair, President López Portillo instead entrusted Echeverría with representing Mexico in a remote area of the globe with which “Mexico needed to strengthen ties of friendship,” that is the Fiji Islands.
History has a way of repeating itself. Control of the process, control of the party’s presidential pretenders, control of the future government program, incessant public agitation, the insatiable will to control power, messianism. It is possible that current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) will reach the end of his term with more than 50 percent popularity, but he will not be able to transfer it to any of his soulless favorite candidates. Furthermore, unlike in Echeverría’s time, there will surely be an opposition candidate, Xóchitl Gálvez, who will no doubt achieve a similar degree of popularity.
Will AMLO be able to retain a post-office slice of power? I don’t believe so. The would-be Messiah Echeverría eventually had to resign himself to relinquishing power. AMLO must also resign himself to the fact that either by the decision of whoever becomes Mexico’s next president or by the actions of the other powers of the republic (Congress and the Supreme Court) that, together with the nation’s citizens, impose that limit, he will not be able to cling to power.
Meanwhile, Mexico has neglected its diplomatic relationship with the Fiji Islands. That might have to be remedied.