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Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico City, 02/08/2019 © Octavio Hoyos / Shutterstock

Can Mexico Change Its Approach to Corruption?

For López Obrador, corruption is not part of Mexico’s culture.

To this day, one of the most serious challenges to Mexico’s public service is the prevalence of corruption among officials. At all levels of government — federal, state and municipal — this barrier has proved to be enduring and difficult to overcome effectively.

According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Mexico has made nearly no progress in ending corruption in its public sector. Over the last five years, it has steadily maintained its position in the 135th place (out of 180) when it comes to government transparency. Moreover, surveys conducted by Transparency International reveal that, in 2017, 61% of respondents in Mexico perceived an increase in the levels of corruption in government in comparison with the previous year.

There have been continued attempts at making the public service more transparent— for instance, through the use of digital tools and the simplification of government procedures. Unfortunately, the day-to-day dealings by both companies and private individuals with all levels of government in Mexico remain cumbersome, and this burden of bureaucracy often leads to corruption.

A Change in Thinking

The new federal administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, which took office in December 2018, has vowed to tackle these issues. There are significant differences, however, in its approach to fighting corruption when compared to those of previous administrations. For instance, in 2014, then-President Enrique Peña Nieto affirmed that in Mexico “corruption is a cultural issue,” implying that it is rooted in the country’s imagination. Political analysts in the country interpreted, and quickly and heavily critized, Peña Nieto’s statement (and his ensuing refusal to backtrack on it) as a condemnation to permanent failure in the country’s fight against corruption.

In contrast, López Obrador, then a presidential candidate, rebutted this comment promptly, later asserting emphatically that “corruption is not part of Mexican culture. That belief has to be sidelined, because Mexicans have a great reserve of moral, cultural, and spiritual values.” This change in thinking among governmental elites is in line with the one dominating the global debate on corruption. It sees this political, economic and social phenomenon as being latent in human beings, individually or collectively, but only taking hold when political institutions are not backed by a strong civil service.

The new administration’s first step in setting the government’s position in the fight against corruption across Mexico was, therefore, to set a positive and constructive tone for creating and implementing public policies and legal reforms to provide a framework for curbing corrupt practices.

The institutional inertia that it will face, however, might make it difficult to implement broad and quick changes to the public service structure. One of the factors here is the belief that López Obrador’s party affiliation constitutes a default obstacle to securing cooperation by the opposition. Another one is within its own ranks. There is resistance from part of the civil service to the new administration’s explicit approach to the use of public money, which has done away with the fiscal conservatism of previous administrations in favor of the broader implementation of social welfare programs.

Effects of Austerity

While a large sector of Mexican society supports the implementation of these measures, the upper levels of the federal bureaucracy have already opposed, and will likely continue opposing, these changes that imply making cuts to salaries and benefits of public servants in the higher positions within the bureaucracy, cuts to the number of public employees at the various levels of the Mexican government, as well as cuts to the salaries of lawmakers.

There is, therefore, an unquantifiable effect of the austerity policy that López Obrador is suggesting for Mexico’s public administration structure. While it is common practice that during the first year of the new federal administration the secretaries of state, their subordinates and the incoming higher-level bureaucratic staff are positive-minded and ready to implement significant changes in the way in which the federal government is run, it is also common that such momentum is gradually lost, as a result of the day-to-day operation of government.

Resistance to the implementation of laws and other regulations, which might impact the salaries of bureaucrats, however, could prevent the government from implementing radical changes. For instance, when Vicente Fox Quesada, Mexico’s first democratically elected president of the 21st century, took office after more than 70 years of one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), his National Action Party (PAN) held no majority in Congress. Thus, most of the constitutional reforms Fox Quesada proposed could not be carried out. This was mainly due to the ideological differences and administrative hurdles that the PRI-affiliated legislators created for the newly elected government.

As a result, not even in its first year in office, which is usually the most productive in Mexican federal government in terms of implementation of reforms, was the administration able to pass any of the major proposals it had promised to its voters.

In comparison, President Peña Nieto, who managed to get the PRI back in power after 12 years of PAN governments, succeeded in securing the passing of various reforms, including constitutional ones, which the previous governments were unable to do. The structural reforms and the Pacto por México (Pact for Mexico) set a triumphalist tone for the PRI-dominated federal government. The reforms, however, were originally meant to be realized over a period of time and have long-term positive effects resulting from their implementation. This implied that many of the measures did not have immediately visible effects. In the end, a number of corruption scandals sabotaged the reform efforts.

Different Obstacles

It can be expected, however, that López Obrador’s first years in government will be very different to those of either Fox Quesada or Peña Nieto, facing a new set of obstacles. While López Obrador will benefit from his party’s (the Movement of National Regeneration, MORENA) hold of a majority in both chambers in Congress and significant support from the population, he will have to face a civil service that might oppose a swift implementation of the constitutional and institutional changes he proposes while having their salaries and benefits cut.

At the most basic level, the benefits of reducing the salaries of public employees will lead to savings for the government, which might enable the new administration to fund and implement the programs and policies it proposed and is now pursuing. The possible self-sabotage by the upper and upper-middle managers in the federal government as a show of discontent for the austerity could constitute a significant disruption to public administration services. This is despite that fact that the number of public servants affected by the proposed measures is minimal — at 5,000, a mere 0.3% of the total number of federal government employees.

While other countries have created stable and professional civil service bodies through the promotion of academic research in the field of public administration and the specialized education of personnel, in Mexico these programs are not yet widespread. For example, while the number of Mexican social researchers dedicated to the study of public administration has increased considerably, it is still rare to come across a public official in the Mexican government who also happens to be a public administration professional.

The reduction of positions available in government, as well as the decrease in wages in the upper ranks of the bureaucracy — while simultaneously increasing those of the employees in the lower ranks, who had previously earned less than $600 a month — gives the government the opportunity to set aside those employees whose jobs have become redundant and fight corruption through the creation of a smaller and more professionalized public service. It should also enable the distribution of economic and human resources inside the government itself. As the saying in Mexico goes: “El buen juez por su casa empieza” —“The good judge shall, first and foremost, put his own house in order.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.