Opinion: Mexican Pres. Peña Nieto’s Could Fix His Low Popularity By Tackling Corruption

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A few days ago I was confronted with a very interesting question: Why is Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s popularity at a low point after just getting fundamental economic reforms approved? Does widespread corruption in Mexico have anything to do with it?

The simple answer is yes, corruption matters a lot when it comes to the approval ratings of politicians, if the perception among the public is that things are not getting better.

This is particularly relevant when we are referring to the type of corruption that has a tangible impact on people’s quality of life; a type of corruption that is widespread in Mexico. The National Index on Corruption and Good Governance shows that in 2010 there were 200 million acts of corruption involving citizens using public services provided by federal, state and municipal authorities or services from private providers.

The situation is unfortunately not improving. Transparency International’s most recent public opinion survey reveals that 92 percent of Mexicans feel that corruption has increased or stayed the same.

But this is not to suggest that the recently approved reforms that are important and welcomed by many are directly linked to corruption. It probably means that the reforms, regardless of whether or not they will lead to an improvement in the quality of life of Mexicans in a few years, do not have a tangible effect on their daily lives right now.

What would help Peña Nieto immediately is if citizens could experience direct benefits from concrete action of this government – something like immediate, effective measures against corruption.

A word of warning: solutions with an immediate impact need to be well thought-out in order to actually solve the problems of development and corruption. Populist regimes use artificial - and many times absurd - measures just to garner support. The Peña Nieto administration could lower prices artificially or confiscate golf courses from the rich and give the land to the poor, like the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez prided himself on having done.

These short-sighted actions are rarely accompanied by long term, sustainable and serious results. No wonder Venezuela now has some of the worst crime rates in the world, the highest inflation rate in the region, the worst Corruption Perceptions Index rating in Latin America and is enduring many other economic and social hardships.

The message for Mexico is clear: While long term structural efforts are welcome and shallow populist measures are to be avoided, what is more difficult to find are the sensible actions that can show immediate tangible results in people’s day-to-day lives.

The transparency and anti-corruption agenda offers an excellent opportunity. The Peña Nieto administration can show real commitment by implementing the economic reforms in a transparent way, in accordance with the open government and participatory principles the country says it is committed to.

The president should also deliver on unfulfilled campaign promises, including the creation of an autonomous anti-corruption commission and the increase of capacities to investigate and punish corruption at all levels of government.

By moving those forward, the administration would be leading by example and taking concrete steps for tackling corruption at a level where it is directly felt by citizens who regularly suffer from extortion by the police or must pay bribes to get a permit or access to services.

This is a huge and tough task that cannot be fixed by the Mexican president alone. Nevertheless, given the country's poor performance historically in tackling corruption, Peña Nieto needs to take the lead.

The president had a brave moment in the spotlight early on in his six-year term when the powerful leader of the teachers union was captured and investigated for corruption. Actions like those can serve as strong deterrents. They show that even the powerful pay for corruption and are not left untouched.

But more needs to happen. The lack of impunity for acts of corruption has to become the norm, not an exception. That way, public servants and their cronies will need to think more than once before demanding bribes or engaging in corruption.

The recent economic reforms may in the end determine if Peña Nieto goes down in history as a great reformer who strengthened Mexico’s emerging economy. But for the millions of Mexicans who still have to pay bribes, legacies are not important.

Grand reforms and the persecution of a limited number of individuals will not do the trick by themselves. If you want to be a popular politician, you need to have a positive impact on people’s daily lives.