The landslide victory of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico’s presidential elections on July 1 ushers in new uncertainties as well as opportunities for Mexico. It also potentially compounds the already significant Trump-generated rockiness in U.S.-Mexican relations. But contrary to allegations by his political rivals and detractors, AMLO, as López Obrador is known, is unlikely to turn out to be a Mexican Hugo Chávez.
New-Old Populism in Disenchanted Mexico
AMLO’s victory is the first time a leftist politician has been elected in Mexico in three decades. His predecessors, while alternately representing the rightist National Action Party (PAN) or leftist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), were essentially centrists. More than anything, AMLO’s crushing victory (López Obrador won over 50 percent of the vote, while second place candidate Ricardo Anaya garnered roughly 23 percent) is an expression of protest and disillusionment the Mexican electorate feels with traditional parties, symptomatic of the global tide of populism. The leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD, which used to be AMLO’s political base before he left the party) has been just about annihilated in the contest for seats in the Mexican Congress. And Mr. López Obrador’s current political party, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA, whose name is an allusion to both Mexico’s patron saint and darker-skinned Mexicans whom López Obrador wants to empower) and its coalition partners (the leftist Workers’ Party and the evangelical Social Encounter Party) are poised to dominate the legislature.
The disenchantment with traditional parties reflects two basic failures of the Mexican government during the past six years: first and most important, the blatant high-level corruption among the Mexican political elite, directly involving outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto, and escalating criminal violence that Peña Nieto increasingly shoved under the rug. Second, the disenchantment with politics as usual also reflects the deep disappointment with Mexico’s unequal economic growth and failure to empower the country’s many underprivileged citizens over the past 30 years, as well as persisting poor public safety and weak rule of law.
AMLO campaigned on all of these issues. He promises a dramatic transformation of Mexico, empowering the underprivileged. He promises as well to alleviate the poverty that has stubbornly hovered around 40 percent for decades. He rails against the country’s “mafia of power,” its political and business elite, and vows not just to reduce corruption, but to “eliminate it.” He also pledges to reduce violence. Notably, at least in rhetoric, he has backed away from his older radical slogans and predilections, such as his former proclivity toward old-style economic nationalism, including re-nationalizing Mexico’s oil sector, and junking the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
An Ambitious but Vague Agenda
His populist style aside, AMLO’s key policy focus is indeed vital for the country. Mexico badly needs to tackle the poverty, inequality, and marginalization of large segments of the population so as to reduce the gap between the two Mexicos: that of the well-educated and empowered white population, and that of the poor, underprivileged, darker-skinned population (mostly southerners). The country also critically needs to reduce its pervasive violence and corruption.
But how AMLO will go about executing those objectives is crucial. Unfortunately, his policy declarations are vague and contain both worrisome and reassuring elements.
AMLO’s stated policy agenda is most concrete in the economic realm. He says he plans to provide money for youth programs, particularly scholarships for poor students; increase pensions for the elderly; invest in infrastructure in Mexico’s south, such as building a railway from Chiapas to Quintana Roo and paving every road in mountainous Oaxaca; providing support, perhaps in the form of guaranteed prices for poor farmers in the south; and overhauling Mexico’s crumbling water infrastructure.
He claims he can accomplish these goals…