AMLO and Mexico’s Democratic Journey

Mexico experienced its biggest political change in a generation with the victory of veteran leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in the presidential elections. Latin America underwent a wave of left wing populism in the early years of the twenty-first century. This trend has ebbed in recent years with right-of-center governments being elected in Colombia, Chile, Peru, and  Argentina. But the Pink Tide may be belatedly hitting in Mexico.

Mexico has a somewhat different experience than most of Latin America. Countries like Argentina, Chile, and many of Mexico’s neighbors in Central America oscillated between outright dictatorship and democratic if at times unstable elected leadership. Mexico was always at least nominally a democracy during most of this period. However, from 1929 until 2000, a single party ruled Mexico. The Institutional Revolutionary Party, often known by its Spanish language acronym PRI, had a lock on the Mexican presidency. Renowned writer Mario Vargas Llosa famously called Mexico “the perfect dictatorship.” It is now widely accepted that at least one of these elections (1988) was rigged in favor of the PRI candidate.

Still, the PRI era in Mexico was largely lacking either the leftist insurgencies or violent military dictatorships that characterized much of Latin America during the same period, and the party had genuine support.

In 2000, the conservative National Action Party (PAN) won the presidency with Vicente Fox in the PRI’s first loss in decades. And in 2006, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) made his first run for the presidency.

2006 was a particularly poignant time in Latin American democracy. Hugo Chávez was on his way to reelection in Venezuela and was leading the country on the path that resulting in its economic collapse in the following decade. Leftist activist Evo Morales won Bolivia’s presidency. Left-wing or center-left leaders were already in power in Brazil, Argentina, Honduras, and Chile. The “Pink Tide” failed to get AMLO across the finish line in Mexico, though Obrador himself claimed he had won. In the aftermath of the election he launched a “parallel government” and held his own “inauguration.” Obrador’s second attempt in 2012 didn’t lead to victory either.

This year’s election was vastly different. AMLO easily defeated a field that included PRI’s ineffectual Jose Antonio Meade, renegade independent governor Jaime Rodriguez “El Bronco” Calderon, and PAN’s up-and-coming political star Ricardo Anaya Cortes. All of these rivals were conventional politicians of some sort.

Therein lies the reason for their defeat. To understand why Mexico turned to AMLO, one must understand that the ordinary Mexican citizen is absolutely disgusted with the political class. Look at most major Mexican cities and one will find a small area or set of areas where Mexico’s elite and upper middle class live in relative comfort and affluence. But the overwhelming majority of the country is plagued by poverty and crime (including a deadly outbreak of violence associated with drug trafficking and organized crime). The political class in Mexico has been utterly unable to address these problems. The GINI coefficient in Mexico remains the highest of any OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) country and Mexico is home to five of the top ten most dangerous cities in the world by murder rate.

All of this propelled  the dark-horse AMLO to a victory so complete he was the first candidate to officially win more than 50% of the popular vote since the rigged election in 1988. His party, the National Regeneration Movement and its allies, are the overwhelming majority in Congress. The question is what will AMLO do with his newfound power?

AMLO promised radical change. He railed against what he called the mafia of power. Various media outlets as well as some of his rivals have noted rhetorical similarities between AMLO and Chávez.

Despite this, his choices for his cabinet seem to be pragmatic and reasonable. AMLO’s pick for Minister of Finance, Carlos Urzúa, is an academic with a lengthy resume who stressed that the incoming administration will implement a responsible budget and not be heavy-handed with the central bank, which is intended to be largely independent of political pressure. Furthermore, AMLO’s designated minister of the interior, Olga Sanchez Cordero, has said that she will work to keep the judicial system independent and has stressed that her priorities will be to counter corruption and support the rule of law.

Ultimately there are, in effect, two different AMLOs. There is the leftist demagogue whose act following the 2006 election rightly worried many. This is the man who rails against the elites and dismisses Mexico’s multi party system–designated an electoral democracy by Freedom House and confirmed by multiple NGOs–as a non-democracy.  Then there’s the pragmatic populist who was a reasonable mayor of Mexico City and who has appointed moderate leaders to important cabinet posts.

It is far too early to tell which will emerge. AMLO has a six-year term and a parliamentary majority; he can and will make major changes to the country. Should he go in the direction of more moderate leaders in Latin America, such as Michelle Bachelet in Chile and, in better times, the once popular (though now imprisoned) Lula da Silva, there is a strong chance Mexico will not be harmed by his presidency and may actually make some gains. However, if his radical rhetoric proves to be his true intentions, and he goes the direction of Nicolas Maduro and Daniel Ortega, Mexico will suffer immensely, and so will the United States. The stakes are high, and any observer of politics should pay close attention to the story-line that emerges in our neighbor to the south.