Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s resounding victory in Mexico’s presidential race has set the world abuzz. AMLO – as he is known – confounds even the best pundits. He rallies his grassroots base with populist and nationalist rhetoric but calms anxious investors by filling his cabinet with technocrats and businesspeople. He promises to govern by putting Mexico’s poor first but supports the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) despite its devastation of Mexico’s rural economy.
No one can figure AMLO out, but voters handed him and his Morena party a sweeping mandate: 53 percent of the vote and an absolute majority in both chambers of congress.
When AMLO takes office for a one-time, six-year term on December 1, he will be the first president in 24 years to count on a congressional majority. Yet he will need to move decisively and effectively to keep his mandate alive. Mexico faces serious problems: endemic corruption, crippling violence, and stagnant economic growth. Voters want change, and they did not choose AMLO so much as they rejected the other alternatives.
His high-stakes administration can only be understood against the backdrop of his predecessors’ failures. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had governed Mexico for 71 years, from 1929 until 2000. Electoral reforms in the 1980s and 1990s paved the way for competitive elections. Faced with more choices, voters chose the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) and elected Vicente Fox in 2000, and Felipe Calderon in 2006. But in 2012, as the drug war still raged and the rural economy still stuttered, voters abandoned the PAN and returned to the PRI.
In 18 years, neither the PAN nor the PRI turned Mexico around, at least not to voters’ satisfaction. Under the current administration, Mexico’s insecurity crisis and economic woes have worsened. The year 2017 registered the most homicides in Mexico’s history. Corruption blossomed. The NAFTA negotiations continue without resolution, even as U.S. President Donald J. Trump hits Mexico with tariffs.
Meanwhile, AMLO remained on the national stage. He served as mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005. He ran for president twice, and as the candidate for the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), he narrowly lost to Calderon in 2006. His months-long refusal to concede the 2006 election inspired devotion from those who viewed his stubbornness as patriotism. Where some on the right saw a demagogue, others on the left, convinced Mexican elections remained fraudulent, saw a warrior against corruption.
AMLO’s track record thus inspires progressives but makes conservatives anxious. While governing Mexico City, he expanded social programs for the poor and vulnerable, invested in infrastructure, and cut the bloated salaries of government officials. He relishes anti-establishment rhetoric – but partnered with Mexico’s most famous billionaire, Carlos Slim, to rebuild Mexico’s historic downtown.
AMLO’s record confounds. From the moment he announced his presidential candidacy, the chattering classes spent hours asking one question: would he govern Mexico as a populist or a pragmatist? But the answer never mattered. Sixty-six percent of voters polled in 2014 distrusted the major political parties. AMLO formed the National Regeneration Movement (Morena) in 2015. He represented neither the PRI, nor the PAN, nor even the PRD – by 2018, that was enough to win.
AMLO, therefore, must move quickly, or voters may turn against Morena as well. The PRI should provide AMLO with a cautionary tale. Once the dominant force in Mexican politics, the PRI won just 40 of 500 seats in the Chamber of Deputies during the last elections. Morena and its coalition partners won 297 seats, but midterm elections will be held in 2021. AMLO has just three years to work some magic.
He will need big ideas. On security, he seems tepid. He has offered amnesty to lower-level criminals, a reform that matters little in a country with widespread impunity. Less than 1 percent of crimes are ever prosecuted. His proposals to withdraw the military from fighting organized crime take seriously critiques that the armed forces have exacerbated, rather than resolved, the violence. At the same time, AMLO has not articulated how the police can be reformed or reorganized to confront the cartels effectively.
On the economy, the new Mexican president stands a better chance. During the campaign, he championed food independence and the importance of Mexico’s internal markets. He will likely adopt subsidies and other funding schemes to boost agricultural production. If he can reverse the devastating effects the original NAFTA agreement had on Mexico’s agricultural sector, his base will reward Morena at the midterms.
And if he succeeds at taming corruption – and at reinvesting this revenue into social programs that ease poverty – Mexican voters might just see their big gamble pay off.