Andrés Manuel López Obrador / Photo by Octavio Hoyos
The current wave of support for Andrés Manuel López Obrador was unthinkable a decade ago.
Mexico goes to the polls on July 1 for what promises to be an unprecedented set of elections. Not only will Mexicans vote for the presidency, legislative posts, governors and mayors at the same time, but it’s also likely that they will opt for a president from outside the established party system. It is anticipated that a victory by Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO) will add another nail to the coffin of the ruling bargain — dedazo — that dominated the country between 1929 and 1990. His elevation to the top office will also demonstrate that, despite Mexico’s ongoing travails, its elections and relatively young democracy are free, fair and transparent.
Recent polling suggests that Obrador and the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) have built a significant lead over their rivals. According to Oraculus’ poll aggregator, Obrador is 13 points ahead of José Antonio Meade (25%), the candidate for the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), with Ricardo Anaya’s (23%) conservative National Action Party (PAN) in third place. This huge wave of support for AMLO was unthinkable a decade ago and reflects the emergence of two key trends in Mexican politics.
The first is that the country’s electorate is tired of the current political climate and hungry for change. Disillusionment with the political establishment has accelerated since the turn of the century. Put simply, Mexicans want fresh faces and new ideas for familiar problems such as crime, corruption and poverty. Despite groundbreaking structural reforms introduced by President Enrique Peña Nieto, economic growth has fallen well short of expectations. It was hoped that closing corporate tax loopholes, opening Mexico’s energy sector to private investment and other initiatives would help the country’s economy to grow by 6% a year. As Peña Nieto’s term of office comes to an end, annual economic growth stands at a more modest 2.5%.
The outgoing Mexican president has also failed to deliver on his promise to improve security. Approximately 100,000 Mexicans have been killed in cartel-related violence over the past six years. According to the recent estimations the number of murders will pass 30,000 in 2018, more than the number of casualties for the previous year — over 25,000according to government estimates. These victims don’t include 120 politicians (mostly from PRI) killed in the build up to the elections. Arguably the most appalling act of violence to have occurred during Peña Nieto’s presidency came in 2014, when 43 students heading to protests in the state of Guerrero were pulled off buses to be killed and burned by the local drugs gang Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors).
Alongside rising violence, Peña Nieto’s PRI has been plagued by countless corruption scandals, with the chair of his 2012 election campaign currently under investigation for receiving bribes from Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction firm. Seventeen former governors have either been convicted or remain suspected of fraud and other criminal activities. Mexico currently ranks at 135 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. The country’s status as one of the world’s most corrupt seems well deserved.
Cuando la política en América Latina empieza a cambiar.
Luchadores sociales con ideas jóvenes dispuestos a cambiar el mundo
Adelante López Obrador
— Gustavo Petro (@petrogustavo) June 29, 2018
Finally, Peña Nieto hardly did his PRI successor any favors when he invited then-US presidential candidate Donald Trump to Mexico in 2016. The visit of a would-be policymaker with a harsh opinion of the country and its citizens was viewed negatively by many Mexicans. The consequences of the decision to welcome an American politician who wants to build a border wall — for which Mexico is expected to pay — will most likely be felt in the days and weeks after Sunday’s elections.
The second important factor behind López Obrador’s growing popularity has been his ability to reinvent himself. The former Mexico City mayor has learned from the mistakes of his two previous presidential bids and successfully positioned himself as the country’s sole candidate of hope. Obrador secured this status by targeting and appealing to the average voter. Instead of solely identifying with Mexico’s poorest voters, he has also campaigned as a middle-class candidate, a strategy that has placed him firmly in the center of Mexican politics.
López Obrador has also taken MORENA into coalition with the Labor (PT) and conservative Social Encounter (PES) parties. In doing so, Mexico’s would-be president has shaken off his left-leaning tendencies and now presents himself as the only politician capable of bringing diverse groups and individuals together. This is the same approach to politics that the PRI employed almost 90 years ago.
Finally, López Obrador has replaced his criticisms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with vocal support and declarations that Mexico welcomes foreign investment. And while Trump remains a figure of hate for many Mexicans, AMLO has been careful not to use anti-US rhetoric on the campaign trail. It’s a tactical move that makes a lot of sense. Beyond a shared border and strong cultural, familial and historical ties, Mexico is the United States’ third largest trade partner after China and Canada. Despite tense relations, both countries must find a way to work together. A Trump-led retreat from NAFTA would have dire consequences for Mexico’s economy.
Observers are divided over what López Obrador’s popularity means for Mexico’s short-to-medium-term future. While some worry that his anti-institutional rhetoric could pose a threat to Mexico’s democracy and economy, others are confident that he can transform his pragmatic campaigning into the type of politics that the country so desperately requires. It will also depend whether his coalition can gain a majority in both houses of congress.
Irrespective of who wins on July 1, the main job of Mexico’s new president is to make the country safe and tackle corruption. Doing this will help to reinforce Mexico’s political institutions and lay the foundations for a sustainable economic growth that works for all its citizens. As the columnist and political analyst Denise Dresser recently noted, Mexico needs an “accountability shock” and a president that will strengthen the rule of law and civil rights. Let’s hope the successful candidate can deliver this for ordinary Mexicans.