29 June 2018

Frustrated Mexicans are set to elect their own populist strongman


Today, the “problem on the United States’ southwest border” refers to an influx of illegal immigrants. Next week, that problem may be an unstable Mexico—a nation of 130 million people that on Sunday will likely elect a populist firebrand to confront rampant insecurity and corruption.

Opinion polls reflect a commanding lead by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (“AMLO,” as the candidate is universally known). Although AMLO has been in public life for 40 years and enjoyed national prominence for nearly two decades, Mexicans are not sure whether
the maverick has matured or if he will govern as a caudillo (or “strong man”).

Critics paint AMLO as an adherent to the “21st Century Socialism” model espoused by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and inspired by Fidel Castro. In fact, AMLO’s core economic philosophy resembles that of president Luis Echeverria (1970-76), which places him squarely within the tradition of Mexican populism, nationalism, and caudillismo.

If AMLO’s antiquated policies further stunt economic growth and destabilise already weak institutions, Mexico may become even more vulnerable to the transnational organised crime already wreaking havoc in Central America and Venezuela.

Mexicans know plenty about AMLO. Beginning 30 years ago, the native of oil-rich Tabasco state emerged as a charismatic champion of peasant farmers and oil workers, speaking up for the half of the country left behind by the free-market economic policies adopted by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the late 1980s.

In 1988, AMLO helped form the dissident Party of Democratic Revolution (PRD). After losing a disputed election for governor of Tabasco in 1994, his prominence grew as the PRD’s national leader. Six years later, he was elected mayor of Mexico City, exceeding expectations and winning positive reviews in that complicated post.

In 2006, AMLO lost the presidency to Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party (PAN) by a razor-thin margin. His image suffered when he protested against his defeat using confrontational street tactics that disrupted life in the sprawling capital for many months. In 2012, he was defeated by current president Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI by a margin of 3.5 million votes.

Today’s campaign is a referendum on Peña Nieto’s mishandling of the country’s security situation and rampant corruption. Although the president promised to end Calderon’s “war on drugs”, he failed to deal effectively with deadly turf battles among splintered crime syndicates; the projected number of murders has doubled since 2014.

Worse still, the notorious kidnapping and murder of 43 students committed by local narco gangsters and complicit local PRD officials in Guerrero is dramatic evidence of staggering corruption at all levels of government.

After security, corruption is the second most important issue, according to polls. The PRI’s corrupt history has never been adequately addressed and several notorious corruption cases involving president Peña Nieto, his family, and his party have convinced voters that only an outsider can clean house.

Lopez Obrador, who has an evangelical background and is known to lead an austere lifestyle, is widely regarded as honest. However, his Movement for National Renovation (MORENA) has attracted the support of some members of other parties who have brought their chequered records with them, and AMLO has failed to break with politicians suspected of criminal behaviour.

As is frequently the case, populist outsiders get political traction precisely because of the failures of the political establishment. In Mexico, the PRI fielded as its presidential candidate Jose Antonio Meade, a wonkish bureaucrat who has failed to connect with voters. According to local analysts, PAN nominee Ricardo Anaya’s pledge to target corruption in Peña Nieto’s administration drove disenchanted PRI voters to AMLO, who has vowed to attack corruption without naming names.

When AMLO was in a tight three-way race, he tempered his rhetoric and moderated his style. That has led some to observe that he has “matured.” During the course of the campaign, AMLO’s positions have shifted on scuttling energy deals or cancelling education reforms—both of which are fundamental to economic growth. To foreign investors eyeing opportunities in Mexico’s energy section, it is not at all clear that AMLO has abandoned his nationalistic and populist attitudes regarding Mexico’s natural patrimony.

The other conundrum is whether AMLO, a political “lone wolf,” is capable of governing. MORENA has a fraction of the party structure and membership of the rival parties. However, as AMLO builds a lead in the presidential race, it is quite possible that MORENA will win a plurality in the Congress.

Ordinarily, the leading party bloc would reach out to like-minded parties to forge a governing majority. However, the other smaller parties hold polar opposite views. What’s more, MORENA’s own congressional candidates are politically independent, and some advance extremist positions. So, the caudillo Lopez Obrador may find it difficult to assemble a coalition to advance a coherent platform. The first year of an AMLO administration may look fairly conventional—as the country proceeds under the budget written by the outgoing PRI government.

However, the policy initiatives during the remaining years of his six-year term will determine Mexico’s fate. Although AMLO may be moderating his campaign rhetoric, his leadership style is reflected in his disdain for institutions. After his 2006 defeat, he declared in frustration, “They can go to hell with their institutions.”

AMLO’s nostalgia for Mexico’s centralised, presidentialist system—where the head of state passed judgement on all issues, large and small—may suggest that he will seek to run roughshod over the opposition or alienate potential allies. And as the congress or other institutions fail to comply, AMLO may seek to overhaul the system. Mexicans should be wary of sweeping constitutional reforms, the likes of which Chavez and other South American acolytes used to decimate institutions and concentrate power in the president’s hands.

Such unaccountable institutions tend to lose legitimacy and may be more vulnerable, not less, to abuse and corruption. Although most Mexicans have benefited from the modernisation advanced by their last three presidents, tens of millions have been left behind. Worse yet, most Mexicans feel that they are at the mercy of crime and corruption.

They also believe that AMLO—the caudillo, the maverick, the outsider—could not possibly make matters worse. Only time will tell if they’re right.

Roger Noriega was US ambassador to the Organization of American States and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs from 2001-05. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.