Mexico’s new president and the risks to democratic institutions

Mexico’s new president and the risks to democratic institutions

Leftist, anti-establishment presidential hopeful Andrés Manuel López Obrador has won the presidency and a congressional majority in Mexico’s 1 July elections. He has been compared to both Hugo Chávez and Donald Trump. While his detractors claim his economic policies will turn Mexico into “the next Venezuela”, the real risk of his presidency may be his lack of regard for Mexico’s democratic institutions, which have grown stronger in recent years but are still fragile, fewer than 20 years after the end of de facto one-party rule.

Who is Andrés Manuel López Obrador?

López Obador, widely known as AMLO, has long been a stalwart of the Mexican left, even before the end of one-party rule. This was his third presidential bid, making him a well-known and somewhat polemic figure in Mexican politics. His detractors have compared him to South American socialists like Hugo Chávez, warning that he will lead Mexico down the path to economic ruin. AMLO’s supporters on the other hand see him as an anti-establishment savior, the only one who can end the rampant corruption, out-of-control crime, and extreme economic inequality that have persisted under the two main parties.

From socialist champion to moderate leftist

What will an AMLO presidency mean for Mexico? Much of the risk generated by the upcoming election stems from uncertainty about the extent to which AMLO will seek to reverse the trend of liberal economic reform that has marked Mexican economic policy since the late 1980s, culminating in the series of major structural reforms undertaken by the outgoing Peña Nieto administration.

AMLO was part of the first wave of opposition to economic liberalism in Mexico in the 1980s, criticizing the shift towards free trade and the privatization of many formerly public industries like telecommunications and energy. Like many leftist politicians, he has tempered some of his more extreme views over the course of his career. He no longer supports nationalizing private companies and has broadly accepted the benefits of free trade.

During the current campaign he has even been courting the Mexican private sector, attending events like the meeting of the Mexican Banking Association and sending his advisors to meet with the business leaders who he has spent years decrying as part of “the mafia of power.”

Unclear economic policies

What continues to cause concern is the lack of clarity regarding many of his economic policies. There are a number of key issues that AMLO has historically opposed, but that he now says will “review” or put to a “public consultation.”

Once a fierce opponent of the liberalization of the oil and gas sector, he now says the reform can stay, but that he will freeze auctions for new drilling contracts, and consider canceling any existing contracts that he considers “questionable.” He has said the same about Mexico City’s new multibillion dollar airport—a project that has been underway since the Calderón administration.

Other policies, says AMLO, will be put to a “citizen consultation,” a mechanism that does not currently exist in Mexico, leaving many, particularly among the business community, unclear as to what to expect.

Becoming a real democracy

Aside from his economic policies, it is also important to consider what AMLO’s presidency would mean for Mexico’s democratic institutions. Mexico’s de facto democratic transition began fewer than 20 years ago in 2000, when the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) lost a presidential election for the first time in 71 years to the opposition National Action Party (PAN) which ruled from 2000-2012.

Since then, the proliferation of opposition parties and candidates has been impressive, but corruption and electoral fraud continue to be widespread problems. AMLO lost the 2006 and 2012 elections by tiny margins and amid accusations of voter fraud and manipulation. A win by an anti-establishment candidate like AMLO has, for many, signalled that Mexico has finally become a real democracy.

Risk to democratic institutions

At the same time, AMLO has frequently expressed a lack of regard for Mexico’s democratic institutions, calling them rigged to benefit elites. He also has little tolerance for criticism, frequently decrying his detractors as sellouts or fakes.

He has campaigned on ending corruption and restoring the rule of law, but often gives the impression that he believes the solution is not strengthening Mexico’s institutions, but pushing them aside to make way for a benevolent leader. When asked in debates how he plans to end the corruption that runs rampant at all levels of society, AMLO has responded that “the President must set an example from the top.”

He has also refused to back a reform endorsed by civil society groups to create an independent Attorney General, saying that attempts to make the position report to Congress rather than the President are part of a plot to prevent him from ending corruption.

All in all, AMLO’s election could prove a double edged sword for Mexico’s democratic institutions, demonstrating their maturity while bringing to power a candidate who seems not to understand their worth.

Categories: North America, Politics

About Author

Tyler Mattiace

Tyler Mattiace is a Senior Consultant at a political affairs firm in Mexico City. His areas of expertise are international trade policy, Mexican and Central American politics, and US-Latin American relations. He holds a master's degree in International Development from London School of Economics and a bachelor's degree in International Relations from the University of St Andrews in Scotland.