After 18 years of dominant politics, Mexicans decided on Sunday that enough was enough, electing the leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador as president in a landslide victory in an election of firsts.
Capturing more than half the vote, according to early returns, he won by the largest margin in a presidential race since the nation transitioned to democracy nearly 20 years ago.
Rejecting the Status Quo
To grasp the phenomenal change in the current establishment and Mr. López Obrador’s ability to capitalize on it, it is helpful to understand the recent electoral history of Mexico.
President Enrique Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the P.R.I., dominated politics in Mexico from 1929 until 2000, when it was unseated by the conservative National Action Party, or P.A.N., at the time led by Vicente Fox.
The arrival of a new party after seven decades of single-party rule stirred hope among Mexicans — hopes that were eventually dashed. Over the six-year term, poverty remained constant and corruption grew.
Though the party was re-elected to office in 2006, President Felipe Calderón took the nation to war, deploying the military against the nation’s drug cartels. More than a decade later, with more than 100,000 dead, violence is at record highs.
Mr. Peña Nieto appeared in 2012, a fresh-faced candidate selling a new-and-improved P.R.I. That, too, turned out to be a delusion, exposed by corruption scandals, record violence and rooted inequality that has kept nearly half of the population living under the poverty line.
With 18 years of frustrations, Mexicans are craving for change and, perhaps, a bit of revenge. This explains why a man who has been rejected twice by voters — once in 2006 and again in 2012 — can prosper now.
Reforms Won’t Be Easy — and Voters Are Watching
The core promises of Mr. López Obrador’s campaign — to end corruption, reduce violence and address Mexico’s endemic poverty — were immensely popular with voters, but they come with questions he and his new government may struggle to answer.
How will he pay for his grand slate of social programs without overspending and harming the economy? How will he rid the government of bad actors when some of those same people were a part of his campaign? Can he make a dent in the unyielding chaos of the drug war, which left Mexico with more homicides last year than any time in the last two decades?
In the 2012 Mexican presidential election, Peña Nieto won as PRI’s candidate. When he was elected, he was seen as a fresh face for the stained PRI party because he advocated for transparency and accountability, managing to beat out then-runner-up López Obrador.
But Peña Nieto’s term has been mired with scandals, sparking a backlash against his party. When he was elected in 2012, Peña Nieto had an approval rating of 54 percent; that dropped to 17 percent in January 2018. Will this happen again?
Now, it seems, Mexican voters are finally ready for a change (again). Yet some analysts say that despite López Obrador’s campaign rhetoric, he lacks concrete plans to enact reforms throughout the country.
The president is thought to be honest – and he better be, as his whole campaign rests on that fact. He believes that his honorable ethics will cycle down to even the lowest offices. But what happens underneath, at the level of the bureaucracy, the municipal governments, the state government — that’s going to be very difficult to control. It’s not a snap of your fingers and boom! Every government body is corruption free!
Mexican voters are tired of the government’s wrongdoings — and once López Obrador is at the helm, they will almost certainly hold him accountable for his promises to take on corruption.
Investors Are Wary
For as long as Mr. López Obrador has been running for president, accusations that he will sink the economy have chased him. He was likened in the news media to Hugo Chávez, the former socialist leader of Venezuela, and questionable news reports tried to link his campaign to Russia, creating a narrative of a radical and dangerous leader.
While the comparisons to Mr. Chávez are overblown and the connections to Russia totally unproven, Mr. López Obrador must still convince investors that his policies will be business friendly.
Mr. López Obrador has promised an ambitious slate of social programs while assuring investors that he will exercise fiscal prudence and respect the independence of Mexico’s highly regarded central bank. In his acceptance speech Sunday night, he echoed those promises.
But how will he pay for his social programs? His advisers estimate they will eat up about 10 percent of the federal budget, or roughly $25 billion, annually. Mr. López Obrador promises to pay for his programs by cutting waste and corruption from government spending. Analysts question whether that will be enough.
Investors will also be watching his approach to Mexico’s energy reform, which opened up vast parts of the industry to private investment and generated commitments of $80 billion in investment to explore and produce oil. Mr. López Obrador has been a fierce opponent of attempts to privatize the oil industry, but he has said he will respect existing contracts and the rule of law.
It’s also important to note that Mexico has either been centrist or centrist-right for the last century, making it conservative and — this is not a stereotype — more open to business. Now that an extremely leftist man is in power, policies could change regarding industry. For example, let’s take the poor working conditions of some Mexican workers. Maybe that could improve as a result of new, stricter policies. But does that mean companies might stop investing as much into Mexico as before? Could they possibly set their sights on a country like China, an already large-enough hotspot of manual labor? On the other hand, could his policies shape up to make Mexico a new area for technological growth because of liberal policies? We just don’t know.
He’s Not Really Amigos with Trump
On Sunday night, President Trump congratulated Mr. López Obrador on his victory. “I look very much forward to working with him,” Mr. Trump said in a tweet. It was a hopeful start to a new chapter in a bilateral relationship that is arguably at its worst point in years.
Mr. Trump has harassed Mexico since he announced his candidacy, criticizing its migrants, threatening to quit the North American Free Trade Agreement and promised to build a wall between the two countries. Reflecting the current state of affairs, Mr. Trump and his counterpart, Mr. Peña Nieto, still have not met since the American president took office.
Though a leftist, Mr. López Obrador has drawn comparisons to Mr. Trump for his nationalist impulses, populist rhetoric and combative
personality. From time to time, he has also displayed a pugnaciousness toward Mexico’s northern neighbor and has left no doubt that he is prepared to go toe-to-toe with Mr. Trump to defend Mexico’s interests.
The Big Takeaway
It’s important to note here that at the end of the day, AMLO is a populist. Which is something we’ve been seeing a lot in the world recently. From India to Turkey, Poland to the United States, authoritarian populists have seized power. And as a result, democracy itself can be at risk.
Two core components of liberal democracy — individual rights and popular will — are increasingly at war with each other. As the role of money in politics drastically increases and important issues are taken out of the public eye, a system of “rights without democracy” is taking hold. Populists who campaign against this say they want to return power to the people. But in doing so, they create something even worse: democracy without rights. Trust in politics is decreasing at an alarming rate. Citizens are falling out of love with their political systems.
No one would have dreamt of AMLO winning five years ago. But now it’s here. People are desperate. Democracy is wilting away. It’s possible that in ten years, changes could be so drastic that we could see Mexico turn into a Hungarian-like dictatorship. And I don’t care what your stance on Mexico is. America needs them. We don’t want a dangerous neighbor on our doorstep.
To reverse the trend, Andrés Manuel López Obrador needs to enact radical reforms that benefit the many, not the few.
Photo: Carlos Tischler/Getty Images