A powerful new president in Mexico

Mexico’s new leader celebrates his victory in the 2018 presidential election
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador won the July 2018 Mexican presidential election in a landslide. On election night, he celebrated with his supporters in Mexico City (source: dpa)

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador won overwhelmingly last month in Mexico’s presidential election, taking thirty of 31 states plus the national capital and defeating his nearest opponent by more than thirty percentage points.

Mr. Lopez Obrador’s political party – the National Regeneration Movement, or MORENA – did not even exist four years ago and was built up around his presidential candidacy. Now, as the pillar of a coalition with two very small parties, MORENA has taken both houses of Congress, four governorships, the mayor’s office in Mexico City and 19 of 30 state legislatures.

Since 1997, no Mexican president has had a majority in Congress, and all have faced powerfully entrenched governors. Mr. Lopez Obrador, often known by his initials as AMLO, is now the undisputed leader of his country with a degree of central political control not seen in two decades. On election night, as he basked in the adoration of more than 100,000 supporters who gathered in Mexico City’s central plaza, Mr. Lopez Obrador declared that he wanted to be remembered as a “good president.”

Unknown quantity

But what exactly does that mean, and who is the real AMLO? Is he the left-winger who promised to break Mexico’s “mafia of power,” or the pragmatic dealmaker who in the 2000s gave Mexico City one of its best mayoral administrations? Is he an unpredictable populist who wants to centralize power around his persona, or a committed democrat who wants to build institutions serving Mexicans long after he is gone?

This is the first left-wing government in Mexico’s history, and it will bring new priorities to the fore

Mr. Lopez Obrador is probably all of these things at the same time. Fitting together the different strands of his political vision and personality is crucial to understanding how he will address his priorities. The new president will have to deal with public demand for change, driven by a yearning to eliminate corruption, and to focus relentlessly on addressing poverty.

We look at three key policy areas to understand what he may do over the next six years.

Economics and social policy

Perhaps more than any other issue, Mr. Lopez Obrador based his campaign on combatting poverty and reducing inequality. His strategy remains vague, but there is no question that he sees poverty as his foremost priority.

Within days of the election, Mr. Lopez Obrador named his economic team, a group with significant experience in national and international economic policy. Some previous presidents have outsourced economic policymaking to technocrats with few political ties, but AMLO's team is both technically experienced and politically aligned with his campaign. The group includes former Mexico City finance minister Carlos Urzua, World Bank official Arturo Herrera, and Gerardo Esquivel, one of Mexico’s most respected economists.

However, the details are still unknown. The new president will almost certainly prioritize more spending on social development, especially in the country’s southeast, its poorest region. What is less clear is how he plans to do this. He has talked about building highways and high-speed rail to connect some of the country’s poorest areas and of putting hundreds of thousands of people to work planting trees. But these are unlikely to be the sole (or even moderately sufficient) strategies to alleviate poverty, although they do suggest that he is inclined to support government-led infrastructure and work programs to create immediate change.

Perhaps more worryingly, Mr. Lopez Obrador has talked about reversing some of the country’s educational reforms which, for the first time, have started to hold teachers accountable to minimum standards and which have partially broken the hold of the patronage-based teachers’ union. More encouragingly, he has spoken about extending schools even further into low-income communities and involving the teachers more directly in reform efforts, but these plans remain only lightly fleshed out.

Picture of Mexico’s new and outgoing presidents
In July, days after his election victory, AMLO met with outgoing president Enrique Pena Nieto. The new leader may reverse some of his predecessor’s energy and education reforms (source: dpa)

Mr. Lopez Obrador has also sent mixed signals on the country’s energy reform, which allowed for private investment in oil and gas exploration, extraction, and commercialization. Initially, he said he would reverse the reforms, but more recently he has talked about slowing them down and reviewing existing contracts to make sure they were not obtained through corrupt practices. There will almost certainly be a pause in new contracts with private companies in the energy sector, but it is entirely possible that these will resume over time as the government discovers it needs outside capital to inject into the energy sector to generate production and more efficient retail delivery in the sector.

Foreign policy

All Mexican governments of the past two to three decades have prioritized relations with the United States and viewed a deepening of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as central to the country’s economic future and global visibility. President-elect Lopez Obrador has made it clear that he recognizes the importance of the U.S. as an ally and a market for exports, but that he will enter office far more skeptical of and less focused on U.S.-Mexico ties than his predecessors.

U.S. President Donald Trump called Mr. Lopez Obrador the day after his election to congratulate him, and by all reports, the two had a cordial conversation. Less than two weeks later, Mr. Trump sent a high-powered delegation to meet with AMLO in Mexico City, a group that included the heads of the State, Homeland Security, and Treasury departments, as well as Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and policy advisor. These gestures surely signal the importance that the Trump administration places on ties with Mexico, despite frequent negative comments from the American president and, perhaps, an awareness that the Lopez Obrador administration may be less willing to bend over backward to accommodate pressure from Washington.

Mr. Lopez Obrador has embraced the NAFTA negotiations in hopes of saving an agreement that is central to the country’s economy. He has named economist Jesus Seade as his chief trade negotiator and scholar Graciela Marquez as economy minister, well-respected figures who are likely to keep the negotiations on track and to work closely with the current Mexican negotiators during the presidential transition period. Marcelo Ebrard, the incoming foreign minister, is a skilled and cosmopolitan politician who followed Mr. Lopez Obrador as mayor of Mexico City and who helped put the city on the map internationally.

Mr. Lopez Obrador will enter office far more skeptical of the U.S.-Mexico relationship than his predecessors

Mr. Lopez Obrador is less likely to be an enthusiastic cooperator with the Trump administration on stemming the flow of Central American migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border, or on making major economic concessions in the NAFTA negotiations. He will almost certainly try to diversify his country’s diplomatic relations with other countries, especially those in Latin America, Asia, and Europe. It is unclear whether he will have more success than his predecessors in building stronger ties with other countries, especially on economic issues, but he will undoubtedly try. He may also be more cautious about wading into regional conflicts, such as in Venezuela and Nicaragua, returning Mexico to its traditional stance of “noninterference” in other countries’ affairs.

Political institutions and the rule of law

Mr. Lopez Obrador’s other main campaign issue, besides addressing poverty, was tackling corruption. His victory partly represents a sense among voters that he is significantly less corrupt than many other politicians. He has said that he will set a good example as president and pursue prior cases of corruption, which are important steps. But what is less clear is how he will make sure that his subordinates and state and local officials stay away from the corrupt practices that have characterized Mexican politics for decades.

One step he has indicated he will take is to appoint a federal coordinator in each state to oversee federal resource transfers, which make up more than half of all state budgets. While this might deter corruption, it could also create a new avenue for corrupt practices. Moreover, while some celebrate that the move would undermine state governors, who have been a source of corruption, others rightly worry that it may also undermine democracy by creating an unelected parallel structure in the states.

Perhaps of even greater concern, Mr. Lopez Obrador has not been terribly forthcoming on his strategy to combat organized crime violence, at a time when homicide rates are at an all-time high. He has said that he will promulgate an “amnesty” and seek “national reconciliation,” techniques that have worked well in the past in dealing with political violence and insurrections. But it is quite doubtful that this approach can work with organized crime groups that exist to make money by trafficking illegal narcotics and engaging in extortion, kidnapping and other predatory businesses.

If Mr. Lopez Obrador goes too far in concentrating power in the presidency, Mexicans may push back

Understanding this as a political conflict rather than as the product of weak law enforcement and judicial institutions may well lead the new administration down the wrong path in combatting crime. This could prove to be his administration’s weakness unless the strategy is combined with greater investment in the policing, intelligence and courts that can help reduce impunity in Mexico. There is evidence from Mr. Lopez Obrador’s tenure as mayor of Mexico City suggesting that he cares about strengthening institutions, and even though he does not talk much about this at the moment, he may well in the future.

Exercising power

There is no question that the election of President-elect Lopez Obrador represents an important shift, much like the 2000 election that ended 71 years of one-party rule. This is the first left-wing government in Mexico’s history, and it will bring new priorities and new leaders to the fore. But many of the new policy directions remain unclear, and it is not fully evident that the government will have enough latitude to pursue entirely new approaches. The differences may be more a matter of degree than of kind.

Mr. Lopez Obrador’s real opportunity, and his peril, may be in an ability to control the levers of power in a way that Mexico has not yet seen during its two-decade experiment with democracy. For the first time since 1997, a Mexican president has a majority in both houses of Congress and a strong electoral presence in most states ­­­– and by all signs, he is someone who knows how to exercise that power.

If he uses this mandate and these skills well, he could turn out to be Mexico’s most effective president in decades. Greater central power will almost certainly help him implement some of his priorities, especially fighting poverty, and contain the centrifugal forces of the country’s federal system. It may also help efforts to fight crime if Mr. Lopez Obrador opts to strengthen the police and judicial institutions that Mexico needs.

But power is often seductive, and if Mr. Lopez Obrador goes too far in concentrating power in the presidency, Mexicans may push back on efforts to undermine the checks and balances that ensure the country’s democratic health. His success will depend on his ability to balance decisive action on his main promises of reform with the understanding that democratic institutions require patience, persistence, and negotiation.

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