Mexico takes stock of five years of AMLO

The outgoing president remains popular despite a term marked by unfulfilled promises, lackluster economic growth, corruption, violence and a deepening migrant crisis.

A person in a suit and tie standing in front of a group of people
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador attends the annual military parade as part of Independence Day celebrations on September 16, 2023, in Mexico City. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • 2024 will likely usher in Mexico’s first woman president
  • The election will test the popularity of AMLO’s party
  • Expect the next government to favor closer U.S. ties

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has less than a year remaining in his single six-year presidential term, the limit under the nation’s constitution. During his time in office, his National Regeneration Movement (Morena) has become the country’s dominant party, despite a government marred by accusations of corruption and a country plagued by security concerns. Mr. Lopez Obrador’s successor will face these challenges while redefining Mexico’s foreign policy, an area that has not been the incumbent’s priority.

The successor will most likely be Mexico’s first woman president, after the Morena party picked Claudia Sheinbaum as its candidate while the main rival party chose Xochitl Galvez. The general election is on June 2, 2024, when voters also choose new legislators for the 500-member Chamber of Deputies and 128-member Senate of the Republic.

More by John Polga-Hecimovich

The Fourth Transformation?

Mr. Lopez Obrador, who goes by the moniker AMLO, ran in 2018 on what he called the Fourth Transformation, an ambitious pledge to crack down on corruption, eliminate “privileged abuses” such as high public salaries, curb violence and promote social progress. By calling it the Fourth Transformation, he placed his government on par with three historical transformations in the country’s history: the Mexican War of Independence, the Reform War and the Mexican Revolution. It also demonstrates his ambitions to secure a place in history, although questions abound about what his legacy will be.

Instead, he has governed as a populist while largely failing to fulfill his campaign promises. His domestic agenda reflects economic statism. It is heavy on investment in big infrastructure projects like the 1,500-kilometer intercity railway Tren Maya and dependence on political machinery built on patronage and clientelism. This is a style of politics reminiscent of the decades-long governing policies of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, where he got his start. This approach has allowed him to maintain public support despite a rise in violence, lackluster economic growth and pandemic mismanagement. Mr. Lopez Obrador has also expanded the role of the Mexican military, involving it in the construction and management of airports, seaports and more. Socially, AMLO’s government has been conservative, exhibiting hostility toward Mexico’s feminist movement.

The president has shown little regard for or commitment to democratic norms.

On the security front, AMLO promised a policy of “hugs, not bullets,” security demilitarization, increased social spending and stronger anti-corruption measures to reduce the root causes of violence. However, once in office, he essentially did the opposite, creating a National Guard that involved a transfer from civil to military command, expanding the already powerful and corrupt military and failing to combat the entrenchment of criminal organizations. The AMLO government has seen more homicides than any other six-year presidential term in Mexican history. Disappearances have become a pressing issue and drug trafficking organizations – especially the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) – have expanded their influence and economic gains with impunity. Violence has also expanded to tourist-heavy areas, such as Cancun.

The president, meanwhile, has shown little regard for or commitment to democratic norms. He has dismantled checks and balances, weakened autonomous institutions and seized discretionary control of the budget. In his daily televised morning addresses he attacks journalists, lashes out at organizations investigating corruption and has questioned the value of independent public agencies, including the National Electoral Institute (INE).

A woman smiles at a microphone
Claudia Sheinbaum, Morena’s presidential candidate, speaks in Mexico City on September 6, 2023. She is a former mayor of Mexico City. © Getty Images

Mexico’s ‘Teflon Presidency’

Despite all of this, or perhaps because of it, Mr. Lopez Obrador has maintained some of the most favorable public approval ratings in the world, with support highest among older and less-educated voters, but ultimately transcending social and political groupings. In fact, some journalists and analysts have taken to referring to AMLO’s time in power as the “Teflon Presidency” since nothing seems to stick, from a poor pandemic response and an economic slowdown to appalling criminal violence and corruption.

He has also turned Morena into the country’s dominant political party. The election of Vicente Fox from the National Action Party (PAN) in 2000 marked the end of 70 years of PRI rule, and a transition from a hegemonic party system to multipartyism. However, in the past five years, the party system has again transformed, with Morena becoming the dominant actor. In one 2023 poll, Morena enjoyed twice as much popular support as the next most popular party in the country.

Even when the party underperforms, it does well. In the June 2021 midterms, for instance, Morena and its coalition lost a lower house supermajority but won the most votes of any party and the most seats in the Chamber of Deputies. It also gained governorships, mayoralties and seats in local legislatures. Subsequent elections have given the coalition governorships in two-thirds of the country’s 32 states.

The 2024 elections will begin to reveal to what degree Morena retains its popularity and whether it can endure as the dominant party without AMLO.


Facts & figures

Mexican governance fares poorly in a world ranking

An inconsistent foreign policy takes a back seat to domestic issues

Mr. Lopez Obrador’s approach to foreign policy can best be characterized as inconsistent. Although he has maintained regular security and economic dialogues with the United States and has collaborated on several issues, AMLO also engages in anti-imperialist, anti-U.S. rhetoric. He has shown limited regional leadership. This low international profile reflects the president’s lack of interest in non-domestic issues. Indeed, AMLO has rarely left the country during his five years in office, often skipping high-profile international summits. Even in cases where Mexico has assumed a leadership position, his interest is fickle. For instance, although Mexico led the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in 2020-2021 and hosted the group’s summit in Mexico City, AMLO did not attend its subsequent summit in Argentina.

Mexico’s most important ally is the U.S., with which it shares a high degree of economic interdependence. The U.S. is Mexico’s largest trade partner while Mexico is routinely among the top three trade partners for the U.S. along with China and Canada. The two nations are also bonded by common security and migration concerns. However, for good reason, Mexican leaders are often wary of their northern neighbor. Mr. Lopez Obrador discontinued much of the intelligence-sharing that occurred under his predecessors, and new cooperative frameworks are weaker than those under the now-defunct Merida Initiative.

Mexico’s most important ally is the U.S., with which it shares a high degree of economic interdependence.

It does not help that Republican presidential candidates in the U.S. are openly proposing to bomb fentanyl labs in Mexico and to use the U.S. military to unilaterally target Mexican drug-trafficking cartels. However, AMLO has been more accommodating on immigration issues: during the Donald Trump administration, he allowed tens of thousands of asylum seekers from other countries to remain in Mexico as they awaited U.S. appointments, and as migrant numbers have surged in 2023, Mexico also accepted President Joe Biden’s proposal to deport non-Mexican migrants back across the border.

Additionally, Mexico has been reluctant to turn toward China to the same degree as other countries in Latin America. Former Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard (2018-2023) led trips to China to pursue business opportunities and co-chaired the China-CELAC forum with then Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, yet Mexico is not a signatory to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Mexico’s conflicting posture reflects the opportunities presented by economic and diplomatic cooperation with China as well as a history of mistrust of China and recognition of its economic interdependence with the U.S.

A group of women walking on a street
Xochitl Galvez, presidential candidate of the opposition Broad Front for Mexico, arrives at an election event on October 8, 2023, near Mexico’s World Trade Center. © Getty Images

2024 changes could be profound

Mexico’s situation is poised to change.  Besides electing a new president, Chamber of Deputies and Senate in June, voters will also choose nine governors. Unsurprisingly, given AMLO’s popularity, Morena candidates are in pole position.

For the presidency, it appears to be a two-woman race. Morena’s Ms. Sheinbaum is a former mayor of Mexico City and AMLO’s preferred candidate. She is a physicist with a doctorate in environmental engineering and would govern differently in both content and style. She has strong pro-environmental credentials and is a critic of economic neoliberalism. Ms. Sheinbaum also has a more measured, less antagonistic political style than AMLO. Both her domestic and foreign policies are bound to deviate from the incumbent’s.

Internationally, AMLO’s successor is likely to develop stronger ties to the U.S.

Her principal challenger, Ms. Galvez, is from the Broad Front for Mexico (FAM), an opposition coalition comprising the National Action Party (PAN), Revolutionary Institutionalist Party (PRI) and Democratic Revolution Party (PRD). She is an engineer and tech entrepreneur with a humble background whose appeal grows from her aspirational story, frank style and lack of connections to corrupt political networks. Her ideology, meanwhile, borrows from both the left and the right. As senator, Ms. Galvez caucuses with the PAN and advocates pro-business policies but adheres to progressive politics on social issues such as abortion, drugs and social spending.

Still, Morena has the country’s strongest grass-roots party organization, and their party machinery and control of state governments will help them turn out supporters to vote.

The third main force is Citizens’ Movement (MC), which could put forward Samuel Garcia or Mr. Ebrard as its candidate. The MC nominee could get somewhere around 10 percent of the vote, stealing support from both Ms. Sheinbaum or Ms. Galvez, acting as a spoiler and possibly weakening the victor’s mandate.


Facts & figures

Mexico falls behind in gross domestic product per person



Mexico’s short-term future will be dictated by the elections, with the presidential winner and the makeup of congress determining policy priorities and the ability to achieve them.

More likely: Moderate government favoring closer U.S. ties

The most likely scenario for Mexico’s short-term future is a government that tones down its anti-imperialist rhetoric yet struggles with many of the same issues as Mr. Lopez Obrador. These include finishing large infrastructure projects like the Tren Maya, stamping out government corruption and cracking down on drug-trafficking organizations and their brutality. Graft and violence, especially, have bedeviled multiple Mexican administrations and there are no easy solutions. Undeniably, AMLO leaves his successor a daunting security situation, including some of the highest levels of violence in Mexico’s history, with two consolidated, powerful criminal groups, the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG, fighting against a fragmented field of local gangs and a limited state capacity to respond.

Given the greater political moderation of Ms. Sheinbaum and Ms. Galvez compared to the current leader, as well as their policy expertise, it is likely that the next government will reflect greater social progressivism and be more concerned with environmental issues. Either leader would be more open to renewable resources than AMLO, who has been quite pro-oil. If Ms. Sheinbaum wins, one question that will arise is whether she will be charismatic enough to carve her own path, or if she will have to rely on AMLO’s legacy to govern amid fiscal challenges.

Internationally, AMLO’s successor is likely to develop stronger ties to the U.S. and attend the international summits and meetings that AMLO has largely avoided throughout his term. Key areas of cooperation with the U.S. would include trade, security and migration. The next president will probably mark a return to the intelligence-sharing that was discontinued by Mr. Lopez Obrador. An improved relationship with the U.S., however, does not mean that Mexico will suddenly develop aspirations to assume a regional leadership role.

Less likely: Continuation of AMLO status quo

It is far less likely that Mexico under a new leader represents a continuation of the status quo under Mr. Lopez Obrador. Although Ms. Sheinbaum was AMLO’s handpicked candidate and carries the Morena endorsement, her background, governing style and experience all suggest that she will distance herself from him in many of the areas outlined above. Similarly, Ms. Galvez’s policy orientation is in many ways the inverse of AMLO, with a center-right economic slant and a center-left social one; her government would deviate from his in many ways. Neither candidate possesses the charisma that has defined Mr. Lopez Obrador’s leadership.

It is also unlikely that the next government will pivot toward China or assume a regional leadership role. Neither leading candidate has so far indicated these intentions, and Mexican foreign policy has historically shied away from the level of protagonism exhibited in recent years by Brazil or even Venezuela.

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