What can we expect from Mexico’s new government?

On Sunday July 1st, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (generally known as AMLO) was elected president of Mexico with a comfortable majority, securing over 53% of the vote against three rival candidates. The candidate of the party of the outgoing president, Enrique Peña Nieto, José Antonio Meade, came a poor third.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that had ruled Mexico for an unbroken seventy years before the victory of Vicente Fox of the National Action Party in 2000 had returned to power in 2012, its political machine largely intact despite two successive PAN presidencies. The political clique that had stood behind Peña Nieto, the Atlacomulco group, had managed to fend off the challenge of the new party created by López Obrador, MORENA (the National Regeneration Movement) in the governorship elections held in its bastion, the State of Mexico, as recently as June 2017, by deploying the same scandalous methods of vote buying that helped bring Peña Nieto to the presidency, along with the same panoply of dirty tricks and social media manipulation that were ranged against López Obrador yet again in his third run for the presidency. Yet this time nothing could stop a surging tide of sentiment against the established political class, despite the fact that this time the PAN, represented by Ricardo Anaya, had allied with the increasingly discredited centre-left party for which AMLO himself had stood as presidential candidate in 2006 and 2012, the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution). MORENA, founded four years ago as a new vehicle for López Obrador’s presidential ambitions not only captured the presidency of the Mexican republic but will also enjoy a comfortable majority in the congress. With its allies the Labour Party (PT) and Social Encounter Party (PES), the coalition backing López Obrador is expected to secure 312 of the 500 seats in the lower house of congress when the final results are declared, and 70 seats in the Senate. In both houses, the PAN and its coalition allies will come in a distant second place in terms of representation, with an expected 38 senators and 128 deputies, with the PRI and its allies once again in a very poor third place, with only 20 seats in the Senate and 60 in the lower house.

In purely electoral terms, what López Obrador and MORENA have managed to produce is more of a tsunami than a landslide. But predicting the likely consequences of this unprecedented national election result is a bit more of a challenge.

For many people, including BBC journalists, it seems, López Obrador’s victory is symptomatic of a wider tendency in which “populists” exploit mounting dissatisfaction with the record of established mainstream political parties. On this reading, López Obrador would be a “left-wing” nationalist counterpart to Donald Trump’s “right-wing” expression of the same phenomenon. The problem with this kind of account is that it abstracts from everything that is specific to different national historical settings. In doing so, it is in danger of jumping to premature and simplistic conclusions about why people who voted the way they did (as already demonstrated by more rigorous studies of Trump voters), bearing in mind that abstention rates are relatively high in both Mexico and the USA. Even more seriously, it is in danger of obscuring the deeper structural conditions and constraints that are likely to shape what López Obrador and his party can do in power. The PRI is hardly a typical “mainstream political party” and the PAN’s twelve years of alternation in power at national level is often seen as a continuation of the same regime with a different face. Furthermore, as anthropologists never tire of pointing out, Mexican society and politics is regionalised in ways that became even more significant as the old PRI corporatist state that Vargas Llosa once dubbed “the perfect dictatorship” fragmented and “feudalised”. A statist economic regime was replaced with a neoliberal economic order through an elite strategy of imposition that had no place for genuine democratisation. Yet the party political system did become more plural and elections as such more competitive.

The initial beneficiary was the right-wing PAN but the centre-left PRD, initially founded through a fusion of dissident, economically nationalist and anti-neoliberal PRI dissidents and the old left, including the successor of the Mexican communist party, was also allowed to win municipal and state government elections after an initial period of repression during the presidency of Salinas de Gortari, the architect of the new order. As the PRD became a real alternative option for exercising power in some areas of the country, more former PRI members joined its ranks, including individuals who had failed to win the PRI nomination as candidates and so tried the PRD route instead, along with the political equivalent of rats leaving a sinking ship in areas in which the PRD was particularly strong (a pattern repeated with MORENA). But, unsurprisingly, traditional ways of doing politics were not changed by this new pattern of superficially “democratic” political alternation. Quite to the contrary, with more players in the market, clientelistic ways of winning and exercising power, and pragmatic deals between political actors and factions, became more important than ever. More competition increased the total quantity of resources needed for fighting elections that combined traditional material inducements to harvest votes with the costs of TV campaigns and use of digital media. Not all of the ways that these funds were acquired were corrupt or illegal, but criminal organisations did become an increasingly important source of finance, provided in return for impunity or services rendered. Furthermore, in some areas organised crime came to play a more direct role in determining who would control municipal and state governments, turning some regions into zones of criminal sovereignty.

The legacy of this was clearly visible in some of the violence associated with the 2018 elections. Candidates and militants from all parties were assassinated, and many more subjected to threats and aggressions. This plurality of victimhood suggests that the violence of organised crime towards specific local political actors often conforms to specific criminal agendas, bearing in mind that crime is not simply about drugs, but also extortion, illegal mining and oil theft, sex trafficking and a host of other activities, many of which blur the frontier between the legal and illegal in a way that reflects broader processes associated with finkncialised neoliberal capitalism. But it also illustrates the way politicians have often reached out to criminal factions in pursuit of their own interests and may not live to regret it if their particular faction loses out in the ever-multiplying local turf wars provoked by the country’s deeply contradictory, and US-sponsored, public security strategies. Both PAN and the PRI governments in the twenty-first century were “penetrated” by organised crime, but, as political scientist and journalist Jenaro Villamil has documented in detail in a recent book, the new technocratic cliques that dominated them also created an environment in which “kleptocracy”, understood as the transformation of public goods into private ones, became the order of the day. Both the PAN and PRI candidates for president in this election were accused of participation in this “system”. Although a number of state governors are now being brought to account judicially for their links with organised crime and profligate wasting of taxpayers’ money, other actors accused of corruption or worse have preserved their impunity. The legacy of these developments is high levels of state government debt and continuing violence that affects the lives of the population in general.

Many of those who voted for López Obrador and MORENA in these elections are responding to AMLO’s promise to do something about the corruption that has tainted the reputations of all the older political parties, including the PRD. Many recent scandals seem to have demonstrated that corrupt practices cross-cut party boundaries, as exemplified by accusations against former PRD leader Rosario Robles,  who became Minister for Social Development in Peña Nieto’s government. This example might, of course, raises the question of whether AMLO, who started his political career in the PRI and then stood as PRD candidate for the presidency twice, as well as serving as PRD mayor of Mexico City as successor to Robles, will really be able to transform a process that seems to be systemic, even if he is personally honest. That the electorate has given AMLO and MORENA the benefit of the doubt may reflect their even greater desperation about the mounting tide of social violence and the promise of a new economic model that will look more to the interests of the majority than a privileged minority of politically-connected businessmen.

AMLO’s proposals on the security issue are at least founded on a premise that seems sound: answering violence with more violence has clearly not proved a success. We can therefore expect his government to roll back of the militarisation of public security that has been intensified further by Mexico’s widely criticised new internal security law. Remarks during the campaign that seemed to suggest a willingness to negotiate with criminal actors and offer amnesties, a posture recommended by some sectors of the Catholic Church, tended to create controversy, so the candidate’s focus turned to the relationship between inequality and lack of economic opportunities and crime and violence, safer terrain politically, especially when framed in terms of the idea that political corruption is bad for ordinary people. Unfortunately, as Brazilian experience shows, the relationships between poverty and inequality, on the one hand, and growth of crime and violence, on the other, are not so simple and direct that tackling the first problem immediately solves the second. So we will have to wait and see what the new government can achieve in terms of reducing everyday public security problems and escalating homicide rates that include alarming indices of femicide. What can be said with some confidence is that any move away from repressive militarised approaches is likely to be beneficial. It is also likely that the new government will be less cooperative than is predecessors in terms of implementing security policies for Mexico’s southern border dictated by Washington.

But what kind of economic policy changes can we expect? Sensible opinion inside and outside Mexico has already set aside the black propaganda of AMLO’s opponents and opted for the now longstanding comparison between this Mexican figure and former Brazilian president Lula and the kinds of centre-left policies social democratic policies implemented by the PT governments. Like Lula, AMLO has sought to calm the fears of Mexican business and “the markets”. He offers to put genuinely pro-poor policies at centre stage in a country where neoliberal policies have conspicuously failed to work for a majority of citizens. His ascent to power is probably going to have negative implications for some of the interests enriching themselves through projects such as the construction of Mexico City’s new international airport. Yet it seems very unlikely that the new government will be doing much about divesting members of Mexico’s political and economic elites of the wealth that they have already acquired by dubious means, let alone pushing for another version of “twenty-first century socialism”.

What one might hope that the new government will do is focus on improving employment, wages and working conditions in a country that has been at the forefront of a global race to the bottom in this respect.  Many will also expect AMLO to put a halt to the social and environmental predation of foreign mining and energy companies, and reverse the privatisations and loss of national resource sovereignty associated with a neoliberal economic development model that has increased inequality and created a society in which corruption, criminality and violence have reached unprecedented levels. But how far AMLO will actually go on resource extraction issues remains to be seen. Relying on commodity exports to fund social programmes and boost economic growth and employment in other sectors proved an Achilles heel in the case of the Brazilian PT, and inhibited what not only the Brazilian but also the Bolivian and Ecuadorian “Pink Tide” governments were willing to do in the case of the extractive sector. Mexico’s economy is still sufficiently diversified and the country’s potential internal market still sufficiently large for a more balanced national development strategy to be pursued, although much will depend on what eventually happens in the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and possible alternative international trade strategies. Nevertheless, although AMLO did offer a concrete plan for reviving the rural peasant economy and recovering food sovereignty, it remains unclear how far his government will go in challenging the national and transnational capitalist interests that are currently driving the pattern of Mexico’s development or in displeasing the ratings agencies that have been worrying about the continuity of Peña Nieto’s so-called reform of the energy sector.

In contrast to Lula and the PT, López Obrador’s government will enjoy the support of a congressional majority. But the logic of winning elections has led AMLO to assemble a coalition of unlike elements. The PES is an evangelical party that is deeply conservative on social issues such as same sex marriage and abortion. Its inclusion enabled AMLO, who makes a big play of his Christian convictions, to win votes from Evangelicals as well as Catholics, and the religious vote in general may have played a significant role in this election. It did, however, mean that MORENA’s candidate remained conspicuously unresponsive to questions about socially liberal themes. In various states, AMLO sought the support of existing cliques willing to jump ship politically for opportunist reasons in order to strengthen MORENA’s vote, even against the protests of the party’s original militants in the region that they were being forced to collaborate with persons whose ideologies and track records were very distant from the ideals that MORENA was supposed to be promoting.  In following Lula by responding to the attacks of some sectors of organised business with a message of “love and peace”, AMLO made it clear that he was willing to adopt the same posture of class compromise that marked the PT approach to government in Brazil. His message of “national reconciliation” is clearly intended to assure his political opponents and those whose fortunes are based on political favour that there will not be the day of reckoning for past sins that many electors think that they deserve. Yet ex-president Lula, still the unambiguous “people’s choice” for the October elections in Brazil, is languishing in gaol due to the systematic use of legal states of exception designed to block his candidacy. Mexico’s elites have had to stomach this election result because the only alternative would have been to suspend democratic life altogether, but if AMLO wants to be remembered as the president who launched Mexico on a radically different path to that which it has been following for the past three decades, he would be well advised to focus on continuing to solidify and motivate his popular base and watching his back. There are likely to be conflictive times ahead and even moderate social democratic governments are not safe in Latin America’s structurally fragile democracies.

The new congress is sworn in in September. AMLO takes office as president in December.

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