Mexican presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (also known as A.M.L.O. by his supporters) is best known for his populist and nationalist rhetoric. He has run for president of Mexico on three occasions, and on Sunday he finally won that office with more than 53 percent of the vote, or more than double that of his closest opponent. He is a man that has been likened to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, and he inherits a country where support for democratic institutions is waning. He takes over Mexico’s presidency from the deeply unpopular Enrique Peña Nieto who has seen his popularity plummet to as low as 12 percent. Violence, high crime rates, corruption, and the poverty rate are problems plaguing Mexico and its leaders. As the country’s next president, López Obrador will have his hands full, and many question if his presidency will be for the better for Mexico.
Before he started dabbling in presidential politics, López Obrador was best known for challenging Mexico’s Federal Electricity Commission (C.F.E.) in the state of Tabasco 26 years ago. Tabasco is a poor region with half its population being considered poor. When electricity rates rose to be among the highest in the nation, López Obrador instructed the people of Tabasco not to pay their electricity bills. That campaign of civil resistance has lasted to this day. More than 570,000 Tabascan homes have racked up debts averaging 10,500 pesos ($500) per household. In 2015 the C.F.E. began rounds of cutting service to nonpaying customers causing López Obrador, then head of his newly created party the Movement for National Regeneration (Morena), to urge electricians to reconnect homes back to the power grid. He then threatened to cut governor Arturo Núñez Jiménez’s power if he ever tried to disconnect the people again.
His challenging the C.F.E. is what many Mexicans like about López Obrador, but it also demonstrates what many fear about him. He showed a populism that was not afraid to act on behalf of poor people, though, at the same time, he showed a blatant disregard of the law and government institutions. It also showed how reckless he could be with economics. It should be noted that when people stop paying for a service it tends to drive prices for that service higher, exacerbating the problem of high prices even more.
Born in the small village of Tepetitán, the 64-year-old López Obrador will become the first Mexican president in a half-century to be born south of Mexico City. This is significant because the southern regions of Mexico are the poorest and the poor can say one of their own will now represent them as president. His political career began in 1976 when he became a member of Institutional Revolutionary Party (P.R.I.) in Tabasco. He ran in a failed bid for governor of Tabasco in 1994, and in 2000 he was elected as mayor of Mexico City. In 2006 he ran for the presidency and lost to Felipe Calderón by only 0.56 percent. He appealed the results, which led to prolonged protests by his supporters that shut down a major roadway in Mexico City, gnarling traffic for weeks. In 2012 he ran for the presidency again but lost to Enrique Peña Nieto by seven percent. This time around he ran a more disciplined and positive presidential campaign during a time Mexicans are completely fed up with the status quo and more receptive to his populist policies.
On the campaign trail he called the political establishment a “mafia power” while at the same time being heavily critical of the Supreme Court and the electoral regulator. He promised to cut the salaries of senior officials in half and will refuse to live in the presidential palace. He promised to end the privileges of government officials and sell the presidential plane. There can be “no rich government with a poor populace,” he said during the campaign. When it comes to corruption he promised to end it and give the money recovered to social welfare programs.
López Obrador made campaign promises of nationalizing infrastructure projects that would make Mexico self-sufficient in food and oil production. His proposed infrastructure projects are focused on benefiting the poor southern region of the country. He vowed to pave every road in Oaxaca which has a poverty rate of 70 percent. New oil refineries, he says, will be built in the southern regions of Campeche and Tabasco. And he promised a new railway from Quintana Roo to Chiapas with a new rail and road corridor across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Oaxaca and Veracruz.
When it comes to the neighbor to the north, López Obrador has in the past called President Donald Trump “erratic and arrogant.” However, during the campaign he was relatively mute with any anti-Americanism. He said about the very unpopular American president, “We have to have enough patience to get to grips with President Donald Trump, to maintain the relationship.” It is very probable that he will inherit the N.A.F.T.A. negotiations from his predecessor.
The United States is very concerned about Mexico’s drug policy in their fight to stop the flow of narcotics crossing the border. Last December López Obrador caused a stir when he suggested amnesty for drug kingpins to try to quell the country’s drug war related violence. “If it is necessary… we will talk about granting amnesty so long as the victims and their families are willing,” he said. Later he added, “We’ll propose it. I’m analyzing it. What I can say is that we will leave no issue without discussion if it has to do with peace and tranquility.” The talk of amnesty is of concern for the U.S. because of its desires to extradite drug kingpins from Mexico and prosecute them.
Election night was a good night for López Obrador. Not only did he win the presidency soundly, his party, Morena, picked up 5 of 9 gubernatorial seats. In an address he said, “We will listen to everyone. We will care for everyone. We will respect everyone.” President Trump was quick to send congratulations with a tweet. “I look very much forward to working with [López Obrador]. There is much to be done that will benefit both the United States and Mexico!” Clearly López Obrador is riding a historic wave into the office of Mexico’s presidency, but he will have to face a harsh reality soon.
López Obrado’s campaign has been one of superficial promises to fix Mexico’s ills, and that is the deeper issue with Mexico’s democratic malaise which is causing its people to favor such a populist candidate. Candidate after candidate run on issues that do not strike the core of the most serious problems in the country. The real issues of Mexico’s problems have more to do with government transparency, accountability, and the rule of law than infrastructure projects and attacking the ruling elite. Those issues breed the corruption, the poverty, and the ineffectiveness that Mexicans have become desperate to solve and question their democratic institutions over. Deep institutional reforms are needed, and that will only come about through the electorate’s persistence in what they demand from their candidates in terms of the three core issues—transparency, accountability, and the rule of law.
López Obrador’s populism will not solve Mexico’s most serious problems and his election is most likely a step in the wrong direction for its democracy. Even if he turns out to be a Mexican Hugo Chávez, it will not be the breaking point of Mexico’s democracy. But surely it will make the people of Mexico even more desperate to find leaders, regardless of the soundness of their policies, to place their hopes on.