by Adam Wiaktor

On July 1st Mexico will elect a new president. As the polls indicate these days the winner’s name will be Andres Manuel López Obrador. His critics see in him a populist who will ultimately destroy Mexican democracy. Let’s try to make the case for the man.

1. Introduction

There are many misconceptions that plague public discussions about Mexico. In part due to the rise of the Trumpian right in the United States, it is all too easy to portray the country as having a homogenous culture of bandidos with lazy masses content with their impoverished place in the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mexico’s regions, from Nuevo León to Guanajuato, all have a rich and varied history which informs regional culture. Mexico has the 11th-highest GDP in the world (1) and is part of NAFTA (2), one of the largest trade organizations in the world. In July, Mexico is going to have elections to choose who the next president will be for the next six years (the Mexican Constitution prohibits re-election as a result of longer single terms). The impact of this election on Mexico cannot be understated. On the same day, 30 of the 32 regions will also host regional elections. Depending on the candidates elected, the outlook for Mexico could be fundamentally altered.

The elections in Mexico are different from those in the United States. Though both electoral systems involve competing political parties, the biggest difference between the Mexican and American Presidential system is that the candidates for President are not chosen through popular primary elections. Instead, a vote by party delegates is taken to decide who shall be put forward. Usually, some of the parties unite and form an alliance for that specific candidate, in order to gain more votes in what is a vibrant multi-party state at the municipal level. In Mexico, the winner is not decided by the use of an electoral college, but by the popular vote. In the history of Mexico, only two parties have managed to be the leading member of a presidential coalition. These are the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI – the name is misleading as this is now the centre-right of Mexican politics) and the National Action Party (PAN – a more traditionally Christian conservative organization).

In this election, there are six candidates. The three ‘big’ candidates poised to win are Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (Morena, PT & PES), Jose A. Meade (PRI y Partido Verde) and Ricardo Anaya (PAN, PRD, Movimiento Ciudadano), whereas the three other independent candidates are Jaime Rodriguez, Margarita Zavala (the former First Lady, having resigned from the PRI) and Armando Rios Piter. As of April the 11th (3), polls stated that, with 42% of the votes, Andres Lopez Obrador is going to win the election. The runner up will be Ricardo Anaya, with 31% of the vote. Jose Meade finds himself predicted to win 22% of the popular vote, one which could see the PRI slip into third place for the first time in a century. Of the independent candidates, Margarita Zavala is currently polling at 5%, and both Jaime Rodriguez and Armando Rios Piter are on 3%.

2. Who is Andres Manuel López Obrador?

It is interesting to remark that Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (often referred to as simply AMLO) started his political career in the very party that he now hopes to defeat come July. He was a member of the PRI in the past, even serving as the Head of the Tabasco State PRI at one point. He left in 1988 as the PRI embraced free market principles, joining what would become the Party of the Democratic Revolution. It was here that he showed his willingness to get actively involved in local causes against the will of big business. Most famously, he was beaten up by Mexican police forces for protesting the building of oil wells that would impact on the quality of life of a number of indigenous tribes. He would later go on to be the governor of Mexico’s capital which used to be called D.F. (Distrito Federal) but now is known as Ciudad de México (Mexico City). His time as Governor is commonly perceived to be a success, with Mexico City’s GDP going from 1.17 trillion to 1.61 trillion pesos in only five years. Off the back of this economic success and the public recognition that the office afforded him, he decided to aim for the Presidency of Mexico. The first time he lost was in 2006 to PAN’s candidate Felipe Calderon by a margin of 0.58% votes. Then in 2012, he lost to the PRI’s candidate Enrique Pena Nieto by a margin of 6.66% votes. His bid in 2018 could be the one which finally delivers him to the highest office in Mexico.

Obrador’s main pledge is to end the corruption that has robbed prosperity from the Mexican people. He further seeks to look after those agricultural workers who have been left behind by the tide of industrialization which has swept through the country (4) and to lower the salaries of public servants who are paid the most (starting with the president) whilst increasing those of teachers, doctors, police, soldiers, etc. Obrador is pragmatic, being flexible on the exact execution of certain policies. Mexico is placed as 16th in the world for FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) and is generally regarded as one of the top 10 countries to invest your money in the next three years (5). Also of note is the “Reforma Energetica” which recently passed. The reform states that different companies from around the world may enter the Mexican Petroleum Industry (6) . Prior to this, there was one national corporation, known as PEMEX, which was responsible for the extraction and sale of Mexican energy resources. It is said that this will open doors to new investment and an opportunity for Mexico to grow economically.

This reform has been very heavily critiqued by many, owing to Article 27 of the Mexican constitution which states that ‘Everything that is inside of the Nation, corresponds to the Nation’. Obrador at first said that the reform “promised to increase foreign investment, more jobs would be created and the prices of electricity, gas and gasoline would lower”; however with the corruption as high as it is, it could not be achieved. He later stated that he would support the reform if he came to the presidency, as his government would not have an issue with corruption on this scale (7).

3. Corruption as the theme of Mexican democracy

There is a reason why the AMLO message of anti-corruption that AMLO resonates so well with voters. People are beginning to recognise that it is not healthy to have the same political organisation in power for such a long period of time. The negative impacts of corruption are obvious, and it has hurt Mexico in a number of ways economically. According to the World Bank, the OEA and the CEESP, 10% of potential Mexican GDP cannot be accounted for as a result of corruption. This means that if you have 100 dollars, 10 of those are destined to covering the ‘cost of doing business’. As the economy of Mexico has grown, so has the number of people who are able to see the scale of the impact corruption is having. In the past 17 years, the cost of corruption went from 672 million pesos to 2.1 trillion pesos (8). This is also a message which strongly resonates with me. Having seen first hand the impact of corruption, and the relaxed attitude that both PRI and PAN have had towards the issue during their periods of government, it is obvious to me that neither party is equipped to deal with the issue. AMLO, though he almost certainly exaggerates his claims, at least seems genuinely committed to stamping out corruption in the country.

It is important to know what I mean when I refer to corruption this context. The word is taken to mean ‘Dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery’(9) . The PRI are well known for their major acts of corruption since they started ruling in 1928. They have won all elections since the inception of democratic party political elections in the country except twice (2000 and 2006). But how did this systematic corruption at a governmental level start, and how does it continue to exists in spite of how well documented much of it is? I cannot, in good faith, describe the Mexico I live in as a liberal democratic state. In order to do that, I would have to believe that the institutions are designed with the execution of the people’s will a primary concern. Until the issue of lining private pockets with the state’s purse is tackled head-on, Mexico will struggle to truly flourish.

It is equally important to understand the history of political parties in the context of Mexico. It all started in 1928, with President Plutarco Elias Calles proclaiming that “the age of revolutionary caudillos is over, it is the start of the era of institutions”(10) .This started the creation of political parties in Mexico, and the first political party to be created was the PNR (Partido Nacional Revolucionario) which is known as the grandfather of the current PRI. Then, in the elections of 1928, after Calles’ presidency, the winner had been former president Alvaro Obregon. Though this would not have been possible under the terms of the modern constitution, it was permitted at the time on the condition that they were not the incumbent President at the time of the election (11).

Obregon was assassinated days before he took over the presidency which meant that Calles was required to name an intern president. This started a period of time in Mexico which is known as “El Maximato”. El Maximato was a defined as the continual wielding of political power by Calles in spite of the fact that he was not eligible to hold the office of President under the new political settlement (12). It started in 1928 and ended in 1934 and since then Calles became to be known as “Jefe Máximo de la Revolucion” (top leader of the revolution).

The first president of the El Maximato era was Emilio Portes Gil. He lasted a period of two years before he left office, owing to his interim status and the requirement for election in 1930. Then the PNR candidate in those elections, Pascual Ortiz Rubio, was declared the winner and took up the office of Mexican President. It is now known that he won due to widespread electoral malpractice, the real winner was the PNA candidate, Jose Vasconcelos. Ortiz Rubio only ruled from 1930 to 1932, resigning the office due to him being unwilling to be subjected to the manipulation and orders of Ex-President Calles. Then the last president of this era was Abelardo Rodriguez who ruled from 1932-1934. It is interesting to note that the era ended solely because the new President was a stronger character whose position was less dependent on Calles that his predecessors had been.

The person elected was, unsurprisingly, another PNR candidate going by the name of Lazaro Cardenas. This six years were known as “Cardenismo” because it was a period of time in which Mexico was became far more nationalist as a country and many promises which had been made in the Mexican revolution would finally be accomplished (13). One of the first things that Cardenas did as President was to exile Calles from Mexico, in the process eliminating all of the people that used to work for or alongside Calles from the government and judiciary. One of the most lasting impacts (one which has lasted to the present day) of his Presidency was the constitutional reforms which changed the term limits and the requirements for eligibility, making the presidency to six years without re-election (14). In 1938, he changed what was known as the PNR to the PRM (Partido de la Revolución Mexicana). The PRM is known as the “Father” of the PRI. In 1939, during his final year as President, a rival political party was created. This party was the Partido Accion Nacional (better known as PAN) and it was created by Manuel Gomez Morin (15). At the end of Cardenas presidency, a new era in Mexico was about to dawn. This is now known as “El Milagro Mexicano” (“The Mexican Miracle”).

The “Mexican Miracle” lasted from 1940 to 1970 and was a time in which there was political and economic prosperity, in spite of stagnation on social issues. During the elections of 1940, the candidate that won was Manuel Avila Camacho (the only candidate to be elected under the PRM banner). What Avila Camacho did was very important for Mexican politics. He changed what was the PRM to the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), the institution that today rules Mexico, and has ruled all of the period since except for two presidencies.

Then for the next four presidencies (1946-1970) all the candidates that won on the PRI ticket and they influenced Mexico in different ways:

Miguel Aleman Valdes (1946-1952)

–       Depreciation of the Value of the Peso

–       Mexico began borrowing from a number of other countries, pushing it deeper into debt

–       UNAM University is constructed

Adolfo Ruiz Cortines (1952-1958)

–       Mexican women were granted the right to vote

–       Created the MDE (Modelo de Desarrollo Estabilizador)to deal with the Debt Crisis

–       Austerity measures put in place

Adolfo López Mateos (1958-1964)

–       Continued with the MDE

–       The territory known as “the Chamizal” was returned to Mexico

–       Created the CONALITEG

Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964-1970)

–       The 1968 Olympics took place in Mexico

–       Contraction of Mexican Economy

–       The end of the Mexican Miracle

The beginning of the end of the Mexican Miracle is often marked with the massacre of students from UNAM and IPN Universities. This tragedy resulted in the killing of 350 students who had congregated for a meeting in the Plaza de Tlatelolco (16). They were there as a peaceful protest to the fact that some of their fellow pupils had been incarcerated unfairly. The resorting to such baseless violence highlighted to the people how little had changed in social terms during the last 30 years. As a result of the greater public awareness caused by these events, and comparative economic decline, the popular consciousness of political issues became greater. This resulted in a duo of populist Presidents. These presidents were Luis Echeverria (1970-1976) and Jose Lopez Portillo y Pacheco (1976-1982). Echeverria was criticized because, during his six-year presidency, there was another student killing in which there were dozens of students missing and 120 dead. Lopez Portillo was criticized because he rose the corporate tax rates and pursued policies which disincentivized foreign investments.

There would be three more presidents between the end of populism and the first fall of the PRI: Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León. Miguel Hurtado was known for hiding the real number of deaths in the 1985 earthquake. Carlos Salinas was known for vast corruption which was unearthed after he left office. Ernesto Zedillo’s greatest achievement was that he helped the economy recover from debt servicing and reduced exports (17). Then in 2000, elected a non-PRI President for the first time. The PAN won two presidencies in a row: Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon. Both presidents are known for failing to curb gang violence. The war against the Narcos and the rates of murder and kidnapping both increased since the turn of the millennium. Currently, the president is Enrique Pena Nieto, once again from the PRI Party.

4. Media perceptions of “AMLO”

It is important to derive from the recent history of the Mexican presidency that the last century can be defined as one of maladministration and missed opportunities to make the lives of ordinary Mexicans better. The reason why I have spent such a large part of this piece analysing the past is to provide a contrast between that and the future proposed by AMLO. It is nothing short of radical, and so it has generated a lot of public commentary falling down on either side of the debate.

For example, many are quite skeptical of the extent to which a Lopez Obrador Presidency can deliver the change which it promises. According to Mexican New York Times journalist Jorge Castaneda, Obrador creates an uncertainty in the future of Mexico that has meant investors are either delaying current projects or postponing new ones until after the election (18). This is being done in order to see if Obrador will actually keep his promises or whether there will be a great deal of instability and resistance in the transition period. Castaneda believes that Obrador is sincere and will try to deliver his promises. AMLO’s desire to compromise has been exhibited by his recent change on energy reform postponement (which brings about 200,000 million dollars in investments to Mexico) (19).

Another important point mentioned by Castaneda is that changes in NAFTA would have a major impact on Foreign Direct Investment. “It would be devastating”, Castaneda says. This creates problems for the economy because Mexico’s economy is expected to grow less than 2 percent in 2018, and has expanded recently at an average rate of barely 2 percent per year (20). It is not a good time to also be having to contend with new barriers between the country and its closest trading partners. It may well be the case that the fate of NAFTA is not in his hands, but in the hands of the White House. Regardless, it has forded Lopez Obrador into a position where he must unconditionally defend the organization, regardless of personal criticisms.

Journalist Enrique Krauze has similar opinions to those which were expressed by Castaneda. Krauze has also chosen to place a focus on AMLO’s attitude towards the recently enacted energy reforms. He argues that, given that Lopez Obrador has already changed his mind once on the issue, it is not inconceivable that he would change his mind again in the future, opting to protect the domestic economy from international competition (21). A deficit of trust in a Mexican politician is admittedly nothing new, nor has it prevented previous politicians from being elected. But it is more of a problem for Obrador, whose whole political currency is predicated on honesty and a desire to bring a level of integrity that Mexican politics has been lacking.

J. Weston Phippen, writing for the Atlantic, has a different, more optimistic, starting point concerning Obrador than Krauze and Castaneda but comes to much the same conclusions. Phippen makes allusions to the accomplishments made by Lopez Obrador during his time as the Mayor of Mexico City. He had developed a good reputation he had for stability and being able to deliver the promises he makes. This was exemplified by building a second level of a previously heavily congested freeway, extending badly needed pensions to the elderly and single mothers, and authorizing a flurry of development which ensures the continued economic expansion of one of the largest urban settlements on the planet (22). There is a crucial point which is made by Phippen, which is why he chooses to go through AMLO’s tenure as Mayor in such detail. He argues that Lopez Obrador delivered on every campaign promise except one. The promise to stamp out corruption in the city’s governing institutions. Thus, the journalist is forced to conclude that, though AMLO has the potential to deliver on a lot of good policies, those expecting him to be a silver bullet for a culture as ingrained as corruption will be deeply disappointed.

However, I must say that I am personally not too convinced by the instability argument made against AMLO. All democratic elections are preceded by a period of instability. People are always going to be at least a bit uncertain about the outcome and the policies that will be pursued in the period after the swearing in of a new head of state. If anything, the commanding lead which AMLO currently has over all opposition candidates means that people are beginning to develop an expectation that the new Mexico will have him at the helm. It is also just an unnecessarily conservative argument to make, especially given how unsatisfactory the status quo is in Mexico. I do, however, recognise that Phippen has a point when it comes to how effective any new President of Mexico can hope to be. Voters for progressive parties in Mexico need to manage expectations and realise that corruption shall not be stomped out after a single term. My counterargument is simple. Though Lopez Obrador is not an end-all cure, it is the best possible step toward genuine liberal, popular democracy.

In order to show the extent to which opposition to Obrador is derived from instinct as opposed to hard policy positions can be shown by articles in the more right-leaning US publications. An article from the Washington Times exclaims that if Obrador wins Mexico would become a disaster. There would be a collapse in the Mexican economy, he would send new millions of Mexicans fleeing across the border into the United States. Another one of Obrador’s ideas that they flag is that he would grant amnesty to drug gangsters (23) – implying that this would liberate at least some undeserving people, and encourage drug gangs to operate with impunity and more violence. The idea that AMLO is some kind of old style South American Communist is frankly absurd. He has shown, though his social democratic policies for Mexico City that he is committed to economic growth and the market system.

On the other hand, there are people that do not think Obrador would be as bad as this particular journalist would like to make out. Indeed, international media has generally held a positive opinion of what the future under AMLO could bring.

Victor Romo Guerra, from the newspaper Cronica Mexico, believes that Lopez Obrador is the only reasonable candidate to vote for. This is due to the legacy that the other, more right wing, presidential candidates find themselves perpetuating. Guerra also believes that Lopez Obrador is going to do the right thing for Mexico, which is to strengthen the public education (in which Mexico is lagging far behind pretty much every other nation in its GDP bracket) and help the lower class economically (continuing his track record as mayor). Guerra also believes that Obrador is the only candidate that is “prepared and has the guts” to confront the United States President discriminatory politics (24).

Eric Martin, another journalist, decided to tackle one of the assumptions that many opponents of AMLO have been making in their analyses. This is that Mexico, under the rule of Obrador, will leave the NAFTA agreement. According to Martin, this would not happen due that Obrador will not be the one himself handling the decisions with regards to the trade zone but a “Harvard-educated historian and economist” (referring to Graciela Marquez) who said that the deal is a valuable part of the nation’s economy and that she wouldn’t seek to start over fresh on work to modernize it (25). Graciela Marquez herself said in an interview that Lopez Obrador and his party “support the continuation of NAFTA,” and she also said that it is crucial to Mexico’s economy, therefore, she is willing to negotiate with Trump if the problem is not fixed when Pena Nieto’s leaves office at the end of 2018 (26).

Paul Krugman, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, also agrees with the idea that Obrador would turn out to be a good president if he wins the election. Krugman compares Obrador to ex-Brazilian president Lula da Silva who started out being named as a man that “terrified and was a radical” but that when he started being the president it was actually seen that he was a “good man” who cared about the impact that policies had on the Brazilian masses (27). Krugman also mentions that even if the NAFTA agreement does not work out, Mexico’s economy would become a little worse off but that it would not result in the collapse that many more skeptical commentators predict. Given that Krugman’s Nobel Prize is in International Trade Theory, I am somewhat inclined to take what he says on the issue seriously.

Solange Marquez Espinoza, a writer for the notable newspaper in Mexico ‘El Universal’ agrees with that the other two candidates for the presidency are worse or as bad as Obrador. Espinoza mentions that it is not an option to vote for Meade (Candidate of PRI) if corruption and impunity from the law are to be changed. If Meade won, then the PRI would be again in the presidency and the regime would continue (as mentioned many times previously). On the other hand, Espinoza argues that it would not be wise to vote for Anaya (Candidate of PAN) due that he is unexperienced working in the government and because the PAN has lost most of the values and principles they used to stand for (28).

5. Conclusion

In my opinion, Lopez Obrador is the candidate who can make a difference if he wins the presidency come July. There are a number of reasons why I am led to such a conclusion. The first is that I cannot state the extent to which the PRI cannot return to power in the near future. If Meade wins the presidency, Mexico will have decided to vote for business as usual. I cannot understand which group of people would want this. Rural areas of Mexico have only lost out in recent years, industrial workers have not been getting a fair deal for their work and millions of people are struggling to make ends meet. I am somewhat less critical of PAN’s Anaya than I am of the PRI. I think that his youth and energy could be an asset at the highest level of governance. However, I do think there is a point when youth needs to be tempered with experience, and that Anaya does not have enough of a track record to demonstrate he could represent Mexico on the world stage or deliver success in trying times.

“When I get to the presidency the first two things I will do is sell the presidential plane (which cost ridiculous amounts of money and it was paid with the taxes the people pay) (29) and cancel the construction of the new airport and will use that money to help Mexico’s poorest.”- Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Obrador is the first candidate to commit to forgoing the pension package afforded to former presidents of Mexico – amongst the most generous of any former leaders anywhere in the world. Also, as the governor of Mexico City, he proved that he effectively use the money given to him such as the expansion of the highways, the provision of pensions to older people, the creation of jobs in a number of new sectors such as technology. Another thing that Lopez Obrador has noted is, due to corruption, the Mexican people lose over 2 trillion pesos and another 500 billion in over payments to privileged officials (30). He says that he is going to use this money to help Mexico grow, instead of allowing oligarchs to spend it on things that they neither need nor deserve.

It is important to recognise that, for Mexico to succeed, there is going to need to be a lot more than the election of the right person to the office of President. In order for Mexico to permanently change, it is necessary that a generation of young people work towards rectifying the mistakes of their parents and grandparents. Countries with low corruption remain with little corruption because it is not seen as the done thing. When an activity is not normalized, there is far less chance it will happen. Change will have to happen at the state level, and this coming election is an opportunity to provide AMLO with a majority across the country.

For those who support much needed change and who oppose injustice, there is really only one choice.

Adam is a dual Mexican and UK citizen. He is a keen soccer player, having trained at the IMG Academy and in the Chivas Youth Setup before leaving to focus on his academic work. He is interested in international politics, and will be attending the Oxford Geopolitics Forum this coming summer to focus on regional security studies.








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