Andrés Manuel López Obrador walked into Mexico City’s Azteca stadium at his presidential campaign’s closing rally June 27 to a rock-star reception. He shook people’s hands on his way up to the stage and posed for selfies, as a crowd of more than 100,000 welcomed him.
The name of the Mexican president-elect’s winning coalition, Juntos Haremos Historia — Together We’ll Make History — summed up the moment. AMLO, as he’s known, defined his coming government as the “Fourth Transformation,” placing it alongside Mexico’s independence, the Reform War of the 1850s and the Revolution of 1910-20.
“This is one of the most important movements in the world today,” he told the crowd. “The three transformations we’ve experienced had to be done with arms. We’re about to carry out a transformation without bloodshed, peaceful, orderly, but profound, and I’d say radical — and no one should be afraid, because the word radical comes from ‘roots,’ and this transformation will root out the corrupt regime of injustices and privileges.”
The crowd roared, and the world looked on with astonishment. In Brazil, the United States, Paraguay, Hungary, the Philippines and many other countries, the extreme right has been reaping the electoral harvest of insecurity, fear and rejection of the status quo. But in Mexico, a president who slams the system where the wealthiest 10 percent of the population controls 64 percent of the nation’s wealth and the richest 1 percent controls nearly half, who promotes public programs to redistribute wealth, rails against “the mafia in power,” and favors a greater state role in national development and seeks non-military solutions to crime will soon take power — in Latin America’s second-largest economy, right next door to the United States.
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Andres Manuel López Obrador’s rise was way off script as far as Mexico’s ruling class was concerned. Following 71 years of one-party rule under the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) — including an election stolen from a leftist candidate in 1988 — a tacit agreement among elites brought the conservative National Action Party (PAN) to power in 2000. Very little changed. The PAN extended the neoliberal economics that PRI president Carlos Salinas de Gortari set in the late 1980s. It let the PRI maintain its political machine while sharing the benefits of crony capitalism a la Mexicana. Elites foresaw a bipartisan model similar to the business-as-usual democracy of Mexico’s northern neighbor. The U.S. government had no problem with that.
Then López Obrador came on the scene in 2000. A former PRI politician who left the party with other dissidents, he was elected mayor of Mexico City, where he was very popular. He first ran for president in 2006 under the slogan of “For the Good of All, First the Poor,” openly denouncing neoliberalism and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Mexico’s poor, marginalized by globalization imposed from above, massively and actively supported his candidacy.
AMLO arguably won that election — even the 2006 PRI candidate admitted later that his ballot count gave the victory to his leftist rival. But election officials proclaimed conservative candidate Felipe Calderon victor by half a percentage point, rejecting demands for a full recount. AMLO supporters occupied the nation’s capital for months.
In 2012, López Obrador ran again, losing to PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto by a 6 percent margin in a four-way race. The lesson he learned was that to win in a deeply flawed system, you have to build a supermajority.
For his third campaign, he broadened his base by toning down the class rhetoric and focusing on ending corruption and waste. President Peña Nieto made that an easy target. Corruption scandals during his six-year term included his family’s occupying a multimillion-dollar mansion bought by a favored contractor, alleged bribes from the Odebrecht construction company, an apparent spy operation against human-rights and anti-corruption activists and an investigation showing that his government funneled $192 million in public funds into shell companies.
Mexican citizens were fed up with corruption, disillusioned with the economic model that made the rich richer and increased the ranks of the poor, scared of rising crime and violence, and ready for a change. AMLO had the winning formula this time around. He and his team barnstormed the countryside, created a massive social media presence and built alliances that kept the popular base while bringing in prominent business figures.
López Obrador won the July 1 election with a record-breaking 53 percent. Peña Nieto’s handpicked successor got just 16 percent of the vote. AMLO’s party, the Movement for National Regeneration (MORENA) also won control of both houses of Congress and took five of the nine governorships in play, including the Mexico City federal district where López Obrador previously served.
With political power finally in his hands, he has proposed raising the minimum wage (about 59 cents an hour), increasing spending on pensions for the elderly, job creation, expanding access to education, ending the drug war and addressing the root social causes of crime and violence. Now the question is: To transform Mexico, how far will and can he go?
Signs from the Transition
Mexico has a five-month lame-duck period between elections and the inauguration of the new president. Incoming presidents usually lie low or meet with the outgoing government behind closed doors to arrange the hand-off of power. But López Obrador began convening his cabinet and announcing programs the day after July 1. The press practically camped out in front of his offices, and long lines of citizens formed to present their concerns to a harried staff and sometimes the president-elect himself.
López Obrador’s cabinet has more women than any in Mexico’s history, including the Secretaries of the Interior, Social Development, Economy, Public Administration, Labor, Environment, Culture and Energy. They’re also 49 percent of the new legislature, making macho Mexico a world leader in gender parity. The cabinet also encompasses a volatile mix of interests. Evangelical Christians and conservative businessmen are strange bedfellows with historic figures from Mexico’s left.
The new Congress that took office Sept. 1 has prioritized legislation to cut back government spending on salaries and luxuries, increase social programs, build transparency into budget and legislative activities, create a ministry of Public Safety, enact stronger sanctions against electoral fraud, expand infrastructure, expand access to free public education and restore labor rights public school teachers lost under Peña Nieto.
But the MORENA government has two big external obstacles: Donald Trump and international financial markets. Trump has been surprisingly cordial, but the degree to which López Obrador has gone out of his way to avoid riling the erratic U.S. president indicates a real concern. Their letters to each other since the election read like a bromance. The markets like that, but many AMLO supporters want to see the new government stand up to Trump after Peña Nieto’s capitulations. In a recent poll, Mexico had the lowest Trump approval rating of any country in the world—a mere 6 percent expressed confidence in his leadership.
There have already been important test cases. AMLO sent his own negotiator into the NAFTA renegotiation with the Trump administration and approved the final agreement, noting that it “reduced uncertainty.” After 24 years of NAFTA and export-oriented neoliberalism, Mexico depends on the U.S. for 80 percent of its international trade and most of its investment. The new NAFTA, like the old one, contradicts tenets and programs López Obrador has proposed, but he didn’t want to risk instability.
That’s the second problem. Any indication of tension in Mexico’s relationship with the supreme capitalist power — like every time Trump tweeted that he wanted to pull out of NAFTA — makes markets jittery. The peso falls, Mexico’s investor rating drop and stock markets punish the victim. That’s a lot of power for unaccountable forces to wield over an entire population, and a big reason why López Obrador has taken a don’t-rock-the-boat approach for now.
But it can’t go on forever. The renamed U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, despite improvements in labor and dispute-resolution provisions, continues the same economics he opposes. It failed to lift steel and aluminum tariffs against Mexico and imposed draconian intellectual property monopolies on medicines. Mexican small farmers, an important AMLO constituency, want out. Peña Nieto will presumably sign the revised NAFTA, but it also must be ratified by the MORENA Congress.
That’s not the only confrontation looming on the horizon. The exodus of thousands of Honduran migrants and refugees coming up through Mexico has strained relations. The Peña Nieto government called for them to apply for legal status in Mexico. But most want to keep going to the United States, where many have family. The prospect of spending months waiting for Mexican papers, often in detention-like settings also doesn’t offer much hope.
AMLO, on a victory tour through Chiapas while the caravan was moving through the state, welcomed them and promised work visas and respect for human rights. His message contrasted sharply with Trump’s alarmist conspiracy theories against the Central Americans. But López Obrador is also proposing a joint U.S.-Mexico program to invest in Central America. The two countries have already worked together with this purported aim since 2014, through the Alliance for Prosperity, a Pentagon-led approach that combines military-police border crackdowns with the promotion of transnational investment. The exodus reflects that strategy’s failure. It’s not clear how López Obrador’s proposal will be different, or how he plans to work with the Trump administration to achieve it.
It makes political sense to put off confrontations until taking power, although it’s sending mixed messages. AMLO obviously doesn’t have the same latitude as president-elect as he will as president, so his actions now can’t really presage what he will do in office. He also has a mobilized and vocal base with high expectations that isn’t shy about making demands.
This election signified the empowerment of the Mexican people in the electoral process and a vote for radical change. To carry out deep reforms, López Obrador has to keep them organized enough to exert pressure from below. An October referendum rejecting Peña Nieto’s plans to build a controversial new Mexico City airport in the suburb of Texcoco was a victory for that strategy.
It’s not clear what the right, now sidelined from formal political power, will do to oppose or sabotage López Obrador’s agenda. A part of the left, notably the leadership of the Zapatista movement, has taken a strong stance against the new government. The geopolitics of the region and the Mexico-bashing Trump administration make for a difficult international scenario, where conciliation won’t always be an option.
But one word drove the campaign and will be dominant at AMLO’s Dec. 1 inauguration: hope. In a world where extreme-right violence takes more lives every day and fear often wins out, that’s a pretty big deal.
Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy based in Mexico City.
Photo: GREAT EXPECTATIONS: Andrés Manuel López Obrador will be inaugurated Dec. 1 amid soaring hopes that he can transform Mexico’s corrupt political and economic system. But will he be able to accomplish his populist, left-wing agenda? Credit: Eneas De Troya.