Some see Andrés Manuel López Obrador as the Mexican Hugo Chávez — a dangerous radical who would threaten the country’s political and economic stability. Others see the controversial leftist as the only hope left for a nation marred by corruption, poverty, and drug violence. Now, after five years of drift and a seemingly endless series of corruption scandals under President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, polls suggest that the 2018 presidential race will offer the two-time runner-up his best chance yet to lead his country. Last week, a poll by the newspaper El Universal showed an early lead of nearly 11 percent ahead of the July election.
López Obrador, who officially launched his campaign with a speech in Ciudad Juárez earlier this month, is running against José Antonio Meade of the incumbent Institutional Revolutionary Party, a Yale-educated lawyer and economist, and rising star Ricardo Anaya Cortés of the centrist Forward for Mexico alliance, which includes the center-right National Action Party and center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution. Either of the above would likely represent continuity with Mexico’s fiscally responsible, internationalist agenda of the past 30 years. Yet they would also surely disappoint: Mexico’s greatest challenges — inequality, education, rule of law — cannot be resolved within a single six-year term, only through steady progress.
For U.S.-born, Mexico City-based academic John Ackerman, a prominent leftist commentator in Mexico, López Obrador is a “progressive reformist” in the mold of former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, while the political right portrays him as a populist who would lead Mexico down the same path as Venezuela. The most astute criticism of López Obrador, however, often comes from the very leftists he claims to represent, who lament a burgeoning cult of personality; a regressive attitude on social issues, such as abortion and LGBT rights; and a longing for the all-powerful presidency and statism of Mexico’s past.
These latter assessments identify the central problem of López Obrador’s candidacy. Despite concerns over his populist tendencies, he is focusing on the right issues. The real question is whether or not he has new solutions to offer — or only the same old ones, which will continue to fall short.
López Obrador is a political veteran whose career began within the former Institutional Revolutionary Party regime in the early 1970s, when corporatism, state planning, and high public spending, fueled by oil revenues, drove economic development. Yet the strategy, emulated across much of Latin America at the time, was built on sand, culminating in the 1982 Latin American debt crisis and the region’s subsequent so-called lost decade. The story of Mexico since then has been one of parallel transitions — from a de facto one-party state to a multiparty democracy, and from a relatively closed economy to wholesale market reforms.
Yet the intervening period has been one of contrasting fortunes, in many ways epitomized by the past five years under Peña Nieto, who in 2012 returned the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the country’s former ruling dynasty, to power democratically, on a fiscal responsibility and pro-market platform. Since 2009, Mexico has enjoyed the longest period of sustained economic growth in its history, albeit barely above 2 percent per year. Structural reforms have touched nearly every area of the Mexican economy, from the public education system to the energy sector. Yet where Peña Nieto, like his predecessors, has failed is in consolidating the rule of law. Drug violence has reached its highest levels in two decades. High-profile corruption scandals have decimated the government’s credibility.
“The rule of law is one area where we are not progressing,” says Macario Schettino, an economist at the Monterrey Institute of Technology in Mexico City. “And that affects many other aspects of the economy, such as the ability to generate taxes, reform public education, and secure the confidence of investors.”
López Obrador has been Mexico’s most prominent opposition voice throughout much of this period. In 1989, he joined a group of dissident ruling party members in founding the Democratic Revolutionary Party, which opposed the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s ideological shift to the right. He later served as the mayor of Mexico City, where he governed as a moderate, implementing popular social programs, instating incentives to increase investment in housing, and founding a new public university. He twice was the runner-up to the presidency, in 2006 and 2012. Following the second defeat, he broke away from his increasingly centrist party to found the National Regeneration Movement, officially registered in 2014.
His vision for Mexico is based on two fundamental ideas: that unchecked corruption by a rapacious elite has undermined much of Mexico’s potential, and that the neoliberal reforms the country has implemented under centrist governments since the 1980s have failed. As for the former, he has a point, and 80 percent of citizens agree. The latter claim requires nuanced examination.
The reality of Mexico today is that in regions where market reforms have been successfully implemented, and the rule of law strengthened, mostly in the north, the economy is performing well, buoyed by dynamic burgeoning sectors, including the manufacturing, pharmaceutical, and tech industries. In its impoverished, mostly rural south, however, the country has barely moved on from the 1980s. Yet it is precisely in the latter region where the corporatism, clientelism, and political repression of one-party rule have proven hardest to shake. Like any modern country, Mexico requires a role for both the state and the private sector, yet the common denominator is the rule of law.
“In Mexico today, the name of the person who occupies the presidency is almost incidental,” says Carlos Bravo Regidor, a political scientist at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics in Mexico City. “Far more important is the need to strengthen institutions and checks and balances, and that is a long-term bet that will take decades.”
Following López Obrador’s previous runs for the presidency, in which he clashed fiercely with private sector interests in Mexico, many supporters point out that he has moderated his stance. In his recent book, 2018: La Salida, López Obrador makes a number of fairly business-friendly proposals, such as public-private partnerships on infrastructure and tax incentives for private investors. Most notably, he insists that Mexico can have a productive relationship with the United States, proposing a binational job creation program along the border to reduce both outward emigration and deadly drug cartels’ recruitment of youth. U.S. President Donald Trump would surely approve.
López Obrador “has come to the conclusion that in order to render himself enough of an attractive candidate for a majority of Mexicans, he needs to become more conciliatory, more centrist, more pragmatic,” Bravo says.
Yet there is also another side to López Obrador’s vision, which harkens back to Mexico’s so-called revolutionary nationalism of the 1970s. He wants to hold popular referendums on Mexico’s recent structural reforms, including its landmark 2014 energy reform, which ended a near 80-year state monopoly in the oil and gas sector. Energy revenues, along with a unilateral crackdown on corruption to reduce public sector waste, would finance ambitious social programs, such as the revival of Mexico’s agricultural sector and universal free education. Yet he wants to combat corruption by abandoning recent moves toward an independent anti-graft prosecutor, investing sole responsibility in the presidency, and putting all manner of social policies, including recent progressive legislation on gay rights and abortion, up for vote by referendum.
“I think his proposals amount to returning to 1970 from a closed economy to an all-powerful president,” Schettino says. “Those promises are impossible to fulfill, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t try.”
The most uncertain aspect of a López Obrador presidency is how his vision would interact with Mexico’s burgeoning, if still weak, democracy. The country’s institutions are increasingly independent; its political landscape is more competitive than ever. One of the most positive developments of the Peña Nieto era has been the emergence of an increasingly dynamic civil society, which, long suppressed by one-party rule, has taken the political elite to task on key reforms to public transparency, education, and criminal injustice.
López Obrador has repeatedly clashed with Mexican civil society, rejecting calls for a new transparency law to force public officials to reveal their assets and siding with opaque labor unions on an educational reform intended to reduce corruption and nepotism in Mexico’s notoriously dysfunctional public school system.
There are currently two leftist currents in Mexico — a progressive one that consists of reformist wings in all the major parties that looks to engage civil society and push ahead with vital democratic advances, and another that looks to concentrate power in the presidency and backs economic proposals that led to disaster in the past.
As such, a López Obrador presidency could have two outcomes: At best, it would merely bring disappointment and remind Mexicans that their country’s problems need long-term, grassroots, institutional solutions. At worst, it could mean turning back the clock on 30 years of genuine, if frustrating, progress.