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Mexico’s New Boss Is the Same as Its Old Bosses

The corrupt establishment is dead; long live the corrupt establishment.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador gestures after voting during general elections, in Mexico City, on July 1, 2018. (ULISES RUIZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador gestures after voting during general elections, in Mexico City, on July 1, 2018. (ULISES RUIZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Throughout its tumultuous history, maverick Mexico has shown a strong propensity for cutting against the regional grain. In the early 1800s, when its sister colonies were bucking Spanish rule to establish liberal republics, what was then the viceroyalty of New Spain broke away to establish a still more conservative monarchy — starting by crowning a local general, and later importing a surplus Habsburg from Austria. During the Cold War of the subsequent century, as nationalist governments throughout the region were scrambling to curry favor with the burgeoning U.S. superpower, only Mexico opted to publicly bet on Castro over Kennedy.

Mexico’s latest break with precedent arrived last weekend. After successfully resisting the wave of destructive left-wing populism that beset nearly everywhere else in Latin America more than a decade ago, Mexicans last weekend elected as president the very same populist leftist candidate they twice rejected back when such movements were significantly trendier — doing so only once most of the neighbors had voted out, impeached, or imprisoned their own.

Mexico’s new government — which will take over the legislature in September and the presidency on Dec. 1 — is not quite the ideological anachronism it can appear at first blush however. While it shares much superficially with the busted socialist revolutions of Latin America’s recent past in terms of style, narrative, and rhetoric, it can perhaps be better understood as a highly personalized extension of a singular leader whose views can be famously amorphous and hard to pin down, but whose political instincts smack far more of the rustic economic nationalism popular in Mexico’s hinterland around 1970s than they do the internationalist pink tide liberation theology guiding Caracas or Buenos Aires during the early 2000s.

Then again, ideology itself may not be terribly useful lens through which to view Mexico’s new leader. He is a man whose inherent multiplicities may be his defining characteristic and what has allowed him to remain the face of anti-establishment opposition against national governments of every stripe for decades, even as his growing movement has increasingly come to resemble them. (A fitting personalization, perhaps, of ever-contrarian Mexico itself.)


The election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador — or AMLO, as he is often called — wasn’t just peculiar by regional standards. Mexico is a country where powerful establishment parties have for decades competed as much to secure complex webs of patronage as for actual votes. Yet a journeyman leftist, running under the banner of a newly nascent party, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) — which he founded personally in a fit of pique against his previous party in the aftermath of his most recent failed bid — has defeated them all and by an unprecedented margin. His 53 percent share of the vote, from a crowded field of establishment contenders, was considerably more than double that received by the best-performing runner-up, Ricardo Anaya of the National Action Party (PAN). The resultant landslide likewise garnered him five governorships, alongside and likely a solid majority (although official results are still pending) for his coalition in both of Mexico’s two legislative houses, a feat unmatched by any incoming Mexican president since the country transitioned from a one-party state to a pluralistic democracy in the late 1990s.

If largely unprecedented, López Obrador’s victory was by no means unexpected. The record unpopularity of the outgoing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) government under presient Enrique Peña Nieto, alongside a palpably frustrated and desperate national mood in the face of rising corruption and violence, had rendered Mexico ripe for an outsider takeover in what was essentially an outrage election. Shrewdly positioning himself as an austere anti-corruption crusader, untouched by the systemic graft of Mexico’s main establishment parties — which he successfully lumped together in the national imagination as a single festering “Pri-an” — had enjoyed double-digit leads in national polls for months prior to election day. And, despite three lackluster debate performances, an organized effort from within the business community to forestall him, and an escalating barrage of negative campaign attacks from all sides warning of Mexico’s imminent Venezuelanization should he ever come to power, his support base seemed to remain impervious throughout.

Given the direness of such warnings, however — including chilling portents of doom from former Mexican presidents, multiple marquee members of the business community, and, almost certainly counterproductively, high-ranking members of the Trump administration — one might have expected a more panicked reaction from the establishment once the looming AMLOcalypse was actually upon them. Instead, López Obrador’s defeated adversaries were quick to concede, doing so soon after the first exit polls were released and hours before any official estimates had even been made public. The very first such concession to be given, and by far the most congenial, came from none other than the PRI candidate José Antonio Meade, whose party has long been considered the regional gold standard for electoral hijinks and corrupt patronage politics. Sunday’s election not only saw the party lose the presidency for only the third time in its almost century of existence but also left it so weakened within both houses of the national legislature, where it has never failed to be the largest party, as to place its future in real doubt.

In Latin America, where revolutionary rhetoric abounds and national politics often seem to oscillate from the revolutionary left to the reactionary right, political transitions of any kind are seldom such staid affairs. Indeed, recent Mexican election results have often been hotly contested afterward — primarily by López Obrador himself. Crying foul after each unsuccessful presidential run, and most recently following a loss by his party of the Mexico State governorship to the PRI, he at one point went so far as to call upon his outraged supporters to paralyze Mexico City’s main thoroughfare for good measure, a disruption that continued at various degrees of intensity for the better part of two months in 2006.

This time, López Obrador has proved as gracious in victory as he has previously been petulant in defeat. He dedicated his victory to assuaging the fears of jittery international markets and domestic elites. Speaking in a tone of carefully measured equanimity, he pledged to adhere to the established legal order while in power, eschew nationalization or strong-arm interventionism, protect the private sector, respect deals and contracts made by previous governments, respect central bank autonomy, remain fiscally responsible, and neither take out loans nor raise taxes to pay for new social programs. For the most part, ticking off a laundry list of market concerns one by one seemingly proved sufficient to placate markets — at least for now. The less immediate future is another matter.

The unprecedented breadth of his victory fits well within the grand narrative of a populist movement that has long had messianic undertones. López Obrador is fond of saying that MORENA is not a political party, a concept that he often refers to disparagingly. It is, rather, a movement centered less on an ideological vision than an unshakable belief that the leader will be able to solve the key issues that plague Mexico — including soaring levels of cartel violence, endemic corruption, and rising inequality — based on who he is, rather than on actual policy prescriptions. After all, haven’t these same evils by now stymied a half dozen successive Mexican administrations led by U.S.-educated technocrats slinging policy solutions?

Rather than referring to him by his initials, supporters will usually refer to him as Peje — one of many nicknames he has received during his long political career but the only one that has matched his staying power. It’s short for pejelagarto, a large and ancient species of carnivorous fish that thrives in the swamps of his native Tabasco State. Beyond befitting his carefully cultivated folksy, rustic persona, the comparison aptly captures much of what has made López Obrador successful: his propensity to be the biggest fish in whatever pond he inhabits, his tendency to wax aggressive on occasion, his stately age and somewhat bygone political views on issues ranging from economic nationalism to opposing abortion and gay marriage, and his preternatural ability to survive in hostile or even toxic political waters.

This characterization does fall short in a key respect, however. While his piscine counterpart has remained unchanged since the Jurassic, López Obrador himself has proven a master at evolving politically. From a nationalistic and corporatist PRIísta at the outset of his political journey, to an erstwhile Hugo Chávez imitator in his contested 2006 loss to Felipe Calderón, softening to a kind of ersatz Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva figure this time around. As a result, despite decades in the public eye — first as a rising star in the Mexican state of Tabasco, then as the popular mayor of Mexico City, and most recently for his decades as a perennial presidential also-ran — López Obrador remains a cipher to many, less because he is inherently unknowable than because you never quite know what iteration you’re going to get.

Which López Obrador will now be leading Mexico remains an open question, and one which is rendered all the more salient absent legislative checks upon his power should he overreach. Critics fear a revolutionary socialist who will persecute Mexico’s domestic elite, bulldoze checks and balances, strangle the private sector, and chase away foreign investment for a generation. Supporters see in López Obrador an outsider who will reform an irredeemably corrupt status quo, reclaim Mexican self-respect in the age of Trump, and sweep away the rot within the old system while holding on to whatever may actually be good. Others, more cynical, suspect the ratio of flash to bang during his presidency may weigh heavily toward the former, and that like the proverbial dog who has at long last caught the car, el Peje may now have no idea what to do with it.

Hints may lie in how he has built his “movement” into a winning political coalition. Bringing on board the traditional far-left fringe party (PT) with the largest socially conservative religious party (PES), getting them to transcend their starkly clashing ideologies, to be junior partners for MORENA — which primarily believes in him. Lacking the structural advantages and networks of the traditional establishment parties, he has had to court a collection of disgraced politicians, union leaders, and community leaders in order to co-opt their contacts, community ties, and relationships with pre-existing structures in exchange for a return for from the political wilderness.

The end result of this has been a political Noah’s Ark of grizzled old fellow travelers, well-connected millennials, a few shady business tycoons, and an abundance of political castaways from the parties he has now defeated. This menagerie of incongruous interests and outlooks was able to remain cohesive despite itself while in opposition, united against an establishment they abhorred in common. How it might fare now that it has become the establishment remains to be seen but the regional norm has long been that parties lacking a coherent unifying ideology, all too often substitute it by cultivating “honor among thieves” as regards sacking the state through corruption.

For all its regional non-conformity, throughout its near-century under the pragmatic and rapacious PRI, in this respect Mexico has been less the outlier that the regional archetype. Perhaps AMLO may yet find a way escape this toxic paradigm as he has recently managed to shatter others. Based on the introductory sequence however, what’s coming looks ever less like sequel to the PRI than a reboot with a more popular lead actor.

In López Obrador’s single-minded, multi-decade quest to defeat Mexico’s corrupt establishment and become president, the myriad compromises necessary to get him there have morphed his revolution into a dead ringer for what preceded it: a top-heavy patronage network with bombastic rhetoric and no coherent ideology. The PRI is dead; long live the PRI.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches on Latin America at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.

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