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How Will AMLO Govern Mexico?

Mexico’s new president promises to fight corruption and inequality, but critics worry he’ll be the country’s Hugo Chávez.

Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador at a press conference in Mexico City on Oct. 29. (Ulises Ruiz /AFP/Getty Images)
Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador at a press conference in Mexico City on Oct. 29. (Ulises Ruiz /AFP/Getty Images)

After two failed tries at Mexico’s top office, Andrés Manuel López Obrador will finally become president on Saturday, the first time since 1929 that the country’s leader will come from outside the two parties that have ruled for nearly a century. The arrival of the 65-year-old firebrand follows the six-year term of the deeply unpopular President Enrique Peña Nieto, who represented the bankruptcy of the country’s exhausted political establishment, one that showed itself incapable of tackling challenges like corruption, security, or economic inequality.

López Obrador, or AMLO as he is known, sees himself as the heir to Mexican giants like 19th-century reformer Benito Juárez, early 20th-century revolutionary Francisco Madero, and Lázaro Cárdenas, a popular leftist president during the 1930s. Critics see him more in the mold of Hugo Chávez, the socialist strongman who destroyed Venezuela. The big question is whether the so-called tropical Messiah will be able to fulfill his promises of national restoration, or whether his critics’ deepest fears of an authoritarian populist will come true.

López Obrador makes many people nervous for many of the same reasons that Donald Trump did during his run to the White House. He galvanized voters by attacking a corrupt establishment, made fantastic promises that seem hard to square with economic or fiscal reality, and he’s flirted with authoritarianism. (When he lost the race for president in 2006, he contested the results and questioned the legitimacy of the real winner, Felipe Calderón.) And as did Trump, AMLO comes into office with control of both houses of Congress, giving him unusual freedom of maneuver for a Mexican president.

But unlike Trump, AMLO has been an activist, mayor, and political figure for years, giving him a ballast of practical political experience. He began his career in the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) before later becoming the national leader of the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution. He also has, in stark contrast to Trump, a deep appreciation of history, which will help shape the course his administration takes. AMLO’s opposition to Peña Nieto’s energy reform, for instance, reflected the profound symbolic and historical importance that the 1938 nationalization of the oil sector has in Mexico.

“The grand sweep of history will color his decisions,” said Antonio Ortiz-Mena, a former Mexican government trade negotiator and economic official. “He sees himself as part of a narrative from Juárez through Madero through Cárdenas,” with himself as the fourth big hinge in Mexican history, he said.

The question that many in and outside Mexico are asking is which version of AMLO will take office. (In a symbolic bid to burnish his populist credentials, he’ll be working somewhere other than the traditional presidential residence of Los Pinos.) For decades, and during his earlier presidential runs, AMLO espoused old-school ideas, especially a statist approach to the economy. But since walking away with the election this summer, AMLO has surrounded himself with more pragmatic advisors, raising the prospect of a more moderate style in office.

Even his biggest critics concede that his 2000 to 2005 stint as mayor of Mexico City—considered one of the country’s most powerful political posts after the presidency—was a resounding success. He built much-needed infrastructure and revitalized the city center.

“His reputation by everybody who talked about him, even those who didn’t like him, was that he was a great mayor,” said Earl Anthony Wayne, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 2011 to 2015.

And while he had been a fierce critic of Peña Nieto’s efforts at reform, especially opening up the shriveling energy sector to foreign investment, AMLO appeared to moderate those views on the campaign trail this year.

The concerns center on what he’s done since winning the vote. In October, he suddenly canceled a $13-billion dollar airport construction project underway in Mexico City, sparking panic on the stock exchange and sending bonds and the peso plummeting. He’s also pushing through an $8 billion plan to build an oil refinery in his home state of Tabasco and a $6 billion to $8 billion plan to build a new railroad in underdeveloped southeastern Mexico.

Like the airport, those other big-ticket decisions were based on the results of non-binding, irregular referendums in which only a handful of eligible voters took part, eroding investor confidence in a predictable framework for economic policymaking. “It’s both the decisions themselves, and the decision-making process,” said Ortiz-Mena, who is now at Albright Stonebridge Group. “I’m much more concerned than I was a few weeks ago.”

The question of which way AMLO ultimately leans matters more than it did with other Mexican presidents. With majorities in the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, fueled by popular disgust at rampant corruption and insecurity, AMLO has the ability to turn a lot of his campaign aspirations into policies that stick. In addition to a big bloc among his own coalition, both of the main opposition parties—the PRI and the National Action Party—are in utter disarray. “With his big majorities in Congress, he has the ability to do a lot,” said Wayne.

But even with his fondness for a centralized government, AMLO’s congressional coalition is a patchwork spanning the political spectrum, raising questions about what economic policy the government will ultimately pursue. “His coalition has a large group of people, from very practical, pragmatic pro-market camps to more radical reformists. That’s all under his tent,” said Wayne.

Keith Johnson is Foreign Policy’s global geoeconomics correspondent. @KFJ_FP

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

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