Mexico: Dawn of a new era or a return to the past?

The real danger that has arisen from AMLO’s and MORENA’s landslide victories is not expropriation or authoritarianism, but disillusionment with unfulfilled promises and the persistence of corruption, poverty, and violence.


This article original appeared in Spanish on our partner website esglobal. Read it here.

Mexico’s July 1st election confirmed what pre-election polls and surveys had already foretold: Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) won the presidency in a landslide, earning more support than even Vicente Fox in 2000, the election that marked the end of the hegemony of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had ruled uninterrupted since 1929. The real surprise of the election—good news to many, worrisome to many others—was the overwhelming victory of MORENA, the party founded by AMLO, in both houses of congress, most races for governor, and in local elections. It was a resounding victory, a reflection of voters’ disenchantment with political elites who have perpetuated vices and inefficiencies in the name of staying in power.

Many supporters of AMLO and MORENA are now experiencing a period of euphoria and hope that they have ushered in an era of real change—the “fourth re-foundation of Mexico” promised by the president-elect during the campaign. Others see a more uncertain future and fear an authoritarian drift that, in the worst case, would mirror the erosion of once-strong Venezuelan democracy under Hugo Chávez. Mexico is divided over whether AMLO is a leader of the future or the past.

The ghost of Hugo Chávez, which has shadowed AMLO in his campaigns for higher office since 2006, has its origin in the strategies of his electoral adversaries, who cleverly exploited the Mexican middle class’ fear of the Venezuelan model. Though exaggerated, the fears aren’t entirely unfounded, especially given MORENA’s top-down, personalist structure. MORENA is a new party, founded by AMLO in 2011 as an electoral vehicle after he abandoned the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). (He had previously left the long-dominant PRI.)  Non-AMLO candidates running under the MORENA banner found success using the personage of AMLO as the centerpiece of their candidacies.

The cult of personality surrounding AMLO in MORENA hasn’t been without pushback. His omnipresence in Delfina Gómez Álvarez’ campaign in the 2017 State of Mexico elections, for example, provoked criticism from voters who wanted a candidate who could stand on their own merits.

Nevertheless, the AMLO-centric strategy proved successful. In the build-up to the July 2018 elections, there was no shortage of controversial statements from AMLO regarding undoing recently approved structural reforms and changes in security policy and foreign policy. The ambiguity of the president-elect’s policy platform allowed the candidate to assemble a diverse electoral coalition that included radical elements. For example, the writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II claimed that businesses that refused to collaborate with the AMLO administration would face consequences including expropriation. AMLO himself quickly moved to contradict Taibo’s statement and affirm his respect for the law.

The president-elect continued to try to dampen fears of radicalism in his victory speech.  His remarks were aimed largely at those who did not vote for him and were filled with promises to govern for all Mexicans. His subsequent meetings with the business community and his proposed moderate and respected cabinet members, and the centrist members of his transition team have calmed (temporarily at least) his doubters and the markets, which will not forgive drifts towards chavismo.

AMLO is not Hugo Chávez, and there’s no evidence that he will assume the presidency seeking to emulate the Venezuelan project. Once in power, however, he will have to face the consequences of the contradictory expectations of the diverse coalition that brought him a landslide victory. The promise of a clean and honest government clashes with the presence of nefarious figures in AMLO’s inner circle such as Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, the ex-leader of the miner’s union who is accused of stealing millions of dollars from union members and Fernando González, whose mother-in-law, Elba Esther Gordillo, managed the teacher’s union before being imprisoned for corruption. Now that the elections have been won, those who mobilized the vote—including Gómez Urrutia and Gordillo—will likely expect favors in return.

The real danger that has arisen from AMLO’s and MORENA’s landslide victories is not expropriation or authoritarianism, but disillusionment with unfulfilled promises and the persistence of corruption, poverty, and violence.  AMLO represents the past—a very Mexican, very Latin American past.

The images of the post-election celebrations bring to mind Octavio Paz’s reflection on Mexican political culture, published 40 years ago in El ogro filantrópico: Historia y política 1971-1978. The book depicts a society that wants to merge the figure of the president with the caudillo. The president appeals to the law, but is a constitutional dictator. The caudillo is the epic hero who bends and shapes the law at his whim. When Taibo spoke of expropriating businesses, he defined AMLO as “a radical, competent and honest leader.” A video called Hoy despierto (“Today I wake up”) that circulated after AMLO’s victory portrays the president-elect as a good, wise, and powerful patriarch who will save the people, redeem the oppressed, erase the past, and build a glorious future.

What Mexico—and indeed all of Latin America—needs is to wake up from the fallacy that change comes from a messianic figure who will theoretically free us from the obligation to participate in politics. Those who support and believe in AMLO will put him on the pedestal as a savior. Those who distrust him will read Denise Dresser’s post-election op-ed and say, “Watch the chaos unfold.” But why don’t we scrutinize the outgoing president with such fervor? Why weren’t we skeptical when Vicente Fox came into his office with his “democratic” alternation of power? What’s really changed? What did we learn on July 1st that we had not learned already?

The truth is that we are the same society.  We seek to be rescued at the same time we promise to build democracy. We grant the power of change to presidents and then we hold them accountable because the change they deliver is too small. We trust that the transformation undertaken by the party in power will solve overnight the complex social problems that have accumulated over the decades while we sat by indifferently, unable or unwilling to keep an eye on the elites.

Let us hope that the electoral triumph of AMLO brings positive changes for Mexico, and that the contradictions that he will face between the demands of his radical base and moderate sympathizers do not translate into paralysis… or worse. However, the change of the party in power is not enough, even if it has brought about a significant change in political orientation. We are not going to witness a re-foundation, nor should we aspire to it, so long as we Mexicans do not commit ourselves to transforming the way in which we participate in politics.

Marta Ochman is a professor at the School of Government and Public Policy at Tecnológico de Monterrey. 

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