By Dan Steinbock
For a year or two, international media touted the neoliberal reforms of Mexico’s outgoing president, Enrique Peña Nieto. However, as the “reform” narrative has proved hollow, Peña Nieto’s approval rating has plunged from almost 50% to barely 10%. So the media narrative has been revised it by downplaying Peña Nieto but focusing on the flawed portrayal of the newly-elected Andrés Manuel López Obrador, often abbreviated as AMLO, as Mexico’s Hugo Chávez who will undermine the country’s future.
Perhaps that’s why The Economist portrayed Obrador as “Mexico’s answer to Donald Trump” whose “nationalist populism” offers “many reasons to worry about Mexico’s most likely next president.” Similarly, US-based economic hit men and political risk groups, including Ian Bremmer’s Eurasia Group, have framed Obrador’s popular front as a “significant market risk.”
With few variations, the same narrative has been replicated in leading US dailies (Washington Post, New York Times), weeklies (Time and Newsweek), and the UK-based Financial Times. Theirs is a story about the “firebrand leftist” whose biography is “replete with danger signals.”
What these ideological briefings will not report is that Obrador is neither an overnight phenomenon nor Trump-induced collateral damage. In reality, Obrador’s movement is a belated triumph for Mexico’s popular will, after decades of electoral fraud.
Change is coming
In the past six years, Peña Nieto’s administration has sold Mexico’s public assets to foreign bidders and opened financial markets to speculation, while accommodating loyally Washington’s policies. At the same time, corruption, crime, narco-violence and rising murder rates have soared. While neoliberal elites portray the past decade as that of rising competitiveness, market realities prove otherwise. Mexico’s real GDP growth has fallen significantly behind its BRIC potential during the years of Felipe Calderon (2006-12) and Peña Nieto (2012-18) (see figure).
But change may be at the door, finally. Obrador’s coalition ‘Juntos Haremos Historia’ (Together We’ll Make History) rests on popular will, not on the needs of the oligarchic economic and political elite, or what Obrador calls the “power mafia.”
Sectorally, he is pushing for the rejuvenation of the agricultural sector. In particular, he would like to develop the agricultural economy of Southern Mexico, which has been hurt by cheap (and tacitly subsidized) US food imports. In contrast to Peña Nieto’s “energy reform”—which ended Pemex’s monopoly in the oil industry and brought foreign investors to Mexican energy markets—Obrador wants a popular referendum over the energy sector, knowing well that many Mexicans oppose are highly skeptical about the sale of national assets to foreign speculators.
After Trump’s inauguration, Obrador published a best-selling book called Oye, Trump, in which he takes a critical look at the American “Caligura on Twitter.” While he is politically too shrewd to challenge Trump head on, he is not an appeaser like Peña Nieto. And unlike Peña Nieto, Obrador also had no hurry to conclude the Trump talks about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Through the election campaigns, he supported the delay of the renegotiations of NAFTA until the elections, to have a say in the final outcome.
Obrador seeks increased spending for welfare, which should be a central political objective in a large emerging economy. He is also a strong proponent of cutting the salaries of the political elite to avoid penalising ordinary Mexicans. He is willing to walk the talk: he has cut his own public-service salary, several times.
Instead of pushing elite educational objectives, Obrador seeks educational reforms through universal access to public colleges and proposes increases in financial aid to students and the elderly.
Like Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Obrador, having served in both Tabasco and as mayor of Mexico City, knows only too well how the ruling elite operates in the imperial metropolis. As a result, he is strongly for the decentralization of the executive cabinet by moving secretaries from the capital to the states—closer to the people that they should serve, further from the lobbies they tend to collude with.
In contrast to ‘law and order’ candidates that in the past have colluded with the drug kingpins, he wants to restore law and order and thus peace and stability, in order to focus on economic development. He might even seek to negotiate an amnesty for the key narco criminals.
Obrador’s platform reflects popular will. That’s why it has been marginalized by the oligarchic elites for decades—even with electoral fraud.
Decades of electoral fraud
Born in 1953, Obrador is everything but a new force or overnight phenomenon in Mexican politics. Starting his career in 1976 in the then-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Tabasco, on the Gulf of Mexico, he soon became the party’s state leader. In this capacity, Obrador saw intimately how PRI’s longstanding political monopoly began to crumble as domestic elites and foreign interests paved the way to Carlos Salinas’s presidency (1988-94).
Following a highly controversial electoral process and reported electoral fraud, Salinas who had been groomed at elite US universities, subjected Mexico to neoliberal reforms, which led to years of economic rollercoaster climaxing with the NAFTA. As a series of other presidents ensued—from Zedillo and Fox to Calderón and Peña Nieto—they all promised economic reforms, war against drugs and a better future. Yet, each, despite different parties, shared a common denominator—neoliberal economic policies, which were predicated on the continued embrace of NAFTA, the expansion of cartels, and bandwagoning of US policies.
Those were never Obrador’s political objectives. He resigned from PRI years before NAFTA and joined the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), a social-democratic coalition that was formed after the contested election of 1988. Although early results suggested a clear win to Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas, the corrupt Salinas was declared the new president.
In the 1990s, Obrador succeeded Cárdenas. In 1994, he run for Tabasco’s governor but lost to the PRI’s candidate. After the election, a supporter informed Obrador the PRI had spent $95 million dollars on an election in which half a million people voted. In 2000, Obrador became Mexico City’s mayor. After more national exposure, he entered the 2006 presidential election, representing a PRD-led coalition of center-left parties. Obrador’s ‘Coalition for the Good of All’ appeared to be winning until he was declared to have lost by 0.58%. That led to a massive, takeover of Paseo de la Reforma and the Zocalo in Mexico City, where protests endured for months.
In the 2012 election, Obrador again represented a coalition of PRD and various labor and citizen movements. However, Peña Nieto’s domestic and foreign supporters took a more proactive stance against Obrador’s popular movement. Despite mass popular opposition to Peña Nieto’s perceived “corruption, tyranny and authoritarianism,” printed and televised media, particularly the pro-Peña Nieto Televisa, downplayed or left unreported much of the criticism. A few years later, Bloomberg discovered that hired Colombian hackers had been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by Peña Nieto’s PRI to undermine his adversaries and manipulate social media. The election was contested, but despite post-electoral protests, claims of fraud, and Obrador’s formal request to invalidate the election, popular will was discounted—once again.
So Obrador left the PRD and founded the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) creating his current coalition “Juntos Haremos Historia.” He concluded that to win in Mexico, an alternative candidate needs a broader popular front. So he tailored his platform accordingly. As a result, this time around, his pre-election ratings were almost twice as high as his closest rivals.
While Obrador’s success has been augmented by Trump’s protectionism and immigration phobias, his electoral success in 2018 is the direct result of personal integrity and political resilience.
Toward sovereign Mexico
As Mexicans elected the new president until 2024, they also elected 128 members of the Senate for six years and 500 members of the Chamber of Deputies for three years.
If Mexico opts for a new direction, the consequences will be historical in domestically, regionally, even internationally. Not only the White House, but Mexicans may well review the role of NAFTA. Moreover, the drug trade that is maintained by mainly US demand will be under new scrutiny as well. It is time; the cartel violence has taken the lives of more than 200,000 Mexicans.
With more than 122 million people, Mexico is the world’s 15th largest economy and its 11th most populous democracy; a large, emerging economy that could morph into one of the leading global economies by 2050. To win the future, one has to know where one comes from. Having written half a dozen books about Mexico’s history, Obrador is acutely aware of his country’s past, and the territories that were lost following US interventions in the 19th century.
Unlike his modern-day elite peers, Obrador’s political idols reflect Mexico’s decades of industrialization and modernization. He has written particularly warmly about Benito Juárez who had poor, rural origins but rose to national power and presidency (1858-72). Juárez won the War of the Reform and beat the French invasion. He was not an ideologue, but smart, pragmatic and—when necessary—ruthless. Despite his charm with the masses, Obrador’s nickname is El Peje, which refers to abasco’s freshwater gar, an ancient fish with an alligator’s face.
Ultimately, Obrador seeks economic development. In his world, “Mexico First” would be a poor match with a global economy. Yet, unlike Peña Nieto and the neoliberals, he does believe that a sovereign Mexico belongs to the Mexican people.
Dan Steinbock is an internationally recognised strategist of the multipolar world and the founder of Difference Group. He has served at the India, China and America Institute (US), the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (China) and the EU Center (Singapore).
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius