Thursday, July 05, 2018

Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) Wins Mexican Presidency

Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks
at a press conference in Mexico City, July 3,
2018 (Photo: Manuel Velazquez/Getty Images)
from New York Magazine
Three times can sometimes produce a seismic charm, or so it appears for Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) (1953-), who was finally elected President of Mexico on July 1, this past Sunday. Though a longtime member the leftist Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD) and a failed candidate in the contested 2006 and 2012 national elections, AMLO, a former Governor of the Federal District, ran under the aegis of a new left-leaning coalition, Juntos Haremos Historia (Together We Will Make History), that comprised the progressive Movimiento de la Regeneración Nacional (National Regeneration Movement/MORENA) and Partido de Trabajadores (Labor Party/PT) parties with a socially conservative party, Partido Encuentro Social (Social Encounter Party/PES). AMLO will assume office on December 1, 2018, which, given Mexico's current parlous state, will not be a moment too soon.

AMLO's chief rivals in this year's presidential election were Ricardo Anaya of the Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party/PAN), the center-right party of former president Vicente Fox (who served from 2000-2006) an antagonist of US Republican presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump; José Antonio Meade of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party/PRI), the neoliberal, longtime ruling party to which incumbent president Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018) belongs; and two independent candidates, Jaime Rodríguez Calderón, who had previously become the first independent candidate to win a state governorship when he helmed Nuevo Leon; and Margarita Zavala, a noted lawyer, and the wife of former president and PAN figurehead Felipe Calderón (in office from 2006-2012).

In essence, AMLO was not just leading a visibly left coalition but represented the only left-leaning option for Mexican voters in this presidential election. As the campaign progressed, Mexico's political and social elites grew increasingly alarmed, and perhaps rightly so. Yet the hiccuping economy, metastasizing violence, which even marked the lead-up to the election, and continuing allegations of extensive, high-level government corruption, blunted the right's blizzard of "Mexico will turn into Venezuela"-scare tactics, some with racist and classist tones, including advertisements, robocalls, videos, and social media attacks, not unlike ones that had doomed AMLO's chances in the prior two elections.

In one instance, a PRI operative named Enrique Ochoa Reza tweeted that PRI politicians who switched parties to MORENA were "Prietos que no aprietan" (Dark-skinned/black people who can't get a hold), playing on the double meanings of "moreno/a" (brown/black man/woman) and "prieto" (dark/black person), as well as the feminine form of the former word (morena=brown woman/black woman) and the verb aprietar (not being able to keep somebody). Ochoa Reza did apologize for the racist aspect of his slur, but not the misogynistic one. Additionally, there were allegations of US and Guatemalan meddling in the campaign, and Ochoa Reza accused Russia of interfering on behalf of AMLO, a charge the eventual victor laughed off.

The attacks, however numerous and outrageous, could not overcome Mexican voters disgust at the current state of affairs. AMLO won in a landslide, defeating Anaya by 21 percentage points while winning 53% of the total vote and popular vote. The final tally in an election that saw a 63.6% turnout (or 56.6 million voters out of 89.9 registered voters) was as follows, with AMLO winning 31 of Mexico's 32 states, and the first outright majority for a presidential candidate since 1989:

2018 Mexican Presidential Candidate & PartyVote Total
AMLO (National Regeneration Movement/Juntos Haremos Historia)30,112,109
Ricardo Anaya (PAN/Por México al Frente)12,609,472
José Antonio Meade (PRI/Todos por México)9,289,378
Jaime Rodríguez Calderón (Independent)32,743
Margarita Zavala (Independent)31,983

While his ideology has long been diametrically opposed to what we see with a figure like Donald Trump, they share a vocal populist nationalism, AMLO's rooted in the left and democratic socialism instead of Trump's ethnonationalist and racist authoritarian approach. What this might mean for the cozy relationship between Mexico's large corporations and land owners and the government and for an approach to a renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that privileges international structures and rules over the country's laws remains to be seen, but given the Juntos Haremos Historia/MORENA's capture of 312 of 500 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, and the strong popular mandate for the coalition and new president, AMLO could throw wrenches in Mexico's steady march towards privatization and economic (classical) liberalization, in favor of policies that more effectively and immediately address the rising economic inequality and insecurity that millions of Mexicans are facing.

During the campaign AMLO announced that he would push to reform some of the perks of the presidency, including cutting his salary and that of top officials, selling presidential planes, creating a public park out of the presidential grounds, and ending the lifetime pension former presidents receive, with the savings being directed towards Mexican seniors, who have a far less secure and comparatively robust retirement savings system than US's fixed pensions, 401K savings plans, and Social Security (which itself is admittedly always under threat from US conservatives and neoliberals). He also attacked the International Monetary Fund as an enabler of and participant in Mexico's corruption, suggesting he might pull back not just from the IMF but from other international financial systems that have long kept Mexico under yoke. One key question would be how projected new NAFTA negotiations might change as a result of this approach.

As Nathaniel Parish Flannery argues in a recent Forbes article, "The AMLO Era: Why Mexico's 2018 Election Matters," nearly half of Mexicans live in poverty, and despite the country's prowess in manufacturing, wages remain abysmal. Stemming governmental corruption and addressing the country's sluggish growth rate, rising economic and social inequality, the persistent lack of jobs in the formal economy, and low, stagnant wages across all labor sectors could have beneficial, ramifying effects on all aspects of Mexican society. The question for AMLO and Mexico's congress is how to spur all of this such that all the wealth does not continue to flow upwards to the relatively tiny sector of rich elites. Strategies to create a viable and vibrant middle class, which would necessitate a retreat from the neoliberalization of the prior PRI and PAN administrations, transformed tax and business policies, support for public education and farmers, and a strengthened safety net, could be among AMLO's and the new left-leaning Congress's potential steps.

Some of this, beyond NAFTA talks, will hinge on the "new relationship" AMLO has vowed to forge with Mexico's often domineering neighbor the United States. While the US and Mexico are among each others' largest trading partners and cooperate extensively in a range of areas, the two current leaders, Trump and Peña Nieto, have been at loggerheads, in part because of Trump's persistent attacks on Mexico and Mexicans, beginning the day he announced his presidential campaign and slandered Mexican immigrants, and because Peña Nieto understandably has refused to pay for Trump's desired border wall. AMLO has already challenged the border wall idea in a pamphlet he published, entitled Oye Trump (Listen Up, Trump). One goal AMLO outlined was development of Mexico's "internal market," so that "Mexicans can work and be happy where they were born, where their family is, where their customs and cultures are." Creating an expanding middle class is crucial to ensuring this market can flourish, and to transforming the migrant flows.

Another challenge for AMLO will be to figure out a way to lower the violence that has plagued Mexico. Neither Calderón's nor Peña Nieto's approaches worked; corruption remains endemic at all levels, and organized crime is strong as well. In addition, since September 2017, 130 political figures, from the municipal to the national level, have been murdered, and journalists across Mexico have been targeted for investigative and critical work. AMLO supposedly has suggested amnesty for low-level drug offenders, which sparked criticism, but it also is the case that Peña Nieto's initial policy approach of militarized attacks on the cartels failed, as did prior attempts to negotiate with organized crime. Rising pay for all workers, and better wages for domestic security and military forces could help to thwart the power of organized crime to infiltrate them, but AMLO also has suggested a "peace plan," involving human rights organizations, religious organizations, among others, to negotiate a decline in the murder rate.

I see less of a parallel with Hugo Chavez, to who AMLO has been repeatedly compared, and more of one with the presidency of Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva, Brazil's now imprisoned but still widely popular former president. Formerly a firebrand leftist from his country's Worker's Party, Lula lost three elections before finally becoming president in 2003, and governed for two terms. Lula moderated his platform in his successful campaign, presiding over a series of liberalized economic policies that on the one hand led to considerable growth, but which included a range of social policies that helped lift millions of Brazilians out of poverty, increased Brazil's safety net, and created a visible if fragile middle class. Unfortunately, Lula did not target systemic corruption with the same zeal, and now finds himself crucified not only because of his opponents' vengeance, but as a result of his and his successor's failure to truly wrestle with the beast of corruption during the height of their successes. With AMLO, domestic economic policies and global financial trends could prove his ally or enemy, but a failure to address systemic corruption, impossible a task as that may be, could destroy not only the tremendous support he now enjoys, but damn his and his coalition's future, let alone Mexico, for decades to come.

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