Mexico elections: Why Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador matters

There seem to be just two types of people in Mexico: those who hate their president and those who love him.

Even Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador himself seems to be fascinated by the division he inspires, fuelling the polarisation by casting Mexicans as either for the “Fourth Transformation” — the set of administrative, economic and social reforms that he promotes — or against it, with no room for nuance.

But this polarisation is not new. Mexico stopped being one society a long time ago, splitting into two countries, so to speak, that struggle to coexist where they overlap.

Mexico is the one that best suits the country. And they are both correct, except that they are talking about two different countries.

In Sunday’s midterm elections, these competing visions were poised to face off in what is also a kind of plebiscite three years into the Lopez Obrador administration.

Although his Morena party appears to lead in the polls, it’s still unclear whether he can achieve a qualified majority in the legislative branch, which would allow him to modify the Constitution without negotiating with the opposition.

Some believe that granting even more power to a president they consider authoritarian would endanger Mexican democracy. His supporters, for their part, are convinced that controlling Congress is necessary to undo the years of economic policies that have prevented poor Mexicans from prospering.

Although I disagree with Lopez Obrador’s personalist leadership style, I believe his political aims are a legitimate attempt to afford greater representation to the Mexicans who have been left behind, many of them living in underdeveloped rural areas.

More than three decades of an economic model that increased inequality has led to the fragmented and unequal Mexican society that we see today. Given that the opposition has thus far been unable to offer an alternative to this model, I am convinced that Lopez Obrador is our only viable option.

President's social programmes

According to the National Institute of Statistics, 56 per cent of Mexicans work in the informal sector and lack social security, and not by choice. Lopez Obrador has enacted social programmes that have benefited more than 20 million Mexicans, although it’s not enough for the estimated 52 million who live in poverty.

So it’s no surprise that he has significant support among much of the population. That support is even easier to understand when you consider one of the milestones of contemporary Mexico: In 1992, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, betting that privatising the economy and relying on market forces would modernise and grow the country.

But something went awry in the calculations. Over the past 30 years, Mexico’s G.D.P. has grown at an average annual rate of only 2.2 per cent, and there are enormous internal inequalities. The 10 richest people have the same wealth as the poorest half of the country, according to a 2018 Oxfam report.

Salinas was unable or unwilling to rein in the elites who benefited from a system of protected monopolies, kickbacks and extraordinary profit margins derived from corruption and inefficiency.

Mexico has also modernised its electoral system and built democratic institutions to promote competition, transparency and the balance of power. To the many Mexicans who saw that these supposedly democratic and transparent norms were applied selectively, the changes did not amount to much. Again, modernisation seemed to pan out for some Mexicans, but had little effect for those who couldn’t take advantage of it — a majority of the population in need.

For many, “democracy” is nothing but a word wielded in elections and in the discourse of leaders who have made themselves rich at the expense of the treasury. According to Latinobarometro, a regional polling organisation, just 15.7 per cent of Mexicans said they were satisfied with their country’s form of democracy, making Mexico one of the countries in Latin America with the lowest levels of confidence in government.

A political pathway

In 2018, when Lopez Obrador ran for the presidency for a third time, the indignation and rage of those left behind had reached a boiling point. The signs of discontent were visible: historically low approval of government performance and communities that were willing to take justice into their own hands. Lopez Obrador offered a political pathway to dissipate this tension and won the election with more than 50 per cent of the vote.

Since then he has radically increased the minimum wage; established about $33 billion in annual direct transfers and handouts to disadvantaged groups; and begun ambitious projects, like the Mayan train and the Dos Bocas refinery, in regions traditionally overlooked by central governments.

The Lopez Obrador administration’s financial policy is practically neoliberal, with its aversion to indebtedness, inflation control, austerity and balance in public spending, and rejection of private sector expropriations. During the pandemic, he has been harshly criticised across the political spectrum for his refusal to expand fiscal spending to counteract its disproportionate impact on people, especially those who did not benefit from direct Covid relief.

Lopez Obrador is a less radical politician than he’s accused of being and is more prudent with his management of government than he’s given credit for.

It’s understandable how the 61 per cent of the population that backs him, people belonging to groups that have the most reason to be dissatisfied with the system, assumes that the president is on their side. 
Lopez Obrador is not a threat to Mexico, as his adversaries claim. The real threat is the social discontent that made him president.

A failure to resolve this issue puts everyone at risk. The two Mexicos must come together. Right now, despite it all, only Lopez Obrador is in a position to make that possible for his fellow citizens. On Sunday we will know how many of them concur.

Jorge Zepeda Patterson is a prominent Mexican author

The New York Times

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