The months leading up to the July 1st victory of Mexican president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador were fraught with uncertainty: would entrenched economic and political interests ever allow him to win? The attempt to prevent him from ever becoming president succeeded twice, in 2006 and 2012, through a combination of outright electoral fraud, vote-buying, terror, murder, judicial harassment, and McCarthyite scare tactics. In 2006 and again in 2012 he was portrayed in the dominant Mexican media as “another Hugo Chávez,” a “danger for Mexico,” a demagogue, a dictator, and whatever else his enemies could find to throw at him.
By 2018, however, a majority of Mexican voters were so fed up with the corrupt rule of the two major parties—the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the National Action Party (PAN)—and so unconvinced by the undemocratic methods used to discredit him, that he was elected triumphantly with a 53% majority. López Obrador, popularly known by his initials AMLO, is the first candidate to win an absolute majority since the first competitive election in 2000. The wave created by his victory has resulted in a clear majority as well in the two chambers of Congress. Of the eight state governships in dispute, candidates of his Morena party (Movement for National Regeneration) took four, as well as the office of mayor of Mexico City. Vote-buying, intimidation, and even the assassination of over 100 candidates for office, did not stop the tide. The presence of trained election observers from several countries and the civic dedication of thousands of Mexican citizens contributed to a generally smooth election day. The new government will take office on December 1st, after a transition period of five months.
AMLO’s quest for the presidency had begun with the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), founded in 1989 as a left-wing split from the ruling PRI. By 2010, the PRD had degenerated into crass opportunism. Its willingness to ally with the right-wing PAN prompted AMLO to found Morena, which has proven an effective vehicle for mobilizing voters, including a large generation of new voters. His campaign was a masterpiece of media outreach, including catchy songs and humorous slogans such as “I’m voting for you-know-who” (ya sabes quién). He has made strong efforts to soften his image in order to reassure hesitant middle-class voters and entrepreneurs.
In the months leading up to the elections, AMLO was regularly portrayed in the U.S. media not just as a “populist” (a fuzzy and vacuous label if ever there was one), but even as “another Trump.” Nothing could be further from the truth. AMLO is a learned man, author of several books, as is his wife, Beatriz Gutiérrez, a historian. Nonetheless, he continues to frighten those who indeed have much to lose if he and his government follow through on his central commitment to combat the “mafia of power,” that is, the endemic corruption of the Mexican political system.
In the months leading up to the elections, AMLO was regularly portrayed in the U.S. media not just as a “populist” (a fuzzy and vacuous label if ever there was one), but even as “another Trump.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
AMLO is often portrayed as a “nationalist” and that is no doubt true. Imbued with a deep sense of Mexican history, he portrays his presidency as “the fourth major transformation” since independence in 1821. His sense of mission stems from the idea that Mexican society has been divided, dislocated, and violated by corrupt politicians for too long and that the social fabric of the nation needs to be re-established by a government that serves the many and not just the very few. His nationalism is not strident or aggressive; it is not about dominating other nations nor about distinguishing “real” Mexicans from others on an ethnic or racial basis.
Will AMLO be a president of the left? Among the forces backing him are indeed many leftists who yearn for deep reform and a clear break from the established system. Among the central ideas of his campaign is the idea that wealth must be better shared and that the state has great responsibility for guaranteeing social cohesion. However, he has also taken great pains to show that his government will be business-compatible. Among his chief backers for the past year has been the entrepreneur and agronomist from Monterrey, Alfonso Romo, who has helped to give AMLO the kind of respectability needed to overcome the fear and hostility of business interests. That proved crucial to his success in the weeks leading up to July 1st. Markets did not collapse and the peso avoided anything more than a slight drop in value with respect to the dollar. Romo has been designated as future presidential chief of staff.
Does this mean that AMLO has mutated into just one more conservative who manipulates leftish rhetoric? That too would be a hasty judgment. He appears sincerely determined to raise the standard of living of working people, guarantee decent pensions for the elderly, access to inexpensive health care and adequate public education for all. One of his most popular campaign themes is summed up in the rhyming slogan “becarios y no sicarios” (“scholarship students, not hired killers”), that is, education to prevent young people from joining the ranks of drug cartels and other criminal organizations. Among the advisors tapped as future members of the government is Irma Eréndira Sandoval, a law professor whose daunting job as Secretary of Civil Service (Función Pública) will be to wage a systematic struggle against government corruption in a country where massive theft of public funds has been a standard practice for many decades.
Although AMLO’s supporters have been regularly portrayed by adversaries as a-critical “zombies,” few Mexicans have any illusions about the enormous difficulties that lie ahead. Resistance can be expected from all the usual places: entrenched business interests, corrupt politicians still in power, conservative pundits and self-styled intellectuals who continue to stir up suspicion regarding AMLO’s intentions, but also the criminal organizations which control large swaths of territory and contribute, along with the army, to extraordinary levels of violence. In 2017, Mexico recorded 26,573 murders, or 80 a day—the highest rate in 20 years. Impunity has been the rule up to now.
What will become of Mexico’s relations with the United States? The media image of two “nationalist”/“populist” presidents pitted against each other is a caricature of a very complex reality. AMLO calls for relations of mutual respect but warns that Mexico will be “no one’s piñata.” His reservations about NAFTA, the existing free-trade agreement which also includes Canada, are not the same as Trump’s. Trump’s schemes for “protecting” U.S. industry are likely to run into major trouble given the disruption of transnational capitalist chains of production. AMLO will try to promote first of all the protection of Mexican agriculture, not as an empty nationalist gesture but as way of restoring self-sufficiency in food production. Clashes appear inevitable over the rights of migrants against Trump’s reign of terror.
In short, there is nothing simple about the path ahead, but that is no reason not to applaud and savor a major progressive victory that may serve as a source of inspiration throughout the Americas and beyond.