Katherine Corcoran was the Mexico and Central America bureau chief for The Associated Press from 2010-15, and the 2017-18 Hewlett Fellow for Public Policy at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
MEXICO CITY — Some Mexicans fear their new populist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, will become the next Hugo Chávez and, like the former Venezuelan president, run his country off the rails. Some Americans fear trade at loggerheads and a Twitter war or worse between the new left-wing leader in Mexico and the right-wing one in the White House.
But the real worry should be that López Obrador, even with his decisive victory of more than 50 percent of voters and a majority in at least the lower house of Congress, won’t be able to do much to bring about the fundamental changes the country needs to become a thriving democracy; that he will be yet another political disappointment for voters who have now tried every option — the conservative party, the return of the old autocratic party, and now a leftist populist — in the hopes of turning things around.
Mexico needs two things to rid itself of the violence and corruption that is currently drowning its future: a professional, independent judicial system and a fairer distribution of wealth. The killing and stealing worsens in Mexico by the day. And the old-school methods of control (negotiating with drug cartels among them) have proved to be disastrous in the country’s new system of political plurality.
Now comes AMLO, as López Obrador is known, and a whole lot of punditry on both sides of the border hyperventilating about Mexico’s impending doom. Pre-election predictions from Forbes to the Financial Times asked whether an AMLO victory could mean a descent into “unsustainable spending and weakened democratic institutions.” Mexican historian Enrique Krauze recently told the New Yorker that AMLO “could obstruct Mexico’s democracy by removing its counterweights.”
The second-coming-of-Chávez narrative claims that AMLO will usher Mexico into socialism, expropriate private businesses and lead the economy to ruin. But look at the facts: When he spent five years (2000-2005) as the mayor of Mexico City, the center of corporate and multinational Mexico in a metro area of more than 20 million people, there was no major change. Foreign investment dropped, but so did crime, both mirroring trends in the rest of the country. AMLO was mainly known for offering pensions for the poor and elderly, for living in a modest apartment instead of the municipal palace and for building an extra deck on a freeway.
That’s it, for better or worse.
The second fear, that he’s a megalomaniac populist like President Trump, may be true. Everything is about AMLO, and that is what cost him his first shot at the presidency. While some still cry fraud, it’s pretty much conventional wisdom now that, in 2006, he blew an early lead by ignoring his advisers and believing he was politically invincible.
AMLO’s victory speech on Sunday night was sober and designed to allay fears of a radical shakeup. He promised respect for the law in his fight against corruption and to attend to the “humble and forgotten.” But even with an electoral mandate, he faces an enormous battle. Despite whatever majority in Congress, he is dealing with the same political class that has been more intent on personal enrichment than on serving others.
Meanwhile, the country is ailing from a justice system that has stood for protecting the powerful and meddling in politics, not prosecuting crimes. On the economic side, a handful of Mexican families control more than half the country’s wealth, while nearly half of the population has lived in poverty for decades.
The real fear should be that another six years will pass, and the needle on both issues will remain stuck. Just look at AMLO’s predecessors, all of whom promised to tackle the same problems.
The election of a conservative candidate, Vicente Fox, ushered in democracy in Mexico in 2000 by breaking 71 years of one-party rule. Fox vowed to fight corruption, but he failed to build the institutions necessary to do that. Felipe Calderón, who defeated AMLO by a razor-thin margin in 2006, launched an ill-conceived drug war that brought unprecedented killings and human rights violations. Then Enrique Peña Nieto, who defeated AMLO in 2012, brought the long-ruling, autocratic Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) back because “it knew how to govern,” then oversaw a breathtaking increase in corruption and violence, with near complete impunity.
López Obrador, who will take office Dec. 1, made an enormous list of promises late Sunday, noting that he is conscious of the fate of presidents in the past.
But his proposals have scant details beyond his pledge, “I won’t fail you.’’ Besides window dressing, such as refusing to live in the presidential palace, and fighting corruption “by example,” what is his plan for fixing the judicial system? How will he build the political will to make it happen?
What is his plan to bring more than 50 million people out of poverty? Despite deregulation and opening the economy to the world, Mexico is still run by oligarchs — some of whom AMLO spent his most recent campaign trying to cajole so he could get elected.
If he fails to develop and execute a solid agenda, it will be the same old, same old for Mexico, and another six-year-long bad date to the presidential ball for voters.
Another Hugo Chávez?
Better to fear that López Obrador will be another Fox, Peña Nieto or Calderón instead.