The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The magical thinking of Mexico’s next president

León Krauze is a journalist and news anchor and the Wallis Annenberg chair at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. His latest book is “La Mesa.”

Six years after losing a second presidential election in a row, and five years after founding the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), the political party which he personally micromanages, Mexican leftist leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador has roared back to life. In Sunday’s election, he and his allies won the country’s presidency, both houses of Congress and at least five governorships — a stunning turnaround for a man who, just half a decade ago, faced political extinction.

The successful conclusion of López Obrador’s two-decade quest for the Mexican presidency is the story of a man buoyed by his own tenacity, but mostly by the corrupt government’s utter disregard for the rule of law and by the incompetence of his political rivals.

For decades, López Obrador has relied on one theme and one theme only: the idea that most of Mexico’s problems can be traced back to the country’s rampant corruption. He has a point, of course. Mexico’s potential has been hindered by corruption, a deep-rooted scourge only made worse by the growing power of organized crime. Still, corruption hadn’t really been a productive political banner before. It was obscured in the past by the country’s economic woes and, lately, by almost 12 years of horrific violence and bloodshed. That all changed with Mexico’s current president, Enrique Peña Nieto.

Only 45 when he won the presidency in 2012, Peña Nieto began with a bang. With a 54 percent approval rating and cooperative opposition behind him, he managed to enact a series of structural reforms. Much to the vexation of López Obrador — who denounced his rival’s reforms and has now vowed to overturn some of them — Peña Nieto altered Mexico’s underperforming energy sector and its sclerotic education system. Still, the fight against corruption remained conspicuously absent from Peña Nieto’s reformist agenda.

Early in 2014, during an interview with a group of reporters, Peña Nieto told me that corruption was actually a “cultural problem” for Mexicans, part of the country’s DNA. Even after I disagreed — pointing out, for example, that millions of Mexicans living in the United States are demonstrably law-abiding and thoroughly honest — Peña Nieto insisted. Mexico soon found out what he meant.

Mexico's new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, campaigned on an anti-corruption platform that struck a chord with lower- and middle-income voters. (Video: The Washington Post)

In late 2014, a team of journalists uncovered the first of several conflicts of interests that would irreparably damage Peña Nieto’s inner circle, including the president’s wife and Luis Videgaray, his closest advisor and likely successor. Other members of the administration, including Emilio Lozoya, the man Peña Nieto chose to lead Mexico’s energy behemoth, Pemex, soon saw themselves submerged in international corruption scandals, only to see their cases conveniently ignored.

The outrage spread to the states, where Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) governors, many of them men of his generation whom he had publicly anointed the “new political generation” of the party, emptied public coffers with banana-republic glee and impunity. For the PRI, it turned out, corruption was indeed “cultural.”

Enter López Obrador, who has won the presidency after running a campaign that expertly tapped into an outrage laid bare by the PRI’s misrule. How will he govern? Therein lies the rub.

Other than promising radical change, his campaign has been short on detailed policy proposals. López Obrador has controversially hinted he might promote some sort of amnesty for criminals involved in the drug war that would, he says, reduce violence. He has said he supports the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) but has also pledged that the country will become self-sufficient in certain food crops — a policy that might lead to halting corn imports from the United States and perhaps opening a new front in the ongoing trade war.

He can be contradictory. While presenting himself as a progressive, López Obrador has built a coalition that includes the Social Encounter Party, a far-right political party that would feel comfortable among the most radical members of the conservative movement in the United States.

But mostly, the newly elected Mexican president seems to believe that the answer to the country’s predicaments lies not in the strengthening of Mexico’s institutions but, quite simply, in the man himself. Corruption will be resolved “because the president won’t be corrupt,” López Obrador has said. In his most recent book, he itemizes a list of lofty goals, including slashing crime by 50 percent, the “complete eradication of political corruption,” massive reforestation of millions of trees, and an end to poverty, hunger and emigration — “no one, for hunger or poverty, will have the need to abandon their place of birth.”

How will López Obrador manage such feats? If he is to be believed, he will do it mostly through the magical radiance of his own example. Time and time again during the presidential debates, he insisted most of Mexico’s troubles will come to an end when corruption finally disappears, which will in turn happen by his honest appearance on the scene, wearing the presidential sash. It will be, López Obrador has told Mexicans, a “revolution of consciences” where “love, morality and love of neighbor” will replace corruption and uncertainty.

With both houses of Congress under his control, López Obrador will finally have the opportunity to test his experiment in personal persuasion and populist power. Of course, he deserves the benefit of the doubt, all the more after earning an astonishing mandate on election day. He might still prove to be a transformational figure, but the question persists: where will Mexico turn next if its new president fails to work his magic?

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.