The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion AMLO assumes power in Mexico. Now he must wield it with restraint.

Merchandise with the image of Mexico's new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, for sale the day of his inauguration in Mexico City on Saturday. (Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images)

After losing two consecutive presidential elections, both of which he dismissed as fraudulent, Andrés Manuel López Obrador won the presidency of Mexico in a remarkable landslide on July 1. He was finally inaugurated on Saturday, when he gave a combative speech in which he repeated a long list of ambitious promises and measures.

López Obrador will now wield almost complete power, unprecedented in the country’s modern history. Morena, the new party he founded and guides, will control both houses of Congress and almost two-thirds of the country’s state legislatures. The opposition is in disarray, along with almost every political party, shaken by the magnitude of López Obrador’s mandate. He will now have near free rein to steer Mexico toward a “deep and radical” change that will lead to the country’s “moral regeneration” — which will include a new "moral constitution.”

These ambitious goals have infused López Obrador with a sense of urgency. The long, five-month transition into office saw him evolve into a virtual president of sorts, with Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s embattled and deeply unpopular lame-duck president, eager to cede the stage. López Obrador took to the role with pomposity, repeatedly announcing his aspiration of a momentous presidency that would earn him a spot among the country’s most celebrated historical figures. “I no longer belong to myself,” he said on his 65th birthday. “I now belong to the Mexican people. I only serve the nation.”

Unfortunately, this populist interpretation of his mission in government has led López Obrador to take some troublesome early steps. He has already undermined institutions to consolidate power. Mexico has long struggled to decentralize political rule, historically concentrated in Mexico City and the presidency itself. Decentralization has led to renewed federalism but, sadly, also to obscene cases of corruption and abuse by state governors.

For López Obrador, the solution is not to strengthen federalism and institutional rule of law but rather to name powerful surrogates from the central government — unelected, chosen by López Obrador himself — to shadow properly elected governors and, crucially, manage each state’s share of the federal budget. Some of these powerful “delegates” were candidates from the Morena party who were defeated by the same men and women they will now oversee. At least two governors, from Jalisco and Chihuahua, have already rejected the new president’s attempt to unilaterally centralize power.

López Obrador has also chosen to ignore basic democratic norms — the same ones he so vehemently defended when he cried fraud for more than a decade — to validate controversial choices and projects. To carry out the contentious termination of Mexico City’s new airport, an infrastructure behemoth worth more than $13 billion begun under Peña Nieto, López Obrador came up with a farcical referendum. Sold as an exercise in direct democracy, the airport’s “consulta” consisted of a couple of biased questions formulated by the president-elect’s own team. Polling places were unfairly selected, favoring areas that had heavily voted for López Obrador. Voter safety measures were so scarce that Mexicans uploaded videos of themselves voting multiple times. The ballots were counted, and results announced, not by the national electoral institutions but by a local organization chosen by López Obrador. Not surprisingly, the airport’s cancellation won by a landslide, with just over a million people voting, slightly more than 1 percent of the country’s eligible voters. López Obrador declared the process “exemplary.” (For the moment, work on the site continues, while the government “evaluates” future plans.) Just a month later, he called for a new referendum, this time 10 different projects, including the plan to build a train along Mexico’s southeast, a vast yet fragile ecological wonderland. Not surprisingly, López Obrador favored options again won on every instance.

These early decisions by Mexico’s powerful new president are not trivial. López Obrador’s critics have long warned of his tendency to disregard democracy along with his authoritarian and messianic disposition. Latin America has seen how quickly illiberal democracy and populism can erode a country’s fragile institutional framework. (Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, who López Obrador had as a controversial guest on Saturday, is only the latest example.)

Mexico endured one-party rule for more than 70 years, with dreadful consequences. The country, shaken by endemic corruption and more than a decade of truly horrendous violence, has now put its faith in one man and his lofty promises. That man, who faces the opportunity of a lifetime, should now approach power with self-restraint, respect for democratic institutions and freedom of speech, and tolerance toward his critics. The alternative leads not to a place in the pantheon of Mexico’s founding fathers but to an abyss.

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