MEXICO CITY — A leftist leader vowing to launch a “profound and radical” transformation of Mexico and improve the lives of the poor was sworn in as president on Saturday, opening an uncertain era in a country with deep economic and security ties with the United States.
“Today, we begin a change of our political regime,” López Obrador said in an address to the nation, after donning the green, white and red presidential sash in Congress. “Starting from now, we will carry out a peaceful, steady political transformation. But it will also be profound and radical, because it will end the corruption and impunity that impede Mexico’s rebirth.”
López Obrador is the first leftist president since Mexico transitioned from a one-party authoritarian state to a full democracy in 2000. So far, he has given conflicting signals about whether he will govern as a centrist or more of an ideologue.
In his speech, he launched a blistering attack on the free-market, pro-trade policies that Mexican governments have followed since the 1980s, saying they had been “a disaster, a calamity” resulting in tepid growth, rising income inequality and the migration of impoverished workers.
López Obrador took particular aim at the country’s energy reforms, completed in 2013, which were meant to attract more foreign investment and expand the state-run industry.
In his address, he called that policy a failure, raising questions about whether he would attempt to block future foreign contracts in the oil industry. International companies have already invested billions here, and López Obrador’s statements were seen by some as a harbinger of his broader economic policies.
A longtime social activist known for his simple lifestyle, López Obrador has promised to battle corruption and usher in a new era of government austerity, ending the opulence and perks enjoyed by past leaders.
His inauguration marked a sharp break with tradition. López Obrador was driven to the Congress in his simple white Volkswagen Jetta. Across town, the Mexican White House and its gardens were thrown open to the public as a newly established park. López Obrador has given up the residence, known as Los Pinos, and plans to sell the presidential jet and travel commercially.
Hundreds of people strolled through the landscaped grounds of the presidential estate on Saturday, gaping at a palatial residence they had only previously seen on television.
“I feel like I’m dreaming,” said Braulio Melquiades, 69, who owns an auto parts shop in the city. “We are poor people staring at these beautiful things for the first time.”
López Obrador pledged a raft of programs benefiting the poor — who make up over 40 percent of the population — as well as young people and the elderly. They include doubling monthly payments to the elderly and offering paid apprenticeships to 2.3 million young people.
The election of a leftist “is a historic, very important change for Mexico, and it’s very healthy in a country with the grotesque inequalities that we have,” said Jesús Silva-Herzog Márquez, a prominent political scientist who teaches at the Tecnologico de Monterrey University.
Yet, he and other Mexicans are unsure whether López Obrador will govern as a practical-minded centrist — as he did as mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005 — or an autocratic populist. While there are moderate, U.S.-educated academics in the new cabinet, analysts say power has shifted from the technocrats who have steered Mexican financial policy for decades.
In November, the stock market tumbled 14 percent and the peso weakened after López Obrador and his party proposed limits on bank fees and the cancellation of a $13 billion airport in Mexico City that was already under construction. The sell-off occurred as Brazil’s markets soared on the election of a far-right politician.
“There’s just a lot of uncertainty,” said Alfredo Coutiño, director for Latin America at Moody’s Analytics.
The president has sought to reassure investors, saying he will respect the independence of the central bank and not expropriate land. López Obrador has also embraced the previous Mexican government’s efforts to preserve much of NAFTA in negotiations with the Trump administration.
Another sign of López Obrador’s pragmatism is his warm relationship with Washington.
In his inauguration address, the new Mexican leader made a point of welcoming Trump’s envoys to the ceremony — Vice President Pence and Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and adviser. Since his election on July 1, López Obrador said in his speech, “I have been treated with respect by Donald Trump.”
The bilateral relationship, which has been severely strained by Trump’s insulting tweets and insistence on a border wall, may soon be tested. Trump has vowed to block thousands of migrants who have traveled to the U.S. border in a caravan from Central America.
López Obrador pledged during his campaign that he would not “do the dirty work of foreign governments” in deterring Central American migrants. But in a significant concession, his administration recently indicated its willingness to host the Central Americans as they await asylum interviews in the United States.
López Obrador, the son of a shopkeeper in the southern state of Tabasco, is a longtime opposition politician who won the presidency on his third attempt. He built his career as an outsider using mass demonstrations to pressure the government on issues like alleged electoral fraud.
He has been highly critical of Mexico’s democratic institutions including courts, the press and the independent electoral authority, and has sought to use informal public referendums to rally support for his plans — raising concerns that he will pursue a personalistic, autocratic form of government.
“It has become abundantly clear that AMLO’s number one priority is to consolidate power,” Duncan Wood, the director of the Mexico Institute at the Washington-based Wilson Center, wrote in a recent issue of Americas Quarterly. The new president, he wrote, feels that democratization and the decentralization of authority have “weakened the government’s ability to bring order to the country” and contributed to soaring rates of violence.
López Obrador has denied seeking to rule as a strongman. He begins his six-year term with a 66 percent favorability rating, according to the newspaper El Financiero — while only 26 percent of Mexicans approve of the performance of outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto.
But support for López Obrador could flag if he can’t fund his ambitious agenda. He has pledged to pay for new social programs by reducing government salaries and fighting corruption, but economists question whether that will work.
The new president also has appeared to retreat on some campaign promises, such as removing the military from their central role in fighting organized crime and violence. He recently announced that, given the weakness and corruption of the police, the military would command a new National Guard force to keep order.
Juan Torres Aburto, 57, traveled from Acapulco to the capital for the inauguration. He was among the crowds at the former presidential estate watching López Obrador’s swearing-in on giant outdoor screens.
“He’s saying all the right things, but it’s still a nervous time for me, a moment of uncertainty,” Torres Aburto said.
He pointed at the nearby statues of previous Mexican leaders.
“I voted for them, too, and look at what happened. It was a mess.”