Mexican quake

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President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador giving his first victory speech at his campaign headquarters at the Hilton hotel in Mexico City on July 1. His wife, Beatriz Gutierrez Muller, is to hid right. Photo: Marco Ugarte/AP

Ricardo Anaya, the PAN candidate. He got 24 per cent of the votes. Photo: JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP

Jose Antonio Meade, the PRI candidate. He only got 21 per cent of the votes, the party’s worst showing to date. Photo: Ginnette Riquelme/REUTERS

Supporters of Obrador in Mexico City after his victory. Photo: Goran Tomasevic/REUTERS

Claudia Sheinbaum, MORENA’s candidate for Mayor of Mexico City, casting her vote. MORENA won this important post. As part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, she jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. Photo: Bernardo Montoya/AFP

The victory of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and the leftist coalition led by MORENA, his new party, in the July 1 elections could possibly bring a breath of fresh air to Mexico and the region.

The resounding victory of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, or AMLO as he is known in Mexico, in the presidential election held on July 1 has given the progressive forces in the Americas something substantial to cheer about at a time when the right wing has become resurgent in many parts of the region. AMLO is no run-of-the-mill politician of the kind that has populated Mexico’s political scene since the 1960s. He is a self-described socialist who rose up in Mexican politics from the grass-roots level. AMLO stood for President on two previous occasions, in 2006 and 2012, as a candidate of the left-wing Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), which in 1989 broke away from the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

AMLO himself began his political life as an ordinary member of the PRI. He rose to national prominence after he was elected Mayor of Mexico City in 2000. He is credited with transforming the capital city, making it a more habitable place for its residents. He cracked down on crime and started educational institutions. He left the office of Mayor with a record approval rating of over 83 per cent. He had become a rising star in Mexican politics.

AMLO and his supporters claim that he was cheated out of the presidency in the two previous elections. In the 2018 election too, the government and the media painted him as a radical revolutionary in the mould of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez out to tinker with the country’s democratic system. There were tendentious reports that the Russian government was secretly supporting his candidature. In the 2006 election, AMLO refused to acknowledge the tally put out by the country’s election commission, which said that he had lost by less than a percentage point. His supporters in fact staged a parallel inauguration ceremony at the time proclaiming him as the legitimate President. In 2012, AMLO announced that he was quitting the PRD to form a broad-based left-wing party. He was unhappy with the PRD leadership for not wholeheartedly backing his claims that the 2012 election was rigged even when there was plenty of evidence to prove that that was indeed the case. The PRD itself had moved away from its left-wing moorings and had become indistinguishable from the PRI.

In the July 1 election this year, AMLO won more than 53 per cent of the vote, handily defeating his two rivals from the National Action Party (PAN) and the PRI. Ricardo Anaya of the right-wing PAN, which has been alternating in power with the PRI in the last two decades, got 24 per cent of the votes. Jose Antonio Meade, the PRI candidate, got only 21 per cent of the votes. It was the worst showing so far for the PRI, a party that has dominated Mexican politics since 1929. And it was the first time since multiparty elections were introduced in 2000 that a presidential candidate got more than 50 per cent of the votes cast.

The leftist coalition led by AMLO’s brand new party, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), swept not only the presidential election but also the State and municipal elections that were held concurrently. MORENA had formed an alliance with two smaller parties, the Labour Party and the socially conservative Social Encounter Party, in the run-up to the election. It won 300 out of the 500 seats in the lower House and a comfortable majority in the Senate. In the elections for Governors, which were held in eight States, MORENA took four States and the important post of Mayor of Mexico City. The victory happened despite efforts by the establishment parties to intimidate voters with money and muscle power. More than 100 candidates were assassinated in the run-up to the elections.

The new President and his team will be sworn in on December 1. AMLO had run on a platform that promised to liberate the country “from the mafia of power” that has been controlling Mexican politics since the latter half of the 20th century. He blamed this “mafia” for the endemic corruption that has characterised Mexican politics. AMLO has described his victory as the “fourth major transformation” in Mexican history after the country’s independence in 1821. He has promised to make the government a representative one, not like previous governments that mainly catered to a small elite. Among other things, he has said that he will implement free education, increase pensions, roll back the previous government’s privatisation of key sectors of the economy and diversify the country’s economic ties so that it is less dependent on the United States.


AMLO has been a critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and has called for the renegotiating of some of its key aspects. But his arguments against NAFTA are very different from those being voiced by U.S. President Donald Trump. AMLO wants to protect Mexico’s agricultural sector so as to make the country self-sufficient in food production. Mexico imports a lot of subsidised agricultural products from the U.S. under NAFTA. This has had an adverse impact on the agricultural sector, especially in the south of the country.

The two establishment parties, the PRI and the PAN, had lost the faith of the masses. Rampant corruption and cronyism had characterised their rule. The PRI had started straying from its nationalist and progressive roots since the 1960s. The October 1968 killing of hundreds of left-wing students who had gathered to stage a peaceful protest in Tlatelolco Plaza in Mexico 10 days before the opening of the Olympic Games in the country happened under a PRI government. It was in 2014 under the PRI government of the outgoing President, Enrique Pena Nieto, that 43 students were kidnapped and later brutally killed in Guerrero State. Human rights groups have blamed government officials for the subsequent cover-up. In the last six years, the murder rate in the country has significantly risen. Most of the deaths have been attributed to the activities of death squads linked to narco gangs and politicians.

AMLO has pledged to crack down on the violence by adopting new policies to stem the multibillion-dollar narcotics business. He has said that easily accessible education for young Mexicans will prevent them from joining gangs run by drug cartels. The U.S. is the destination for the illegal drugs. Previous governments in Mexico had given their security forces carte blanche to cooperate with their counterparts in the U.S. to crack down on the vicious narco gangs. It has resulted in more bloody mayhem in Mexico but at the same time has had very little impact on the narco traffic headed to the U.S.

Since 2006, the year in which the Mexican government deployed the army to take on the drug gangs, over 200,000 people have been killed as a result of the narco violence and more than 30,000 Mexicans have disappeared. In 2017, Mexico recorded a homicide toll of over 29,000 people, averaging some 80 people being killed every day. The incoming government plans to pull the army out of anti-drug operations. At the same time, the jail terms of those arrested in the anti-narcotics sweep will be reduced. The new government is also toying with the idea of decriminalising the use and purchase of drugs in small quantities.

Pena Nieto led the PRI to an election victory six years ago. The party made a comeback after it ceded power to the PAN for the first time 18 years ago. The PAN had implemented a neoliberal economic agenda for the country after it assumed power. The PRI under Pena Nieto further entrenched these policies. His administration, like the previous ones, had a very close working relation with Mexico’s business elite. Some of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in the world, like the multibillionaire Carlos Slim, are Mexican nationals. They control huge monopolies within the country. It is Slim’s largesse that has kept The New York Times in relatively good financial health. More than 40 per cent of Mexico’s population of over 120 million live under the official poverty line.

Oil and energy sector

The important measures the Pena Nieto administration took included the privatisation of the oil and energy sector. His policies had led to Mexico’s increased dependence on the U.S. economy. Back in 1938, it was the PRI that nationalised the oil sector. The then President, Lazaros Cardenas del Rio, took on the powerful U.S. oil companies. In the same year, the state-owned petroleum company, Petroleos Mexicano (Pemex), was founded and was given the exclusive rights to produce, prospect for and export oil. Mexico is one of the world’s top oil producers. Despite declining production, oil still contributes around 10 per cent to the national economy. The reforms under Pena Nieto had allowed foreign oil majors to re-enter the Mexican market in a big way.

On the campaign trail, AMLO threatened to stop all future auctions of Mexican oil blocks to foreign companies and also to investigate the contracts the outgoing government had negotiated with the firms. The opposition alleged that there were corrupt practices involved in the negotiating process. In the recent past, AMLO talked about holding a national referendum on the previous government’s decision to privatise Pemex and allow foreign companies in.

AMLO has said that reviving the country’s energy sector and making Mexico self-sufficient in energy once again is among his government’s top priorities. Mexico imports most of its refined oil from the U.S. AMLO has emphasised that it is in Mexico’s national interest to retain control of its energy resources. The President-elect has said that he will put a stop to the frequent rise in the price of gas and electricity. At the same time, in recent months, the veteran socialist has gone out of his way to show a business-friendly face. One of his chief economic advisers is a leading agronomist and entrepreneur, Alfonso Romo. He will be the country’s new Finance Minister. Many of his Cabinet appointees have ties with big business.

“I confess I have a legitimate ambition: I want to go down in history as a good President of Mexico,” AMLO said in his victory speech. Mexico watchers say that his presidency will be defined by not only his domestic politics but also the way he deals with the U.S. Relations between the two neighbours plummeted after Trump came on the scene. The U.S. President’s demonisation of Mexicans and his campaign promise to build a separation wall on the border between the two countries and make Mexico pay for it has riled all sections of Mexican society. On the campaign trail, AMLO sharply criticised the “erratic behaviour” of the U.S. President and vowed to take a tougher stance towards Washington. In 2017, AMLO demanded that the Trump administration be hauled before the United Nations for violations of human rights and for racial discrimination. The Pena Nieto administration had gone out of its way to avoid a confrontation with the Trump administration and was continuously advocating dialogue.

Until 1990, Mexico followed a robust independent foreign policy and was not unduly influenced by its powerful neighbour. Things changed after Mexico entered into NAFTA. On many important foreign policy issues, Mexico started siding with the U.S. The Pena Nieto government had tacitly started helping Trump’s immigration policy by separating children from Central American countries from their parents along the Mexico-U.S. border before the Trump administration started doing it. AMLO had described the U.S. government’s immigration policy as “arrogant, racist and inhumane”. He had also said that the Mexican government should not be doing “the dirty work” on behalf of a foreign government.

Trump and AMLO had a telephonic conversation soon after the news of his victory came out. Both leaders said that they had had a “good” conversation. AMLO, to the surprise of many of his supporters, is now talking about “reaching an understanding” with the U.S. on the emotive issue of emigration. He said that he had made a proposal to Trump for “an integral agreement” to set up development projects that would increase employment opportunities in Mexico and in the process reduce the migration flow into the U.S. Mexicans expect AMLO to take a tough stance against the Trump administration, given the U.S. President’s general contempt for them. Many observers of the Mexican political scene noted that AMLO had gone out of his way to tone down his left-wing rhetoric and this did pay him electoral dividends, but some have already started questioning his socialist credentials. Commandant Marcos, the nom de guerre of the leader of the Zapatista revolutionaries in the Mexican State of Chiapas, had characterised AMLO as a “centrist” leader way back in 2006.