A year after the historic elections in Mexico in which Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) won the presidency sweeping his party, MORENA, into government, the country’s political landscape is changing rapidly. AMLO and MORENA reached power with an unprecedented 53 percent of the popular vote, controlling an absolute majority in Congress, and taking over 19 of 32 state houses across Mexico. The election also left established political parties (PRI, PAN and PRD) in crisis after losing both public trust and—as a result—support at the ballot box.
Unlike other political leaders, AMLO gained legitimacy campaigning in small towns across the country and promising to end the corruption and impunity of Mexico’s ruling class, a message that resonated in an extremely hierarchical society with little social mobility, where race and class issues are not openly discussed. AMLO established a direct connection with citizens by deliberately breaking cultural norms and tapping into existing social resentments.
But despite having a clear democratic mandate, AMLO’s populist governing style is concentrating power in the executive branch and threatening Mexico’s young democracy. Similar to his anti-establishment counterparts in the Western Hemisphere—across the ideological spectrum—AMLO has not moved away from divisive campaign rhetoric to establishing more consensus-oriented state policies that address corruption, insecurity or poverty. AMLO’s polarizing narrative—aggravated by a disorganized opposition—sells the idea that his election launched the “fourth transformation of Mexico.” According to AMLO, everything prior to his presidency belongs to the corrupt neo-liberal elites and must therefore be replaced.
While blame is legitimately directed to corrupt former public servants, the populist narrative does not acknowledge thirty years of civil society and political party work to institutionalize the separation of powers in Mexico. Instead, AMLO glorifies a past where the PRI—AMLO’s former party before joining the PRD—ruled Mexico as the single hegemonic and authoritarian political force.
Mexico’s leader also truly believes that he is a transformative figure who must re-establish a strong executive branch with centralized decision-making power to resolve the country’s challenges. In addition, AMLO uses his supposed direct connection with the public to justify actions that may bend or break the rule of law. For example, in the middle of a speech, the President calls for impromptu hand-raised votes to justify his views and actions. AMLO has also used questionable public referenda to establish the Maya train project that will cut through protected indigenous lands in Yucatán and to cancel a $13 billion dollar public airport venture. While presidents can cancel or establish new public infrastructure projects, AMLO’s uses improvised direct democracy to bypass legal procedures and established democratic processes.
As a messianic leader, López Obrador also maintains an authoritarian stance against dissenting opinions that contradict his narrative. Cabinet members cannot outshine, contradict, or disagree with the President at private or public events. When Mexico’s Finance Minister abruptly resigned, his final letter cited disagreements with AMLO for not using fact-based evidence to make economic decisions and frequently appointing unqualified people with clear conflicts of interests to key government positions. AMLO also uses his early morning press conference to establish the daily media agenda, make grandstanding announcements about government programs, and cite “alternative facts” intended to demonstrate the transformative nature of the new regime.
At the press events, Mexico’s seemingly humble president regularly denounces individuals, independent institutions, media outlets and civil society organizations that publicly criticize or dare to question his government’s actions. In addition, since the announcements are broadcast online, AMLO’s loyal followers echo government messages on social media sites, setting daily trending topics and frequently harassing Internet critics. While AMLO has not gone as far as prior governments that used surveillance software and intelligence services to monitor critics and activists, he has publicly threatened opponents in a country in which journalists and civil society organizations already work in challenging conditions, thus both indirectly harming freedom of expression and citizens’ access to information.
After six months of rule, it is clear that the new president has embarked Mexico on a political venture to transform MORENA from a social movement into the dominant political force of the country. AMLO is using state programs to undercut political opponents and decrease their ability to compete in future elections, instead of focusing on establishing functional government programs to advance social mobility as promised during the campaign. As part of these efforts, AMLO and his allies are striving to co-opt community, union, and political leaders who previously supported other political parties, especially the PRI.
AMLO’s political strategy directly targets youth and retired citizens with millions of dollars of direct cash transfer programs. The cash transfer model replaced prior social programs and lacks clear rules, regulations, or an evidence-based design to improve socioeconomic conditions. Instead, the main goal of the “give-aways” seems to be registering and mobilizing these groups for future electoral gains. In other words, AMLO is using publicly funded programs to solidify MORENA’s political base, establishing clientelist networks that exchange short-term cash for future votes. In the end, these programs will likely not transform or resolve deep-rooted social problems across Mexico.
Furthermore, AMLO’s concentration of power threatens existing democratic institutions designed to check executive power, as well as the ability of the state to implement programs. The president has clashed with independent agencies for questioning his authority and is threatening to make budget cuts to the National Electoral Institute (INE), the National Statistics Bureau (INAI), the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), and other autonomous regulatory bodies.
AMLO has also created parallel super-delegate positions in each state to monitor, administer, and try to control how opposition governors and local officials use public funds. Under the guise of fiscal austerity, he has arbitrarily capped the salaries and benefits of top bureaucrats with decades of experience in different agencies. As a result, many public servants resigned, further decreasing the capacity of the Mexican state to implement policies designed to address socio-economic disparities.
Moreover, claiming prior corruption scandals as justification and demonstrating his distrust for civil society, AMLO also decreed the end of third-party assistance in the administration of social programs. As a result, many women’s shelters providing assistance in cases of domestic violence have shut down, and there are reported medicine shortages across the country.
Recovering a weakened democracy
Despite the shocking political shift and threats to democratic checks and balances, there are still opportunities for political parties and civil society organizations to establish effective counter weights to an emboldened executive. While the new president maintains high public approval ratings, disappointed supporters will likely look for alternatives as AMLO fails to deliver on economic prosperity, address systemic corruption, and decrease violence across Mexico.
Political parties and civil society organizations should focus on protecting existing democratic institutions, while simultaneously establishing an alternative public narrative addressing Mexico’s socioeconomic problems. Mexico’s political parties should reanalyze the 2018 elections loss, seek to empower younger leaders with fresh ideas, and repackage their messages ahead of the mid-term elections. Additionally, given that some cabinet members come from activist backgrounds, civil society groups may also find allies who quietly dissent with AMLO as they try to institutionalize functional government programs.
MORENA’s congressional coalition includes many inexperienced legislators, an opportunity for civil society to provide technical expertise and help shape laws that escape the direct attention of the president. And, while the first six months of AMLO’s government may seem overwhelming, the courts may be another institutional way to slow down the concentration of power in the office of the President.
The return of a strong executive endangers the democratic progress guaranteeing the balance of powers and the independent institutions that helped AMLO reach power. However, the issue experts, democratic actors, and silent dissenters that are part of MORENA’s coalition may be still able to improve governance and prevent the further erosion of public confidence in democracy across Mexico.
Patricio Provitina is a global affairs and Latin America expert. Follow him on Twitter at @pprovitina. The views expressed here are the authors and do not reflect those of any current or former employer.