Source: Octavio Hoyos / Shutterstock.com
Mexican business leader Gustavo de Hoyos was presumably trying to be helpful when he tweeted about how business owners and executives might talk to their workers about politics.
De Hoyos recommended a column in the newspaper Reforma titled, “¡Vas, carnal!” (Hey, buddy!) which suggested that businesspeople convey political messages in colloquial language.
In an imagined conversation between a boss and employees, Eduardo Caccia wrote, “I know of course that you or your vieja (old lady) or your jefecita (your mother) or even your papá (father) voted for the promises of you know who”—a reference to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly called AMLO. “Well, you have to know that many things the president and his lawmakers have done go against you and your children.”
The column, as well as those who promoted it as proper advice, drew enormous derision. And it revealed the hate Mexicans hold for the country’s opposition parties and the business class—even among people who don’t particularly like the president.
The episode also showed how the opposition has never countered the president’s discourse over the past 20 years—when he was mayor of Mexico City and later quixotically campaigning around the country—and how the parties that hope to challenge AMLO still haven’t learned the lessons from the 2018 election. In that campaign, AMLO capitalized on public fatigue with corruption, politics as usual, and an out-of-touch elite political class—“the mafia in power”—to capture the country’s top office with an astounding 53 percent of the vote.
“There’s been absolutely no self-criticism,” said Fernando Dworak, a political analyst in Mexico City. “The opposition still doesn’t have the slightest idea of what happened to them three years ago.”
Last Sunday’s Elections
Mexicans handed AMLO’s MORENA party and its allies another majority in the lower house of Congress in Sunday’s midterm elections. But they stopped short of giving the coalition the two-thirds majority it needed for reversing reforms, opening the energy sector to private investment, and overhauling autonomous institutions such as the electoral and transparency institutes.
Even with AMLO receiving poor grades in polls on his handling of the economy, the pandemic, and security, few voters flocked to the opposition—or expressed remorse with their decision to support him in 2018, saying there was no other option at the time.
“Every election we’re wedded to this idea that things can be different,” said Jaime Espino, a real estate broker who voted in a middle-class Mexico City neighborhood. “We want someone who cares about the country. Who’s done that? Nobody. Not even AMLO.”
Still, Espino sounded unenthusiastic about supporting the opposition, saying, “The other parties are the same s**t. They’re only looking out for themselves.”
The opposition has done little to distinguish itself since losing in 2018. Its lists of candidates for the 2021 midterms featured plenty of retreads from the recent past, though coalitions of Mexico’s three main parties prior to AMLO’s arrival in power—PRI, PAN and PRD—won more than half the boroughs in MORENA’s previous stronghold of Mexico City.
No party or political figure has emerged as a viable alternative to AMLO and MORENA for the next round of elections in 2024. Disunity also remains rife in the opposition, which allowed MORENA to claim several close gubernatorial votes this year.
“Mexico is hobbled by the oldest of its bogeymen since independence, which is that it’s never had a competent and strategic opposition,” said Federico Estévez, a political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. “That’s why we had 70 years of PRI rule. It’s because the quality of the opposition was poor all that time. I hope we’re not in for another 70 years.”
AMLO also campaigns continually against his opponents—both in politics and business, but also non-political actors such as non-governmental groups, including the press freedom organization Article 19. He trolls them in the mañanera (his two-hour daily press conference) or flat out attacks them.
He speaks often of shadowy opposition forces conspiring against him, even when it’s as mundane as organizing ways to win elections. Selective corruption investigations also keep criticism in check, according to analysts.
At other times, AMLO wrongfoots his opponents with class and cultural issues.
In a recent morning press conference, he brought up a meme circulating on social media, showing Mexico City split into two sides—with the wealthier west side, which voted against MORENA on Sunday, being identified as “those who pay taxes” and the more working-class east side, who supposedly “receive subsidies.” “It’s classist, conservative and racist,” he said last Thursday as he complained again of Mexico City’s more affluent classes voting against him on the basis of media manipulation and negative press coverage.
AMLO also reaches into the distant past for opportunities to trip up opponents. He has sent letters to the Spanish crown and the Vatican requesting they ask forgiveness for their roles in the conquest of Mexico—with AMLO planning to commemorate in August the 500th anniversary of the fall of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City) to Spanish conquistadors. Responses to the letters showed AMLO opponents seemingly siding with Spain rather than the president.
“It’s a turkey shoot,” Estévez said of AMLO’s attacks on the opposition. “Whoever sticks their neck out gets shot at. Sometimes they get hit.”
AMLO currently enjoys a 59 percent approval rating, according to the newspaper El Financiero—something analysts attribute to people personally liking the president rather than his performance. However, polls also show approval for AMLO’s handling of the economy, public security, and health—with some rebound being seen in support for the country’s vaccination campaign.
Mexico’s economy has slumped under AMLO, investment has dried up, and COVID-19 has claimed more than 225,000 lives. Violence still rages, with at least 36 candidates already killed in campaigns this year.
Performance doesn’t seem to matter, though.
“He maintains 50 percent of people in favor, despite a record of complete incompetence from beginning to end,” Estévez said.
“The election isn’t about performance,” he added. “It’s about keeping [elites] unhappy. The elites screwed the majority over for ages and they would like to screw them over one more time.”
The Economist’s recent publication of a cover article calling AMLO, “Mexico’s false messiah,” only fed perceptions of elites once again trying to undermine the president.
The article stated, “America ought not to turn a blind eye to creeping authoritarianism in its backyard,” which reinforced suspicions among AMLO supporters that the Biden administration—at the behest of Mexican elites—was looking to meddle in Mexico matters in an effort to weaken AMLO.
“They want a proconsular U.S. policy in Mexico,” Estévez said of calls for the United States to stop a democratic decline in Mexico. “[Mexican elites] always depended on the States to push Mexico in the right direction” on commerce, trade. and governance “since the late 80s,” he said.
With Mexican parties failing to find strong support, candidates in 2021 resorted to the weird and wacky to attract attention.
The poverty of their proposals is highlighted by the Twitter feed “Out of Context Candidates.”
Some of the highlights include a telenovela actor-turned candidate cursing at passersby to capture attention. Another candidate promised free cosmetic surgery. Others sang, danced, and filmed campy commercials.
None of the zaniness was done to win an actual election. But the notoriety might allow the parties to claim 3 percent of the vote, according to Dworak—the threshold for maintaining their registration and keeping their public money. (Three new parties failed to win 3 percent on June 6 and will disappear.)
Dependence on public money, meanwhile, has Mexico’s parties unresponsive to any portion of the population. It has also created perceptions that politics is the road to riches—something AMLO counters effectively through his gestures of austerity, which he sells as savings passed on to the poor.
Regardless, party politics continue to be more about business than public policy, good governance, or even opposing the president.
“The system gives [parties] financing, media access, and seats in Congress. Even when they lose, they win,” Dworak said.
“They take advantage of this situation, while feigning outrage with AMLO.”
David Agren is a freelance journalist who has reported from Mexico since 2005. He regularly writes for The Guardian and USA Today, and he works as the Mexico correspondent for the Committee to Protect Journalists.