Philip L. Russell :
The election of AMLO: Optimism and skepticism in Mexico

The election leaves in its wake a radically different political landscape.

Mexican President-elect López Obrador. Photo by Eneas De Troya, Mexico City, May 6, 2012 / Wikimedia Commons.

By Philip L. Russell | The Rag Blog | July 11, 2018


Philip Russell will join Thorne Dreyer on Rag Radio, Friday, July 13, 2018, to discuss this article and the ascendance of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico. Rag Radio is a syndicated radio program that first airs on KOOP 91.7-FM in Austin and is streamed live here.


Listen to the podcast of Thorne Dreyer’s interview with Philip Russell here.


Philip Russell writes about Mexico for The Rag Blog. Read his earlier series about the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto.


“Mexico turned left. No one knows exactly what that means. However, the new Mexico will certainly be different from the one which has existed until now.” — Jorge Ramos Ávalos

By now the whole world knows that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, widely known by his initials, AMLO, won the July 1 presidential election in Mexico with 53 percent of the vote. It was his third time as a presidential candidate. In that aspect, he follows in the footsteps of two twentieth-century icons of the Latin American left — Salvador Allende of Chile and Lula of Brazil — who were both elected president after two failed presidential bids.

What isn’t as widely appreciated is the degree to which AMLO overwhelmed the electoral opposition. He won every state except archconservative Guanajuato. Candidates from his coalition won a majority in both the Senate and the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies.

The election marked the reemergence of cordiality in Mexican politics.

Another underappreciated aspect of the election was the reemergence of cordiality in Mexican politics. Since the widely acclaimed, but ultimately disappointing, victory of presidential candidate Vicente Fox in 2000, Mexico became as politically polarized as its northern neighbor. Each election produced claims of election fraud and massive illegal spending. Once-honored political institutions, such as the election court, fell into disrepute.

All that vanished on July 1. AMLO’s two main opponents gave early and gracious concession speeches. Neither even hinted at unfair campaigning or of a dark cloud hanging over Mexico. These two speeches were followed by a cordial congratulatory speech by President Peña Nieto. Hopefully this will set a standard for the next presidential term.

The election leaves in its wake a radically different political landscape. The formerly dominant Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), which ruled over Mexico for most of the twentieth century, only obtained 13.6 percent of the vote, dragged down by its highly unpopular incumbent president, rampant drug-related violence, and unprecedented corruption. The PRI’s congressional delegation will only be the fifth largest. Its candidate, José Antonio Meade, didn’t even carry his home precinct in Mexico City.

Since the 1980s, the PRI has been
solidly neoliberal.

Since the 1980s, the party has been solidly neoliberal, backing NAFTA and favoring increased economic integration with the United States. For decades economic growth has roughly matched population growth, which makes reducing poverty difficult. Fifty-three million Mexicans live in poverty. While it has failed to alleviate poverty, the PRI-implemented economic model has led to a very high concentration of wealth. While half of Mexico’s population toils in poverty, billionaires proliferate.

Ricardo Anaya, the candidate of the conservative National Action Party, came in second in the election with a lackluster 17.7 percent of the vote. He failed to gain wider support largely due to his party’s having held the presidency between 2000 and 2012 without having made significant progress on resolving Mexico’s chronic problems.

The PAN not only needs to hone its message, but overcome the wound left by Anaya’s having used his presidency of the party to sideline popular former first lady Margarita Zavala, who early on was seen as the party’s likely presidential candidate.

The party facing the most difficult adjustment is the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), founded to unite the left after the stolen presidential election of 1988. In both the 2006 and 2012 presidential elections, it nominated AMLO. Rather than facing the possibility of his being denied a third nomination, AMLO left the party and founded a new party, MORENA — a move which he justified on the grounds that the PRD had ceased to represent a clear alternative to the political and economic status quo.

Given its lack of a viable candidate, the PRD formed a coalition with the conservative PAN. In exchange for backing Anaya, the PAN backed Alejandra Barrales, the PRD candidate for mayor of Mexico City — the second most important elected position in Mexico. The alliance proved to be a double failure for the PRD. It exposed its being governed by political expediency rather than political principle. In addition, Barrales lost to MORENA mayoral candidate Claudia Sheinbaum.

Given his congressional majority, AMLO will have wide latitude to implement policy.

Given his congressional majority, AMLO will have wide latitude to implement policy. The major domestic check on his power is Mexico’s well organized business community. In past decades, this community has thwarted policy it disagreed with by reducing investment and moving funds out of the country. In contrast to his earlier candidacies, which the business community firmly opposed, this year the business community adopted a cautiously welcoming wait-and-see attitude towards AMLO.

AMLO’s political positions closely resemble the declared values of the 1970s PRI — a strong economic role for the state, an economy not completely independent of the United States but setting its own course, democracy, social justice, and combating corruption. (With the exception of the first two, the PRI’s actual values were diametrically opposite the declared ones.) This adoption of the PRI’s declared values is not surprising since AMLO got his start in the PRI of the 1970s. He even became state PRI president in his home state of Tabasco. He didn’t last long through since he was too independent. He later joined the newly founded PRD which he stuck with until after the 2012 election.

During his 2006 presidential campaign, AMLO was unmercifully compared to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez in the media and declared to be “a danger for Mexico.” To preempt such attacks this year, AMLO crafted a very non-threatening image. He declared he would not raise taxes, nationalize property, increase the level of debt, or meddle with the banking system.

AMLO declares austerity in government and fighting corruption will be key.

When asked how he will finance proposed changes, AMLO declares austerity in government and fighting corruption will be key. AMLO’S plans for taming corruption have never been laid out in detail. He simply states that as president he will set an example of scrupulous honesty which will then trickle down through the political system

AMLO has spoken of shifting away from Mexico’s on-going war on drugs and possibly even pardoning low-level offenders. His somewhat nebulous plans include offering alternative crops to poppy growers and providing young people with honest, attractive employment.

That last goal could be implemented by another campaign promise, raising the minimum wage. While that might benefit workers in such booming, multinational-run industries as auto manufacturing, much of Mexico works in the informal economy for which talk of minimum wage hikes is nothing more than empty campaign rhetoric.

It remains unclear how he will increase growth and more evenly distribute wealth.

It remains unclear how the economy will be altered to increase growth and more evenly distribute wealth. Attempts in this area not only face possible opposition from the business community, but the inability to anticipate how Trump’s policies will affect Mexico. Since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect in 1994, Mexico’s economy has become much more closely linked to the U.S. economy. Should Trump ever carry out his threat to scrap NAFTA or impose new tariffs on Mexico, short-term damage would be inevitable and greatly complicate AMLO’s task.

Comments on the election so far express amazement at AMLO’s margin of victory and the lack of clarity of his proposals. Optimism is so widespread that the Mexican peso gained 4 percent in value in the week following the election. Hopefully, the example AMLO set as mayor of Mexico City will be duplicated at the national level. He enjoyed an 85 percent approval rating when he left the mayor’s office. A danger he now faces is that he’s raised expectations so high that there will inevitably be disappointment.

Indicative of the problems facing AMLO is the appearance at his Mexico City home less than a week after the election of a group of healthcare workers from his home state. The protesters demanded the removal of their union leader and that AMLO guarantee a fair union election. Past presidents have bypassed established channels to address grievances. Should AMLO?

The Mexican political spectrum, as is the case in much of Latin America, has moved to the right. Thus voices to AMLO’s left are largely absent. One conspicuous exception is the Zapatista National Liberation Front (EZLN), which grabbed world headlines in 1994 with its rebellion in the southern state of Chiapas. It has claimed AMLO’s presidency will inevitably be a disappointment, noting, “You can change the foreman, the servant, and the overseer, but the landowner remains the same.”


[Austin-based writer Philip L. Russell has written six books on Latin America, including The Essential History of Mexico (Routledge, 2016), and is the editor of the Mexico Energy News.]


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One Response to Philip L. Russell :
The election of AMLO: Optimism and skepticism in Mexico

  1. Leslie C. says:

    Thanks, Philip Russell, for this analysis. Though I cheered AMLO’s election, count me among the skeptics. How can he accomplish much if he cannot buck either the business community or the cartel leadership?
    An elderly, left-leaning friend from Mexico City told me with disgust that she would not vote in this election at all.

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