On July 1 2018, Mexico’s streets witnessed a large wave of jubilation as Andrés Manuel López Obrador (commonly referred to as AMLO), became the first president-elect in thirty years to win an outright majority in an election. It was an emphatic victory, and perhaps an expected one; selling alcohol was illegal that day to prevent festivities from escalating. Indeed, Mexicans seemed to yearn for, and consequently elected, a strong leader to pull them out of the violent abyss in which they find themselves.
The country’s history has been characterized by a large supply of influential political personalities casting their footprints on the country’s future. Figures like José María Morelos, Pancho Villa, and Benito Juárez have become to them, what Charles de Gaulle has become in France – an iconic figure whose presence is still felt in the country today.
López Obrador, to many, seems to be the next name in this sequence. Current President Enrique Peña Nieto has failed to address many of the problems that face the country, and his approval rating occasionally plummeted below 15%. His party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), has paid the price, losing 75% of their seats in both houses, and failing to win any gubernatorial race to boot. The other political parties, such as the conservative National Action Party (PAN), and the social democratic Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), have also failed to stop López Obrador’s meteoric rise.
So, who is López Obrador, and why are so many Mexicans in awe of his messianic-like figure? Most English-speaking media outlets can agree on several things: he is ‘leftist’, ‘anti-establishment’ and ‘nationalist’. However, these terms do not properly encapsulate who he truly is – a ruthless pragmatist.
Indeed, calling someone a leftist in Mexico is somewhat naïve, as both the PRI and the PRD are full members of Socialist International. López Obrador is by no means a conservative, but he is not the only one with reformative ideas in Mexico. He is also firmly entrenched in Mexican left-wing politics, having been a member of both the PRI and the PRD for 13 and 15 years respectively, and served as Mayor of Mexico City for five years at the turn of the 21st century. Moreover, he came in second in the last two presidential elections, so he is hardly a political outcast. He follows his own path, never aligning himself with a political party for longer than he deems necessary, always showcasing his archetypal pragmatism.
The main reason why the media, I think, tends to use these terms to describe him, is so that an easy comparison with Mexico’s northern neighbor can be made. Many see López Obrador’s election as a direct response to two years of bullying by President Trump, who similarly ran on an unorthodox platform, and uprooted the political system from above. Trump has shown his admiration for López Obrador, allegedly even calling him ‘Juan Trump’ in private.
What is perhaps more interesting is that, much like Trump at the beginning of his presidency, nobody really knows in which direction López Obrador will steer his country. As of August 2018, the ‘ideology’ section of MORENA (National Regeneration Movement, the name of López Obrador’s party) on Wikipedia is still empty.
It can be derived that he emphasizes certain values such as transparency and egalitarianism, as shown by his Abre Mas los Ojos organization (open your eyes wider). Its website publishes articles defending proposed policies such as amnesty to minor drug offenders and huge foreign aid schemes to Central American countries to end the refugee crisis.
The biggest issue that López Obrador has identified is the rampant waste and corruption present in Mexico. He has positioned himself in the vanguard of the movement to combat this, as he wants to considerably slash the presidential salary and pension (retired Presidents will also be affected by this). He is considering getting rid of a large amount of the bureaucracy; initial reports imply that he wants to dismiss around 200,000 government officials. It remains to be seen how effective his anti-corruption movement will be when he may lose the trust of those in charge with implementing the reforms at local and provincial level.
In spite of this, his take on many issues remains unclear. He has voiced his displeasure at the privatization of Mexico’s national oil company Pemex and is intent on investing more in the state-owned energy sector. However, he also seems unwilling to completely renationalize the company, as he would face opposition from the Treasury if he were to do that. His high opinion of Pemex conflicts with his devotion to ending corruption, as the formerly-nationalized company is rife with scandals.
Nevertheless, many Mexicans exclaim that their hope in finding a solution to their problems is finally being met by a new, raw president. Enrique Knauze, López Obrador’s biographer, has referred to him as the ‘Tropical Messiah’, for his supporters display a zealous devotion to his cult. Perhaps that will prove to be López Obrador’s biggest challenge. Carlos Illades, an expert on Mexico’s left, has said: ‘The problem is going to be what he is not able to do. There are people who are expecting a lot.’ Whether AMLO’s creed can be the answer to Mexico’s crisis or Trump’s unorthodoxy, is a question whose answer depends on how his ruthless pragmatism adapts to the federal level.