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Mexico: López Obrador wins. Now, the inequality challenge

The main problem in Mexico is inequality. The second biggest problem in the country is... inequality. Español

Relatives of the 43 missing students from the rural teachers’ college march holding pictures of their missing loved ones during a protest in Mexico City. Dec. 26, 2015. AP Photo/Marco Ugarte. All rights reserved

This article forms part of the special “Mexico Elections 2018: depolarisation and disinformation” produced in partnership with Revista Nueva Sociedad in the framework of our joint project  #EleccionesAbiertas2018 

In a study released earlier this month, researchers from El Colegio de México (Colmex) were emphatic about what they found to be the biggest challenge facing Mexico, as voters prepared to go to the polls on July 1.

"The main problem in the country is inequality," said well-known journalist and academic Ricardo Raphael, presenting the report entitled Desigualdades en México 2018. “The second biggest problem in the country,” Raphael continued, “is inequality.”

It is clear from the latest polls that Mexican voters – seemingly fed up with what they see as a corrupt political class that has failed to reduce inequality, poverty, violence and crime – are now likely to elect three-time presidential hopeful Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO for short) as their next president. It was this anger that catapulted an ideologically ambiguous leftist, running as a clean-hands outsider, to the front of the presidential race.

What is less clear is just how the former mayor of Mexico City will go about tackling the massive challenge of curbing inequality and the other social problems that have pushed voters to his side.

On the campaign trail, AMLO, who would serve for a single six-year term, has vowed to stamp out corruption and fight inequality. Easier said than done. The Colmex study found that those in office do not understand the link between government policy and inequality in Mexico, which has among the highest rates of inequality in Latin America.

What is less clear is just how the former mayor of Mexico City will go about tackling the massive challenge of curbing inequality.

They don't have a clear understanding of the full range of factors that contribute to inequality and how they overlap and disrupt people's life trajectories. AMLO’s formulations of anti-poverty policies (not to mention anti-corruption measures) are extremely vague – they don’t offer much detail beyond pledges to raise the minimum wage or increase access to education.

Social programs have so far been unable to reduce poverty, much less inequalities, which have brutally increased – as have violence and impunity – under both the current Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) administration and its National Action Party (PAN) predecessors. These two parties, both upholding neoliberal programs, have alternated in power since the 1990s, when the political system underwent a liberalization process that put an end to 70 years of PRI hegemony. In this context, the ascent of a redistributionist, anti-corruption left doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.

Unprecedented levels of violence and corruption, exclusion and impunity have created expectations around the advent of a leader who will deliver radical change. But will AMLO’s election indeed mark the end of an era of heartless neoliberalism, and the beginning of one of democratic inclusion?

This election will, in fact, be the first real chance for the left to access power, after three successive electoral losses by the founder of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, and two additional defeats by his successor, AMLO himself. If was after his second defeat in 2012 that AMLO left the PRD and went on to found his own National Regeneration Movement, also known as MORENA.

There is even talk that he may possibly carry more than 50 per cent of the vote.

The frontrunner heads a coalition named “Together We’ll Make History”, which includes MORENA, the Labor Party (PT) and an unlikely bedfellow: the ultraconservative evangelic Social Encounter Party (PES). According to the most recent polls, he leads with close to 40 per cent of voter support – 20 percentage points ahead of his closest rival.

There is even talk that he may possibly carry more than 50 per cent of the vote – which won’t make a difference in the presidential race, given that Mexico’s president gets elected by a simple plurality vote.

The charismatic candidate’s traction may, however, make a big difference in the congressional elections, taking place along with the presidential one. A total of 128 senators and 500 deputies will get elected and AMLO’s coalition will likely obtain a wide congressional majority – a gift that not a single Mexican president has received over the past quarter century.

Uncertainties, however, run high. Firstly, how much of a change is AMLO promising? He sounds messianic in the roles as anti-corruption crusader and defender of the poor. But he is no radical – which is why scaremongering comparisons with Hugo Chávez and other so-called populist leftists didn’t hold. AMLO’s nationalist rhetoric rather feels like a promise of a return to the PRI’s roots, abandoned for good in the late 1990s, notably with the signature of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – a restoration that was in fact the aspiration of his former party, the PRD.

Far from being a newcomer, the 64-year-old is a seasoned politician leading a colorful grouping of traditional leftist activists, businesspeople, a right-wing religious group, and former PRI and PAN members. 

Ideologically, AMLO’s coalition lacks consistency among both campaign proposals and coalition partners. AMLO talks like an outsider, and he may well be the one to put the PRI out of business (at least temporarily). But far from being a newcomer, the 64-year-old is a seasoned politician leading a colorful grouping of traditional leftist activists, businesspeople, a right-wing religious group, and former PRI and PAN members and even public officials.

Where else would a new party recruit enough candidates to fill hundreds and thousands of political positions? In several districts, mayoral and congressional candidates from those two discredited parties will soon be elected to represent MORENA.

Secondly, if AMLO is indeed promising progressive change, how able will he be to deliver it? Which tools will he use to revert decades-old neoliberal policies, fuel public investment, lift the poor and assert the state’s authority over the powers that be? Despite being more powerful than most of its Latin American counterparts, the Mexican state is now, as a result of neoliberal policies, a mere shadow of its old self.

With AMLO as the guarantor of the popular element of democracy, who will guard its liberal component? 

And finally, if AMLO moved to deliver on social change promises, what would the price tag be? His coalition will likely hold majorities in both chambers of Congress. His role as a charismatic leader placed at the top will likely be heightened by the heterogeneity of his catch-all coalition, himself (rather than any kind of program) being the glue that holds it all together.

The PAN will likely eventually become the sole real opposition, but not before it goes through some serious restructuring. With AMLO as the guarantor of the popular element of democracy, who will guard its liberal component? Will pluralism and checks and balances survive, or will Mexico’s faulty democracy become even more delegative, as renowned Argentine political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell would put it?

As the president-to-be proclaims himself the representative of the “common folk” and claims to have integrated within his coalition the civil society that counts, i.e. grassroots and popular social movements, the sector of civil society organizations working on issues of civic space quality, public integrity and democratic accountability is growing restless.

If AMLO’s government turns out to be too powerful to accept checks and balances, yet too weak to stand a chance against deep-rooted inequalities, corruption and organized crime, Mexicans will risk becoming stuck with the worst of both worlds.

About the author

Inés M. Pousadela es Especialista Senior de Investigación en CIVICUS: Alianza Mundial para la Participación Ciudadana.

Inés M. Pousadela is a Senior Research Specialist with CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation.

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