Mexico’s democracy is backsliding and there is only one person responsible for this: President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). It is not that he is deliberately trying to overturn the democratic strides the country took during its transition (which began in 1977). The problem is that his political principles, which he refers to as “what I hold dearest in my life,” are not entirely compatible with the workings of a modern democracy —namely, a formula to elect term-limited governments and whose outcome is uncertain.
To observe how this is the case, let us examine Mexico’s recent political development. Between 1977 and 1996 the country transitioned from an authoritarian regime under the hegemonic Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to a multi-party democracy. Different reasons have been advanced to explain it. First, the international context marked by the democratic winds blowing especially in Southern Europe (Portugal and Spain), which later blew strongly in Latin America and Eastern Europe.
Second, the country’s internal politics marked by guerrilla activity and the public embarrassment the PRI regime endured when its 1976 presidential candidate, José López Portillo, ran unopposed. And as times changed, the PRI allowed for a modest political opening with the passing in 1977 of the Federal Law of Political Organizations and Electoral Procedures (LOPPE).
This law introduced two important changes. First, it changed the seat allocation formula in the chamber of deputies by introducing a mixed system of representation that guaranteed a minimum number of seats to the opposition. Second, it granted legal recognition to all parties —including the until-then marginalized Mexican Communist Party— and defined them as “entities of public interest.”
The PRI's objective in passing the LOPPE was not to trigger a democratic transition but to endow itself with a democratic veneer. Unintentionally, however, this milestone marks the beginning of a transition that lasted until 1996 and whose objective was twofold: to take the electoral authority away from the PRI-government, and place it in the hands of an autonomous body.
This was achieved through almost two-decades of bargaining between the government and the opposition through formal and informal channels. The opposition leaders had two trump cards in their hands: legislative support in the chambers, and street mobilization capacity against the continuous electoral frauds in this period.
The Mexican transition to democracy in fact can be summed up as a virtuous circle between electoral fraud, street protests, and electoral reform. It is no coincidence that the main reforms were passed around a federal election: 1986, 1989–1990, and 1993-1994. Eventually, the feedback loop of the circle was closed in 1996 when a constitutional change granted full autonomy to the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) with respect to the executive power.
AMLO arrived on the national political scene that same year, 1996, by taking over the presidency of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), on a surprising platform: that true democracy has yet to arrive to Mexico, and will only do so through popular mobilization and not by reforming electoral laws here and there. By “true democracy” AMLO was not talking about a set of rules among political elites to compete for power on a levelled playing field. What he meant was that for “true" democracy to exist, those who represent the people (le peuple) should win elective office. This concept, le peuple, is a tricky and politically contentious one, rooted in Rousseau’s idea of the general will. And thus, if the essence of democracy is uncertainty regarding electoral outcomes, the “true” Rousseaunian version of AMLO offers absolute certainty.
The Mexican transition to democracy in fact can be summed up as a virtuous circle between electoral fraud, street protests, and electoral reform.
To fully understand this, we need to know that AMLO firmly believes in the existence of a single, homogenous Mexican people with specific characteristics. He constantly refers to it in his speeches and does not skimp on flattery: good, admirable, with deep cultural roots, clean, hard-working, virtuous, my guardian angel, etc.
This Mexican people would arguably be a uniform entity whose members, although they might not know it, deep down think, feel, and want the same things. This notion is difficult to fit within a modern democracy, which is precisely a way to accommodate a diversity of political preferences. Mexico is a case in point: let us remember that the objective of the democratic transition was precisely to incorporate into formal politics actors that were marginalized or who did not share the PRI's national-revolutionary creed —for example the communists. In sharp contrast, the “true” democracy that AMLO offers is in effect an attempt to shun the opposition based on an alleged moral superiority.
Considering AMLO’s political principles —so dear to him but not entirely compatible with the electoral game— his strong reaction to defeat in the presidential elections of 2006 and 2012 is no surprise. Simply put, for him the general will and the interests of the “people” are above any electoral result, which may perhaps confirm their primacy but in no way invalidates them.
“The people are never wrong” is one of his favourite lines. That is why he always explains his electoral defeats in terms of their adversaries’ malfeasance and cheating. Another favourite line of his is that “the poor should come first.” The problem is, of course, that in democracy no group or individual comes first or second. That is its greatness and its misery.
The one thing that AMLO values the most are his political principles, and of course the “people” of Mexico. He has said it repeatedly in every corner of the country. You ought to believe him. Both in the opposition and now in the government he has confronted radically and without concessions the social inequality in the country —at least rhetorically.
There is no way to separate him from his discourse: “For me, being a leftist, in addition to loving the people and being honest, implies fighting for transformation. That is to be a radical. The opposite is conservatism.” In a way he is a tragic figure: it is not that he has the wrong ideas, but he is working within institutions that were designed for more modest purposes. At the same time, he does not seem to have a solid grasp on the importance of these institutions to limit powers, process claims, etc.
He might not be aware, but in fact he is expressing the ambiguities around the notion of the general will, which is conceptualized both as an abstraction and as the actual policy preferences of the citizenry. In any case, institutional tragedy looms in Mexico.