Goran Tomasevic / REUTERS

Can Mexico Be Saved?

The Peril and Promise of López Obrador

In 2012, Mexico’s future looked promising. The election of a dashing young president, Enrique Peña Nieto, imbued the country with a new sense of energy and purpose. Back in power after a 12-year hiatus, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, had promised to reinvent itself and shun the corrupt authoritarianism it had practiced during the seven decades it ruled Mexico. As the country seemed to reach a consensus on long-delayed structural reforms, the international press heralded “the Mexican moment.” According to the cover of Time magazine, Peña Nieto was “saving Mexico” by opening up the energy sector to foreign investment, combating monopolies, changing archaic labor laws, and leaving nationalism and crony capitalism in the past. 

Just six years later, however, a historic election swept the PRI from power and delivered a landslide victory to its nemesis, the antiestablishment leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and his party, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA). The election was a sharp rebuke to Peña Nieto, his agenda, and the political and economic system that has been in place since the country transitioned to democracy in 2000. Despite the early promise of Peña Nieto’s modernizing reforms, by 2018, eight in ten voters disapproved of the PRI. The election catalyzed popular anger over frustrated economic expectations, rampant corruption, and a homicide rate that has made Mexico one of the most violent countries in the Western Hemisphere. 

But the vote was about more than merely punishing the PRI for its failings. López Obrador won because he was perceived as an authentic opposition leader: an insurgent politician who for years—including during two previous runs for the presidency—had railed against rapacious elites and a democratic transition gone awry. This time, however, his message in defense of “the people” resonated with wider segments of the Mexican electorate because the ills he diagnosed had become increasingly evident during the Peña Nieto administration.

López Obrador’s promise to shake up the status quo appealed

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