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The first five months of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s presidency have been a roller-coaster ride for Mexico. The new government has moved quickly to differentiate itself from past administrations by enacting bold changes in a whirlwind of presidential announcements, decrees, constitutional modifications, and reforms. The results have been mixed and often unpredictable—but with a 65 percent approval rating, a mandate for transformation, and an ineffectual opposition, López Obrador has faced little obstacle to shaking up the status quo.
The president has promised to fight corruption, alleviate the plight of 53 million Mexicans who live below the poverty line, and address the rising levels of insecurity and violence that plague the country. In order to achieve these goals and do so rapidly, López Obrador has dismantled many of the checks and balances that Mexico’s reformers have struggled to construct over the past three decades. He insists that institutions created during the neoliberal period, from roughly 1982 to 2012, serve to obstruct the “fourth transformation” he envisions. He intends to govern “without intermediaries,” through a direct relationship with the people.
The new president’s approach is popular. But he has still to prove that he can achieve his visionary aims without consolidating excessive power and returning Mexico its recent past, before its democratic breakthrough in 2000, when its president and ruling party commanded overweening dominance.
Upon taking office, López Obrador announced a plan to deliver scholarships, pensions, and cash to low-income Mexicans. He proposed twenty new social programs that he claims would link the recipients to him personally—making him what analyst María Amparo Casar has called the “great benefactor”: the patron of the state’s largesse. Moreover, the force of the president’s personal leadership and charisma hold together Morena, his party, which has always been more of a movement and a disparate coalition, but which now faces the challenge of acting in concert.
Having made himself the center of his party and policies, López Obrador is in constant motion, traveling throughout the country and doling out benefits. Every day, he delivers a presidential press conference, the “conferencia mañanera,” in which he explains his priorities, defines the public agenda, and lambastes the people and institutions he believes have not served the country well. According to the president, the judiciary, civil society, the “elitist media,” autonomous regulators, and members of the opposition, among others, have thwarted real democracy and enabled corruption that needs to be exposed and expunged. The president recites facts and figures meant to highlight the mess he inherited from previous administrations, issues commandments, offers lessons on morality, and cites the Bible. The briefings resemble sermons more than exercises in government accountability and transparency. López Obrador uses them to construct a political persona that transcends that of an elected official: he aspires to be Mexico’s spiritual guide.
The press briefing also serves as a call for the people to participate in an epic crusade against what López Obrador has identified as the mother of all evils: corruption. In the name of fighting corruption, which supposedly corroded government institutions prior to his arrival in office, the new president has dramatically reduced the budget of the federal bureaucracy, questioned the need for the National Transparency Institute and the National Human Rights Commission, named cronies to key public posts, manhandled the designation of federal regulators, and cut off public funding to all NGOs. He has also threatened to pack the Supreme Court by increasing its size from 11 to 16 members, and other measures he has introduced, ostensibly to clean up the judiciary, will bring it under tighter executive control. The president has made the fight against corruption into a political weapon to wield against his enemies, a tool to undermine resistance to his policies, and a shield to defend decisions that would otherwise elicit more scrutiny.
This crusade has now touched almost every aspect of public life in Mexico. Arguing that the Federal Police was corrupt, López Obrador reformed the constitution in order to create the National Guard, a militarized force that will assume all public security tasks. Arguing that corruption had infiltrated state governments, he instituted a system of delegates, whom he appoints, and who will distribute funds for social programs throughout the country—bypassing elected officials at the local level. Arguing that corruption had tainted an ambitious airport construction project, he cancelled it, and has announced alternative projects that only contractors selected by his government will be allowed to participate in. On the grounds that the entities charged with regulating energy and telecommunications were corrupt, he handpicked technically inexperienced but loyal deputies to replace officials who had a more technical and independent profile. The president has used his fight against corruption to amass and centralize a great deal of discretionary power.
For all that he decries corruption, López Obrador and his team have displayed a profound ignorance about how public administration works, what rules need to be followed, and how constitutional norms define what the president can and cannot do. The times are defined by uncertainty. How the government plans to rescue Pemex, the state oil company, and how it will budget for the disbursement of unsupervised public funds to social programs remain matters for speculation. The president has articulated ambitious redistribution plans, but he has not specified how he will finance them given this year’s paltry predicted economic growth. Private and foreign investment could plummet if the new trade deal that the previous administration negotiated with the United States and Canada is not approved. And if the new government unravels crucial structural reforms, it will further scare off foreign and domestic capital. Reality may bite López Obrador if his mismanagement of the economy and mixed signals to financial markets, investors, and consumers produce deleterious effects.
The president has made the fight against corruption into a political weapon to wield against his enemies, a tool to undermine resistance to his policies, and a shield to defend decisions that would otherwise elicit more scrutiny.
So far, López Obrador’s fourth transformation seems to be taking Mexico backward, toward its experience under the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000: the overwhelming dominance of a single political party, headed by an all-powerful president who governed with few restraints. López Obrador’s supporters applaud the return of an omnipotent, morally unimpeachable leader, capable of enacting change in a country clamoring for social justice and greater equality. But those who fought to dismantle the hegemony of the PRI and create a framework of checks and balances view the current trend with concern: López Obrador is centralizing power without assuring that it will be used more transparently or democratically.
As James Madison argued in The Federalist Papers, “When putting together a government, the great difficulty rests in the following: allow a government to control the governed; and the next step, force it to control itself.” Such is the task that López Obrador has failed to address. The president has not shown whether or how he will delimit his own power—for example, by preventing his administration from committing abuses; submitting his government to rules, procedures, and constitutional restraints; and by sanctioning corruption when it occurs in the ranks of his own party.
The goal of the modern state is to constrain the executive’s power by depersonalizing its use. López Obrador, by contrast, seems to believe that his conscience and personal honor are sufficient guardrails to assure democratic rule. The attitude is reminiscent of Mexico’s imperial presidency, when the country’s chief executive controlled the political and economic system in an omnipotent fashion. If the new president continues to lead in this direction, shoring up the power of the executive while weakening key institutions, Mexico could end up with a strong president at the helm of a weak, dysfunctional state. Paradoxically, the change López Obrador will have brought to Mexico may include turning it into a less modern, less democratic place.