Mexico’s New President Turns Back the Clock on Democracy

López Obrador Has Consolidated Too Much Power

AMLO greets supporters at an event in Piedras Negras, Mexico, May 2019 Handout / Reuters

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. 

AMLO at a festival in Mexico City, Mexico, December 2018
AMLO at a festival in Mexico City, Mexico, December 2018 Edgard Garrido / Reuters

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