Since Latin America’s return to democracy beginning in 1978, many middle class and poor citizens have found the old party systems unwilling and unable to generate sustainable and broad-based development. As voters they abandoned these parties in favor of outsiders who promised radical change. Mexico appeared to have avoided this “throw them out” scenario when it democratized in 2000 by voting for long-time opposition party Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN), while keeping the old authoritarian party Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), a major force in the Congress that even returned to the presidency in 2012. The victory of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (aka “AMLO”), however, leaves many wondering if the country is now embarking on this general Latin American path and likely to adopt some of its most destabilizing forms.
Understanding Mexico’s election
Mexicans wanted change, but they did not want a wholesale “throw them out”. AMLO’s path to power was not that of a total outsider, a la Alberto Fujimori in Peru (1990-2000), Hugo Chávez in Venezuela (1998-2013), or Evo Morales in Bolivia (2006-present). Mexicans were looking for a leader who promised change, but also had credentials to lead. López Obrador came out of the party that had governed Mexico during the authoritarian years of 1928-2000 (PRI), was one of the founders of a party developed by the disenchanted left wing of the PRI (Partido de la Revolución Democrática, PRD), became Mayor of the Federal District (Mexico City) under that party’s banner, ran for President of the country twice as leader of the PRD (2006 and 2012) and founded a new political movement (Moviemiento de Regeneración Nacional, MORENA) after a falling out with the PRD and in preparation for a third bid. Voters not only gave López Obrador an overwhelming victory over his rivals, they also provided his party with a plurality in both houses of Congress. He should, therefore, be able to forge congressional majorities in support of his policies quite easily.
Mexican voters were united in support for AMLO as the alternative to what they saw as a discredited political system. Independents had no drawing power. They won no mayoral or gubernatorial races, coming in far behind even PRI and PRD candidates in most races. Jaime Rodríguez Calderón (aka El Bronco) received only some 5% of the presidential vote and Margarita Zavala, wife of ex-President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) who ran as an independent after the PAN did not choose her to be its candidate dropped out of the race before election day.
Mexicans were not thinking about external affairs when they voted. While US President Donald Trump is widely despised by Mexicans, many polls indicate they disapprove of current Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto (and his PRI) even more. Polls and commentators specified quite clearly that unemployment, crime and corruption were the dominant issues in this election.
Implications for Mexico and the world
The relationship with the United States is Mexico’s most important international connection. History, geography, economics, sociology, politics and environment all demonstrate how intimate the relationship is, even when the US tries to ignore its own interdependence with Mexico. Mexicans have long resented that asymmetric dependence, but all efforts to diversify its international relationships failed. NAFTA represented an effort to see the relationship as an opportunity rather than a liability and President Felipe Calderon’s militarization of the fight against drug gangs drew heavily on US support.
NAFTA, however, exacerbated the historical division between the north and the central-south regions of the country. The war against drug cartels also produced a backlash by the drug gangs as they diversified into other criminal activities and ratcheted up their violence, generating a sense of insecurity among Mexican citizens unprecedented since the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917. The US was clearly identified by large segments of Mexican society as the catalyst for these shocks to their country even before Trump assumed the presidency. But Trump’s targeting of Mexico as the culprit for failures of the US economic and social systems to generate a sense of well-being among many US citizens added to Mexican resentment, especially when those attacks were delivered with insulting and wild rhetoric.
Despite the underlying tensions in the relationship, both Trump and López Obrador have made public expressions of goodwill. Trump was one of the first foreign leaders to congratulatethe new President on his electoral victory and his tweet claimed that both countries could work together for mutual benefit, and even suggested that a bilateral relationship in place of the trilateral NAFTA could be appropriate. This seems to be pure theater on the part of Trump who offered nothing concrete and to date has been demanding virtual capitulation of Mexico to his ill-defined “America First” project. AMLO revealed himself as a statesmen by using the follow-up telephone conversation to advocate for development projects that could generate well-paid employment and thereby mitigate the need to migrate to the US or choose a life of crime within Mexico. If Trump does not modify his negotiating position, AMLO is likely to adhere to the position of Peña Nieto’s negotiating team: better no NAFTA than a bad NAFTA.
In this bilateral scenario China is likely to loom large in López Obrador’s vision. As a left-wing nationalist, he will want to develop the relationship with China to lessen Mexico’s interdependence with the US, and especially now with Trump’s rhetorical attacks on Mexico and its citizens. But Mexico is not particularly attractive to Chinese investment – producing in Mexico to export to the US market will be more difficult under a renegotiated NAFTA and Mexico’s agricultural and mining sectors are not as attractive to the Chinese as those in Brazil, Argentina and Peru. The oil sector might be more attractive, but in general Chinese companies have taken minority positions in Latin American oil projects and they will likely wait to see how an AMLO government reacts to the energy reform that they opposed at the time it was adopted, and which the new President now sees as a means of promoting domestic industry.
With regard to Latin America, the AMLO government is likely to return to Mexico’s traditional foreign policy, emphasizing non-intervention in the political affairs of other countries. This would mean backing off from contributing to regional pressure on Latin American governments confronting domestic instability, such as Venezuela and Nicaragua. Mexico’s absence will make it harder for Latin American regional institutions to promote democracy and human rights in these difficult times across the region.