What’s next for Mexico after Lopez Obrador’s presidential win?

Leftist politician has promised to stamp out corruption and subdue drug cartels, but remains vague on policy details.

AMLO Mexico
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador addressed supporters after polls closed [Edgard Garrido/Reuters]

Mexico City – It took 12 years and three elections, but Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has finally done it.

The veteran leftist politician, who promised that his victory would not represent just a presidential succession, but “regime change”, decisively won Sunday’s presidential election in Mexico.

Over the last 12 years, during which he has virtually been on a constant campaign, many have accused him of irresponsibly making promises that will be difficult to fulfil because of entrenched political opposition to them.

But now that he’s the president-elect, he has a larger mandate to implement his agenda than any president in recent history, some analysts say. 

Not only was his margin of victory higher than any Mexican presidential election since 1982, but his brand-new National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) is on track to win a majority in both houses of Mexico’s congress.

Federico Morales, a researcher in social development at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), told Al Jazeera that MORENA was able to build such a large base of support by creating a broad alliance of many political forces.

“We are a very diverse country, with many differing political opinions, but most of us share a desire to end corruption, poverty and insecurity,” he said. “MORENA has been so successful because it’s a broad front that reflects the diversity of Mexico and represents all the people who want to change the country.”


For Steve Lewis, a professor of Mexican history at Chico State University in California, “MORENA’s rise has been staggering”. 

“You could call MORENA more of a social movement than a party,” he said. “The question is not so much what Lopez Obrador can do, but if he can harness all that energy and goodwill and keep people motivated and engaged to pull off some important changes.”

Lopez Obrador’s promises include a broad crackdown on government corruption and salary reductions for government employees, which he says will provide enough budget for a vast expansion of social programmes without tax increases or deficit spending.

Although corruption is rampant in Mexico and leads to a non-trivial amount of waste, critics say that in a country as unequal as Mexico, raising taxes will be necessary to implement the kind of redistributive agenda that the president-elect proposes.

PRI tainted

Lopez Obrador’s win also comes at a time when every other political force in Mexico is weakened by internal conflicts and popular illegitimacy.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has ruled the country for 70 years apart from a 12-year hiatus between 2000 and 2012, was decimated on July 1, coming in a distant third place behind MORENA and a coalition led by the centre-right National Action Party (PAN).

Lewis said that although the PRI was able to bounce back after its first-ever defeat in 2000 to elect current President Enrique Pena Nieto in 2012, Sunday’s elections could mean the end of the party that once won elections with over 90 percent of the vote.

“People wrote off the PRI in 2000, and that was premature,” Lewis said. “And then they gave the PRI another chance in 2012, and most people think it was a disaster. The Pena Nieto administration is so tainted, that in most of the country, the PRI is now the third-largest party. It’s certainly no longer a hegemonic party, and it may just hold on to its strongholds and turn into a regional party.”

Meanwhile, the PAN is suffering an internal conflict between a younger, more liberal wing led by its presidential candidate Ricardo Anaya and a more conservative wing led by former President Felipe Calderon.

That rift was exposed when Calderon’s wife, Margarita Zavala, was passed over for the PAN’s nomination for the presidential election.

Obrador swept to a historic victory with his Morena party been described as 'more of a social movement than a party' [Daniel Aguilar/Reuters]
Obrador swept to a historic victory with his Morena party been described as ‘more of a social movement than a party’ [Daniel Aguilar/Reuters]

‘You can’t fight violence with violence’

One of the most difficult issues the next government will face is Mexico’s drug war, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives since 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderon sent the army out onto the streets to fight organised crime.

Many say the militarised approach to fighting drug trafficking has been a failure. Military deployments have corresponded with immense increases in violence rates across the country, and 2017 was the most violent year in Mexican history.

During his campaign, Lopez Obrador promised to change the militarised model of combating crime. One of his most controversial proposals has been to give amnesty to certain individuals implicated in drug crimes.

In a presidential debate, he defended his proposal for amnesty, arguing that the drug war needs to be approached with a framework that includes a broader understanding of the problem.

“Why do people grow poppies? Because they have nothing to eat,” he said. “You can’t fight violence with violence; this is an evil that we have to fight by doing good, and by creating economic growth, jobs and wellbeing.”

Many think that this kind of outlook is what Mexico needs to end the drug war.

Alfredo Acedo, spokesman for the National Union of Autonomous Regional Organizations (UNORCA), a confederation of campesino (farmer) groups, told Al Jazeera that guaranteed prices and other kinds of support for rural producers proposed by Lopez Obrador could be key to fighting drug trafficking.

“He’s been very clear, we have to resolve poverty and marginalisation, and that in itself will fix the problem of organized crime and drug trafficking to a large degree,” he said.


“If the campesinos who grow opium poppies or marijuana, or work with drug trafficking in some other way, if the government offered them programmes that guarantee their harvests will be bought and stored for fair prices that guarantee them subsistence – of course, they will stop working with drug traffickers, which puts them at risk and put their families at risk.”

For Lewis, the issue may not be that simple. He said that the roots of the drug war go much deeper than just poverty.

“People have to be reasonable with their expectations,” Lewis said. “The US is not going to stop arms from crossing the border into Mexico, and the US still has an insatiable appetite for drugs, so, the drug traffickers are still going to control parts of the country, and a lot of people are still going to die.”

A relationship of mutual respect

Only hours after exit polls showed that Lopez Obrador had an insurmountable lead on Sunday, US President Donald Trump took to Twitter to congratulate him.

For many, during the campaign, Lopez Obrador got a boost from Trump’s aggressive stance towards Mexico, as Mexican voters believed the veteran politician, with his nationalist rhetoric, would better defend Mexico from Trump than the other candidates.

And now that Lopez Obrador is president-elect, Trump’s aggressive rhetoric towards Mexico makes his nationalist proposals more palatable to many Mexicans.

“Trump’s threats against Mexico may make economic nationalism an easier sell than it would have been,” Lewis said. “He can play the Trump card pretty well in that case.”

For example, although Lopez Obrador has said that he wants to try to preserve the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), many of his proposals for subsidising agriculture will likely necessitate changes in that agreement, or even the removal of the chapter on agriculture. That could set him on a collision course with Trump as NAFTA renegotiations go forward.

Mexico’s president-elect shared a phone conversation with Trump on Monday. The president-elect told Trump that US aid to Mexico could reduce migration and could be an alternative to a border wall

Acedo, the campesino leader, hopes that Lopez Obrador will be a stronger advocate for Mexico on the global stage than other Mexican presidents have been in the past.

“Trump himself has said, if you’re negotiating with someone who’s weak, you can slam your fist on the table and it will scare them,” Acedo said.

“I don’t think that kind of attitude will work with Andres Manuel. Our two countries are condemned for eternity to have a relationship; we can’t just move away from each other. But from now on, that relationship will have to be one of mutual respect.”

Source: Al Jazeera