Mexico’s AMLO is no chavista

An AMLO victory will not bring about a revolution or the complete overhaul of the existing system.

Morena ALMO mexico
Mexico's presidential frontrunner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) greets supporters in Oaxaca, Mexico June 16, 2018 [Jorge Luis Plata/Reuters]

On 1 July, the Mexican people will vote in possibly the most important presidential election in their country’s recent history.

The crisis of credibility suffered by the current administration and traditional political parties in the past few years has led to increased popular support for Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), a 65-year-old politician from the state of Tabasco who served as mayor of Mexico City between 2000 and 2005 and unsuccessfully ran for president in the 2006 and 2012 elections .

AMLO is supported by a coalition named “Together We Will Make History”, consisting of the National Regeneration Movement (Morena) – the party that AMLO founded following his loss in the 2012 election – and two other minor parties: the left-wing Worker’s Party and the right-wing Social Encounter Party, which has been linked to the evangelical movement.

At the moment, the most reliable polls agree that AMLO will win by a landslide. In fact, voter turnout is expected to reach 65 percent, significantly increasing the likelihood of an AMLO victory, as high voter participation limits the ability of local “vote lords” to alter electoral results in favour of the traditional parties.

An AMLO victory would shake the foundations of the Mexican political system as we know it. From 1929 to 2000, Mexico was governed by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

The new millennium ushered in a brief period of bipolar politics, with the PRI and the National Action Party (PAN) alternating periods in power. Now Morena, a relatively young political party with little structure compared to the bloated PRI, threatens to defeat and replace not only the traditional political parties, but also the consolidated power groups behind them.

The biggest concern regarding a possible AMLO victory is his populist discourse. In fact, many fear that AMLO will turn out to be a Mexican Hugo Chavez . This implies that AMLO is, if not Marxist, at least a radical leftist, which is not the case.

AMLO is not a socialist

AMLO is definitely a populist, but he is not a left-wing radical. His catchy political narrative is based on creating opposition between honest citizens and dishonest politicians (which he calls the “power mafia“), but his discourse does not reference labour issues, class struggle, US imperialism, or financial capitalism at all.


Even considering that socialism and Marxism in Latin America have evolved into a number of un-orthodox offshoots and variants, AMLO’s political narrative hardly matches any of his Latin American left-wing peers. In fact, AMLO cooperated fruitfully with the local private sector during his tenure as mayor of Mexico City, achieving significant and long-lasting results, including the rehabilitation of Mexico City’s historic centre.

So why do people believe that AMLO is a socialist in spite of both the evidence and his own political discourse?

In order to understand the origin of this misunderstanding, one must look back to 2006, when AMLO ran against Felipe Calderon in the Mexican presidential elections. At the time, the Calderon campaign portrayed AMLO as a populist, an enemy of the private sector and of the wealthy.

This narrative helped Calderon win the presidency that year, but it eventually became AMLO’s strongest strategic advantage and the very reason why the lower classes now overwhelmingly support him.

If AMLO is elected president, what kind of policies will he implement? The biggest fear of the Mexican private sector is that AMLO will embark on a Venezuela-style nationalisation spree, but that is actually quite unlikely.

First of all, nationalisation is neither a part of Morena’s platform – which explicitly mentions incentives to increase competition in several sectors – nor a part of AMLO’s political narrative. And second, nationalisations in Mexico are highly impractical and represent a huge political risk, as they would most likely devolve into corruption scandals. 

Moreover, AMLO’s candidacy is supported by neoliberal economists that have worked at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, including Gerardo Esquivel and Jesus Seade, among others.

Economist Carlos Manuel Urzua, who is expected to become AMLO’s finance minister, has taken a position in favour of economic competition and the private sector. As such, it is unlikely that AMLO will adopt revolutionary economic policies.

AMLO’s policies will not radically eliminate poverty and corruption 

The core of AMLO’s political economy policies will likely involve the reinforcement of existing social programmes like “Piso Firme” and “ Vivienda Digna“, which distribute construction materials to low-income populations to ensure that they are able to access fair housing.

WATCH: The Mexican presidential candidate vowing to fight for the poor (2:51)

In addition, AMLO also proposes providing financial support to women and the elderly. It is important to keep in mind that in several areas of Mexico, more than 90 percent of the population lives in poverty.

These social support policies are necessary, as they allow this marginalised population to access basic services. However, they will hardly affect social mobility, which is currently extremely limited.

The only way to integrate the marginalised portion of the Mexican population into society is through education; however, in the last few decades, the Mexican education system has been held hostage by two self-governed trade unions that are unaccountable to voters and the government: the National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE) and the National Education Workers Union (SNTE).

These unions have thwarted all attempts to reform the dysfunctional mechanisms currently in place to train and hire academic staff. AMLO and CNTE are strategic electoral allies, and it is highly unlikely that he will be able to radically reform the system.

The war on corruption is at the core of AMLO’s campaign. He and his team perceive and present the eradication of corruption as  a measure of development. AMLO’s platform proposes reinforcing and centralising controls on public expenditure in an effort to reduce corruption in public tenders, with the recovered resources subsequently being invested into social programmes.

Although this measure is likely to succeed, it would only tackle high-level corruption and would leave the systemic corruption in the public administration largely unaddressed. Corruption is a widespread phenomenon at every level of Mexican bureaucracy, and corruption at the lowest levels – police, universities, hospitals, city administrations, etc – constitutes quite possibly the most significant burden on the domestic market.

Corruption is rampant in Mexico primarily because of high levels of impunity – 69.21 percent according to the Global Impunity Index – and the only way to truly address it is by reforming the judicial system, which does not seem to be a part of AMLO’s plan. Without specific, targeted measures, it is unlikely that corruption will decrease and development indicators will improve.

The risk of political fragmentation and deadlock under AMLO

What are the chances that AMLO will actually implement his platform? Well, much depends on the size of AMLO’s victory. Should AMLO win the presidency, but not a majority of the seats in parliament, an unprecedented institutional stall with unforeseeable implications would likely occur. If AMLO wins and his party takes 35 – 40 percent of the seats in both chambers, Morena and its coalition forces will face two major problems. The first one is in-party negotiations. AMLO has brought together a diverse base, including right-wing conservatives and progressive forces. This unlikely coalition is an effective electoral tool that will allow AMLO to win votes from diverse social and economic backgrounds, but it could easily splinter should it rise to power. AMLO has undeniable charisma, which will help him impose, to some extent, unpopular decisions, however, it will be impossible for him to satisfy the interests of all members of his party and coalition. As a result, Morena runs the risk of internal fragmentation, possibly resulting in splinter factions deciding to create their own parties or power groups. 

This is new territory for Mexican politics. Moreover, this internal weakness can also create an additional problem. If AMLO does not secure the support of a cohesive coalition, he will have little leverage to negotiate policies with other parties, potentially stalling the implementation of the proposed reforms and causing institutional deadlock.   

The other scenario is that AMLO wins the presidency with 50 percent or more of the votes. Should this occur, he will face a weak opposition, which would likely ease the implementation of his policies. However, the risk of internal fragmentation would remain, as AMLO’s charisma might not be enough to keep the coalition united and could actually further frustrate sub-groups in Morena that are unhappy with his policies. No matter the outcome of the election, AMLO’s leadership will likely face challenges from his own coalition.

AMLO’s policies will not jeopardise Mexico’s economy or society. However, a paralysis of the political system is very much possible. The stall of political negotiations could lead to stalled reforms, which is exactly what Mexico must avoid.

Although a better allocation of resources could lead to growth and improved macro-economic performance in the short and medium term, the problem of chronic underdevelopment will remain as long as the education system, justice system, public administration, and law enforcement do not undergo significant overhauls and improvements.

“If AMLO can’t do it, nobody can” reads the slogan of his campaign.

And it might be true – AMLO might be the most tenable presidential candidate to address current social forces. However, probable infighting among his coalition will likely limit his margin of manoeuvre, potentially leading him to water down his policies in an attempt to seek consensus among traditional power groups.

An AMLO victory will augur neither the beginning of a revolution nor the complete overhaul of the existing system, but will instead represent access to political power for a number of historically underrepresented social actors.

It is difficult to foresee if the next six years will be a success or a failure. The only sure thing is that we are heading towards a brand-new phase of Mexican politics marked by a change in the country’s political actors, as well as the socioeconomic forces behind them.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.