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The Threats, Real and Imagined, of Mexico’s Election

Carlos Jasso/Reuters
Presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaking to the press in Mexico City, on March 7, 2018

In less than five months, Mexico will have a presidential election that is mostly being described by US and international media commentators as a perilous undertaking. For some, it is part of a “perfect storm” that could wreak havoc on the Mexican economy (together with Trump’s tax reform and threats to NAFTA); for the business press, there is a threat to foreign investment, especially in the state-owned oil industry, which has had an unprecedented opening to such investment since 2013; and for other observers, it is a threat to the “security”—that is, foreign policy—of the United States.

The problem, according to the pundits and the Trump administration, is that the leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (often known by his initials, AMLO) holds a sizable lead in the polls, and could well be Mexico’s next president. But is his possible election as president really the threat it’s made out to be?

Although López Obrador has moved toward the center during the campaign, his Morena party has a left-wing base that resembles some of the movements and governments that Washington has opposed since they began to spread through Latin America in the early years of the twenty-first century. López Obrador was a popular mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005; he ran for president in 2006 and 2012 as the candidate of the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). When López Obrador formed Morena in 2014, he took a large part of the PRD’s support with him.

The stated purpose of Morena was to form an alternative to existing political parties in order to reform not only Mexico’s governance, but also its economic policy. The objective was to move Mexico’s economy toward a more developmentalist model—of more robust internal markets through industrial policy and public investment and planning—and to provide more of a welfare state and take Mexico in a more social-democratic direction.

Like Bernie Sanders in the 2016 US presidential election, López Obrador is running as an outsider, in this case against what he claims is a corrupt elite represented by all the mainstream parties that cannot provide either economic or physical security for the country’s citizens. He promises to “clean out corruption in government from top to bottom, like you clean the stairs.” And he proposes the reallocation of about 4 percent of Mexico’s GDP to infrastructure and social programs, including a universal pension—since a similar policy for Mexico City residents was one of his most popular and influential achievements when he was the city’s mayor.

The other parties seem to be reinforcing his characterization of them, as they increasingly meld together despite their disparate ideologies. The remnant of the previously left-leaning PRD is allying with the National Action Party (PAN), a right-wing party with ties to the Catholic Church. The PAN broke the grip of more than seventy years of one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 2000 with the election of President Vicente Fox. But Fox’s PAN administration failed to deliver much in the way of improvement to the standard of living for most Mexicans, and its US-sponsored “war on drugs” failed to stem the rising tide of violence. In 2012, the PRI won back the presidency with the election of Enrique Peña Nieto.

But Peña Nieto proved to be the least popular president in decades, thanks to continued economic failure and a series of corruption scandals, as well as his government’s failure to quell epidemic levels of violence. In January, preliminary government data showed that in 2017 Mexico suffered the highest number of murders on record. Peña Nieto’s meeting with then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016 also turned into a disaster, adding insult to the Mexican president’s multiple injuries when Trump claimed there was no discussion of who would pay for Trump’s proposed border wall, while Peña Nieto maintained he had stated in the meeting that Mexico would not pay for it.

The PRI’s candidate for this election, José Antonio Meade, is therefore languishing as a distant third in the polls (he is also widely seen as a lackluster contender). There is talk that the PRI will throw its weight behind the PAN candidate, Ricardo Anaya, thereby completing the description of an undifferentiated mass of politicians, as López Obrador and his supporters have labeled them.

Many people believed that Mexico began a transition to democracy in 2000, when the PRI lost the presidency. But this has turned out to be something of a myth. The promise of that transition never materialized, and Mexico became an increasingly violent and still deeply corrupt narco-state. The failed neoliberal economic reforms that the PRI initiated, beginning in the 1980s, were consolidated with the NAFTA agreement, which helped to draw Mexico closer to the US, economically and politically.

First, the economics. From 1960 to 1980, under the old PRI regime, the average income of Mexicans nearly doubled. If the economy had continued growing at that pace, Mexicans would, by today, have a standard of living comparable to Europe’s. We can only speculate as to whether Mexico would have become more democratic as it developed; most countries have done so, though at varying paces.

Instead, the 1980s were a “lost decade,” with negative per capita income growth, as Mexico―under pressure from foreign creditors, including the IMF―transformed its economy with neoliberal reforms, liberalizing international trade and capital flows, privatizing state enterprises, and abandoning development and industrial policies. NAFTA institutionalized most of the harmful changes in the form of an international treaty, partly, at Washington’s behest, to make them permanent.

The twenty-three years since NAFTA have been an economic failure, by any historical or international comparison. The national poverty rate is higher today than it was in 1994, and real (inflation-adjusted) wages have barely risen. Over the period, Mexico ranked fifteenth of twenty Latin American countries in GDP growth per person. Nearly five million farmers lost their livelihoods, unable to compete with subsidized corn from the US. Although some found employment in the new agro-export industries, the displacement contributed to a surge of emigration to the US from 1994 to 2000.

What kind of democracy has developed out of this continuing failed economic experiment? We might expect that governments would have to find other ways to remain in power since they have not been delivering the goods. And they have. The New York Times reports that the Mexican government has spent, astoundingly, nearly $2 billion over the past five years to buy off the media—in part, by paying for advertising on the condition that it will receive favorable coverage.

According to the Times, at least 104 journalists have been murdered since 2000, and about another twenty-five have disappeared. In 2017, Mexico was the second-most dangerous country in the world, after Syria, to practice journalism. Although many people have the impression that the drug cartels are primarily responsible for the violence and climate of fear, the Times reports that “according to government data, public servants like mayors and police officers have threatened journalists more often than drug cartels, petty criminals or anyone else.”

Not only journalists, but citizens and activists can be killed for their constitutionally protected activities. The disappearance and massacre in 2014 of forty-three students in Iguala, in the state of Guerrero, brought Mexico’s violent repression to the world’s attention, because of the scale of the crime and the documented involvement of government security forces and agents.

The lack of an independent media, the near-monopoly of two partisan networks over broadcast television, widespread vote-buying, and the use of state resources by the government in election campaigns makes electoral democracy in Mexico especially weak. And then there is the voting process itself. In a close presidential election in 2006, López Obrador lost by less than 0.6 percent of the popular vote. But there was an “adding-up” problem: at each polling station, the number of ballots cast, plus the number of blank ballots remaining, are supposed to match the number of blank ballots at the start. For nearly half the polling stations, they didn’t.

Despite reports of vote-rigging and fraud—and hundreds of thousands of people in the streets demanding a recount—the Bush administration immediately threw its weight behind a campaign to declare the election of PAN’s Felipe Calderón legitimate. (A partial recount, the results of which were not released while the election was still disputed, raised further serious questions about the tally.) The Bush administration operated from the playbook it had used for Bush’s own disputed election in 2000, and they did a fine job. But as with Mexico’s economic transformation from a developmentalist to a neoliberal state, the influence of the United States on Mexico’s politics has gone largely unnoticed.

Many Mexicans are again worried about the prospect of fraud in the July election. But Trump administration officials, including White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a former head of the US Southern Command, have expressed other concerns. They are worried that López Obrador might win. Predictably, US officials have alleged that there will be Russian interference in the election. A spate of silly, fact-free articles in the US media followed, and in Mexico the allegations went viral, as intended. López Obrador has responded with ridicule, calling himself “Andrés Manuelovich,” and saying that he’s looking forward to a Russian submarine surfacing with his gold. (In the 2006 election, the broadcast media was flooded with false allegations that López Obrador had ties to Venezuela’s Chavista government; this smear campaign has also resurfaced.)

Interestingly, despite all of Trump’s bluster about building a wall and renegotiating NAFTA, combined with his trademark insults and threats and the resulting animosity, Mexico’s cooperation with Washington’s malign foreign policy in the region remains strong. Hardly anyone believed the results of the November 26 election in Honduras; even the extremely Washington-friendly Organization of American States leadership has called for a new election there. But Mexico was one of the first to issue a strong statement in support of the “winner,” the incumbent president—and US ally—Juan Orlando Hernández, whose party came to power with help from the US following a 2009 military coup.

Reuters reported in December that Mexico’s official statement “was brokered in coordination with the United States.” In a smooth move the next day, a senior US State Department official cited Mexico’s statement as a reason to reject calls for a new election in Honduras. This is exactly the kind of coordination Washington likes—and that the Trump administration must fear would disappear with a less compliant Mexican president.

It is difficult to say how much López Obrador could, or would, do if elected, given the forces arrayed against him, both at home and from the north. But if there is a reform candidate and party in the race, it is López Obrador and his Morena party.

In July, Mexicans will get to decide whether they might do better as a more independent nation―if they can defend their right to a free and fair election.