We give too much weight to the approval rating of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador as if it provided him with an aura of invincibility. Ordinary Mexicans do not live attached to social media and do not ask themselves daily if they like the president more or less than yesterday. They will change their mind only when new policies affect or benefit them. Approval is a lagging indicator. But since many of his followers feel that they have a voice for the first time, they will give him the benefit of the doubt.
AMLO’s approval rating is not very different from that of previous Mexican presidents like Vicente Fox, Felipe Calderón, or even Enrique Peña Nieto, at this point of their administrations. Approval is ephemeral and it will be AMLO’s own actions and his own ineptitude that will hinder it. It is obvious that he will not meet the expectations that he built during years in campaign. In just one year, despite the best possible international environment, AMLO has made Mexico poorer, more unequal, and more insecure. Pemex, the Mexican state-owned oil company that is the object of his obsessions, produces less and loses more. A health system that already had huge shortcomings is today criminally deficient. In 2019, he barely managed to get his budget numbers to square by using the equivalent of US$7.7 billion from Mexico’s stabilization funds (58% of the total FEIP and FEIEF funds) that took 19 years to accrue. Despite this, 2019 was the year with the lowest public investment relative to GDP in history.
AMLO’s government has already run out of money. Tax collection fell by the equivalent of US 17.6 billion in 2019, and in 2020 it will have to pay the equivalent of US$ 51.7 billion in contributory pensions to federal government retirees, and those in the IMSS, ISSSTE systems. Moreover, it will have to pay US$ 7.4 billion in non-contributory pensions, in particular to the “Seniors Program”. As the Mexican economy shrinks, the government’s pension payments will grow 6% in real terms in 2020.
In the federal budget for this year, Mexico’s Congress authorized spending the equivalent of US$ 28 billion in Pemex (and a US$ 3.3 billion loss), and a US$ 24.4 billion budget for the Mexican state-owned electric utility CFE. Pemex is the most indebted company in the world. Both state-owned companies are in critical condition and, instead of putting them in the hands of experienced executives and surrounding them with strong and professional teams, Pemex is in the hands of an agronomist (AMLO’s bosom buddy), who does not know about oil much more than how to fill the tank of his car, and CFE is in the hands of a 1970’s statist politician who should have retired long ago, in order to enjoy the fortune he amassed in decades of “public service” (during which he shamelessly served himself).
The extreme ineptitude surrounding the president, and his lack of respect for knowledge and experience, are like a heavy anvil that will sink his ship. Growing crime caused more than 34,000 casualties last year, the most violent one in recent history. Confronting it would require serious strategies designed by experts (and not by people known for being extremely incompetent, like his Security Minister Alfonso Durazo), and would require many more resources those that have been allocated. Violence and insecurity will worsen this year. Maybe that’s why AMLO is so afraid of democracy, and why the only untouchable item in the government’s budget has been the spending in his political clientele.
The biggest threat comes from the irreversibility of many of the president’s policies. Much of the damage done will be permanent: how will we return to a moderately meritocratic public education system? Who will dare reform Pemex’s workers’ pensions? How will we recover the trust of foreign investors who are starting to flee? How will we return to an effort to build a prosecutorial justice system? Moreover, how will we do this once our economic system has been gutted after AMLO’s administration? By then, the government will have run out of any leeway for discretionary spending.
That is why it is important to preserve the capability to replace a flagrantly inept and irresponsible government at the polls. That is why the attack against the independent National Elections Institute (INE) is so serious. A false narrative begins to take root: AMLO and his supporters say that given that they were “cheated” in the 2006 presidential elections, the referee in coming elections should be under the control of AMLO’s party (Morena).
The approval rating of López Obrador should not worry us. But we should lose sleep over the fact that he and his supporters want to control the INE (an always perfectible institution), whose autonomy is vital to prevent his colossal mistakes from becoming indelible.
* Jorge Suárez-Vélez is an economic and political analyst He is the author of The Coming Downturn of the World Economy (Random House 2011). A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @jorgesuarezv