Mexico’s 2021 midterm campaign season has started and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has presented the strategy he thinks will make his party (MORENA) win.
His strategy is made up of three parts: First, AMLO has chosen to polarize Mexican society even more, as he has done before. This can be seen in his response to an open letter by a diverse group of thinkers, scholars and intellectuals asking the Mexican opposition to present a united front at the polls against MORENA, the dominant party in both Chambers of Congress. AMLO did not hesitate to label the letter’s signatories as “conservatives” and “neo-Porfirians” in reference to Porfirio Díaz, the dictator that governed Mexico in the twilight of the 19th century. This notwithstanding that the person responsible for publishing the letter was Roger Bartra, a sociologist and scholar at Mexico’s national university (UNAM), who has been a militant on the Mexican left all his life.
AMLO’s second tactic is clear: either you are in favor of his so-called “Fourth Transformation” movement or you are in favor of corruption. That is the reason behind the recent extradition from Spain of Emilio Lozoya -the former head of Mexico’s state oil-company- to face corruption charges in Mexico. AMLO wants to use Lozoya to portray Mexico’s landmark energy reform -which opened the sector to private investment- as an illegitimate process that was only able to pass the Mexican Congress thanks to bribes to legislators in 2013. The truth is that in Mexico, as in many legislatures around the world, the lobbying for votes implies an exchange of favors. In the United States, legislators get resources for their districts or states (the so-called “pork”) in exchange for his vote for specific bills. In Mexico, where power is centralized and corruption oils many wheels, bribes are used to unlock jams in the road of what should be an expeditious, transparent, clear process following the (still distant) rule of law.
If anyone had any doubts, it’s clear today that Mexico’s 2013 energy reform was not only successful but also an urgent and inevitable measure. This is particularly important now when we see how the AMLO administration destroys Mexico’s public finances by wasting resources in the state-owned oil company Pemex and the Dos Bocas oil refinery, his pet projects. This at a time when the world accelerates its march towards renewable energy, and while oil markets face their worst crisis in decades following a secular downward trend.
The extradition of Emilio Lozoya to Mexico comes handy for the AMLO government as it can use the judicial proceedings to discredit all Mexican parties evenly. In case of emergency, the AMLO administration will not hesitate using the potential Lozoya revelations to go against former president Enrique Peña Nieto who presided over the most corrupt government and to distract Mexicans from the country’s economic and health collapse.
The third part of AMLO’s strategy ahead of the 2021 midterm elections will be to discredit the referee, in case there is the need in the future to allege that the process was rigged. AMLO still does not accept that he lost the 2006 Mexican presidential election to Felipe Calderon albeit narrowly. He cannot get over it because back in 2006 he committed foolish campaign mistakes that cost him the Presidency. However, AMLO’s followers believe his hoax that the electoral referee back then was responsible for his 2006 defeat. They routinely use this myth to justify their attacks against the National Electoral Institute (INE). Conveniently, they forget that INE declared AMLO the winner of the 2018 presidential election without hesitation.
This tangled electoral plot occurs at a complicated time when Mexico is experiencing the worst economic crisis in 90 years, when tens of thousands of Mexican families are in mourning due to the Covid-19 pandemic, when Mexico is posting its highest number of murders on record, and when a drug trafficking cartel (CJNG) has declared a war on the Mexican State.
AMLO could follow a far simpler path: He could choose to govern.
During the past 20 months, AMLO has grown tired of wasting extraordinary opportunities to make critics like me look bad. If AMLO had decided not to cancel the construction of Mexico City’s New International Airport (NAICM) and instead continue with it while investigating any corruption irregularities, we would have applauded his responsibility and pragmatism. If AMLO had confronted the pandemic with determination, calling for unity, and copying isolation and containment measures that have worked in other countries, we would have closed ranks behind him. If AMLO had drafted a serious plan to reactivate investment, along with the Mexican private sector, and positioned the country to take advantage of the nearshoring of supply chains, we would have recognized that an economic recovery under him was feasible.
In sum, AMLO’s strategy for Mexico’s 2021 midterms could be based on being a good President. Instead, the only certainty we have at this point is that the next crisis Mexico faces will be caused by his government’s ineptitute or, alternatively, that Mexico will not be prepared to deal with a crisis if it arrives from abroad.
* 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