Continuity is normal during changes of government with some natural adjustments in style and personality. The leader of the government changes but a country continues along its course. The new government imprints its forms, preferences, and priorities, but in general perpetuates the essence of what government is and its relationship with society. Occasionally, due to endogenous reasons -such as the advent of a transformative government- or due to exogenous reasons -like the appearance of unpredictable factors such as a pandemic and its social and economic impacts- circumstances press for a break with the past or render one possible. Now and again, changes improve the future. At others, changes amount to giving oneself a shot in the foot.
The main gamble of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is that his electoral base, which has evolved now into a political clientele, will remain unharmed despite Mexico’s economic ills and unemployment levels, and that the U.S. economy will be sufficiently strong to generate demand for Mexican exports. As the main engine of Mexico’s economy, exports are key for any attempt at economic recovery, as Mexicans learned so well in 2009, when the U.S. recession nearly caused a depression in Mexico.
A different issue is whether President López Obrador’s project will remain intact, despite the internal and external changes taking place. The only sure thing is that everything that the president does -his working trips around the country and his entire political operation- are aimed at winning Mexico’s 2020 midterm election in 2021 at any cost.
From this vantage point, it is not irrelevant to query whether the López Obrador government is driven by a desire of profound change (some of the government’s demagogic sycophants love to talk about an inexistent ‘change of regime’ in Mexico) or rather one of continuity with just some stylistic changes inspired by the ruling house. Beyond eliminating checks and balances in the Mexican political system that ended up proving to be just paper tigers, the López Obrador government has accomplished nothing more than strive to recreate the old Mexican Presidency. However, these efforts have come to entail unanticipated consequences. Perhaps, the President has not realized that the greater the control, the greater the deterioration: in an open world, government’s restrictions, cancellations, and impositions have an incremental cost.
The key question is if everything that Mexico and the world have gone through this year will allow a return to the previous state of normality, as if nothing had happened. Serious countries that put in place public health precesses without competing agendas -such as Germany or South Korea ,to cite two successful cases- have achieved a return to some degree of normality. Along the way, their governments have earned the citizenry’s praise due to the recognition that government was an ally that did nothing more than combating a common enemy.
In Mexico, the López Obrador government confronted its adversaries, did not take the fight against the virus seriously and won the disapproval -and even worse the disappointment-among a large part of Mexican citizens. This is what opinion polls are showing. Most importantly given his single one objective of winning the 2021 midterms, the President has done not even acknowledged that unemployment and the economic recession have consequences on Mexican people and Mexican families, especially the most vulnerable, many of whom voted for him. The ballot boxes in 2021 will be the ultimate test of these perceptions.
Two things make one doubt about the viability of the López Obrador government’s action plan. The first of these is whether its blind obstinacy on “priority projects” (such as the construction of the Dos Bocas oil refinery and the Mayan Train) is the best way of governing. Famous Prussian marshall Helmuth von Moltke said once that not even the best of plans survives the first contact with reality. No one in Mexico should have a doubt that reality has changed radically over the last few months due to the economic recession, which had been looming since last year, as well as due to unemployment. President López Obrador has not been willing to alter his government project even an iota. This forces one to wonder whether the lack of government caring for the most affected Mexican population will have political and/or electoral effects. It is inconceivable for it not to.
The second characteristic of the López Obrador government’s strategy is that it is essentially at its core a commercial transaction. While the President devotes himself to activate and to nourish his political networks with his trips around Mexico, the lifeblood of his electoral strategy lies in the transfers of cash to the elderly, some young trainees, and other clienteles. Without any doubt, those individuals and families are grateful for the transfers but that does not mean all of them are blind believers. Except for those followers who have a quasi-religious bond with the President (there are many), the rest of the recipients of the government’s aid maintains a a basic business relationship with it which depends on cash transfers not stopping. Vote buying is an old tool in Mexican politics and people engages in it as it is: a transaction. Will the relationship between the President and his clientele survive when the state of Mexican public finances put a squeeze on cash transfers, something that will inexorably happen in the upcoming months?
There is nothing written about the 2021 elections, but it is clear that Mexico is already in full campaign season. Everything that the López Obrador government and the Mexican opposition do is directed toward defining or redefining the correlation of political forces that emerged from the 2018 Presidential elections. The problem for the López Obrador government is that it does not have a development strategy for Mexico and that is what, at the end of the day, makes a difference for citizens.
* Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI) and of México Evalúa-CIDAC. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @lrubiof