President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s self-described “Fourth Transformation” can best be understood as an attempt to achieve a regime change in Mexico. To be sure, this a legitimate objective. After all, throughout history, new governments have often strived to separate from the past, present themselves in contrast to their predecessors and pull off profound changes. However, beyond the attractiveness of this narrative, there are a couple of relevant questions that deserve closer intellectual scrutiny or at least attention. Can we really talk about regime change in today’s Mexico and what can we expect in terms of results?
If there is one thing to say about Mexico’s democratic transition is that it took a long time and was gradual instead of sudden. The PRI regime managed to bring –and keep– most opposition “inside the tent”. Demands for greater democracy and social inclusion were tactically met through different reforms and concessions over several decades. Indeed, some analysts pinpoint the 1968 student movement as the beginning of the country’s long democratic and social transition.
It can certainly be argued that a regime ended in 2000. In that year, the PRI lost the Presidency for the first time in over 70 years. Not surprisingly, the new PAN government was initially all about change and transformation. However, the reality was that a democracy –albeit young and imperfect– was already in place, and that Mexico’s challenges were more about managing governance than governance itself. PAN administrations were rapidly confronted with the incremental nature of politics in a democracy and, thus, they harshly experienced the old maxim which cautions that overpromising usually leads to underdelivering. Only 12 years later, the PRI returned to the presidency.
Not unlike Vicente Fox in 2000, López Obrador presents his government as a new horizon for Mexico. He bundles together all governments and most policies from the past to become the deliverer of the true new regime. Again, there is nothing extraordinary or evil per se in this, but in my view, it presents two problems. First, regime change usually refers to the overthrow of a government considered illegitimate by an external force or at least under violent internal conditions. Irrespective of how critical one might be of Mexico’s past governments; it is hard to make the case that democracy is just really starting. Advocates of the “Fourth Transformation” might not like it, but democracy muddled through into Mexico’s history over the last 50 years, and it is unclear if we can talk about regime change when democratic conditions are already in place. The second problem is that some political actors and surely some people might well want to maintain the status quo –or at least part of it. This does not make their interests illegitimate, immoral or illegal per se, as sometimes the President seems to assert. Checks and balances inherent to any modern democracy can be extremely uncomfortable in the short run for the person governing, but these are what really helps a country develop in the long run. As Winston Churchill rightly argued in 1947: “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”. In sum, the attempt to force a regime change under democratic conditions explains most of the tensions and contradictions of the first two years of the López Obrador administration. Unless political compromise and negotiation become the norm rather than the exception, we are likely to see more political tension in the remaining four years of his term.
Even if we assume that regime change is feasible in today’s Mexico, it is important to consider what does the new regime might look like. So far, it has been described as an end to corruption, an adamant opposition to the so-called neoliberal period (and its structural economic reforms) and on the reliance on direct rather that representative democracy. It is hard to question López Obrador’s zeal against corruption, even if the “jury is still out” on how successful and impartial, he will actually be. López Obrador’s is also right in his tough criticism of the unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity that severely marks Mexico. He is death wrong, nonetheless, in thinking that neoliberal policies are the only thing to blame and, moreover, that heavier state intervention in the economy will solve the problem. There is nostalgia for Mexico’s golden economic period (1950-1975), and it would be wonderful to recreate it, but it is not possible. The world and Mexico have changed. A state-owned oil company and national power utility, a stronger internal market and few regional infrastructure projects, even if successful, simply cannot do the trick. A sustainable and more equitable development is only possible if Mexico attracts more private investment, improves factor productivity, and significantly grows its export base. So far none of this is really happening and the Covid-19 pandemic only makes things worst. Finally, the President’s closeness to the Mexican people and high approval ratings can hardly be questioned. It is not surprising that, under these conditions, he would favor direct over representative democracy. Consulting the people through referenda (as López Obrador has repeatedly done) might appear democratic and, in some cases, can be useful. It cannot, however, always substitute for the hard and sometimes unpopular choices that governing implies. Even worst, it can be abused to justify wrong decisions as it happened in the cancelation of Mexico’s City new airport project.
In his latest book about the American presidency, John Dickerson suggests that presidents traverse the road from hope and great dreams to experience. The first two years should serve as a lesson on humility to the López Obrador administration. Yes, 60% of the people approve of the President’s work, but only 28% think the country is on the right track according to a recent poll by Mexican newspaper El Financiero. In his quest for regime change, López Obrador might miss his opportunity to achieve substantial and positive results. Moreover, it can hamper the development of a modern and successful Left in Mexico. It is really the results that determine a government’s historic place, not the other way around.