No world leader viewed the Covid-19 pandemic as a political opportunity. Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) was the exception. As the pandemic settled into Mexico last year, AMLO openly stated that the pandemic “fit like a glove” for his self-described “transformational” government project (April 2). Presumably, the virus would allow him to move ahead with fighting corruption in Mexico. Strange logic indeed. Later in the year, as Mexico reached a toll of 100,000 Covid-19 deaths, one of AMLO’s top ministers, Irma Eréndira Sandoval, had the nerve to repeat her boss’ words: “the crisis…fits like a glove”.
Putting aside the immorality of such an admission given the millions of lives lost worldwide, it is hard to understand what AMLO was thinking back then. Did he figure that the eventual arrival of the Covid-19 vaccine would be his get-out-of-jail-free card to win Mexico’s 2021 midterm election? Or did AMLO foresee that the pandemic would make protests against his administration more difficult? (Covid-19 deactivated large feminist protests across Mexico last year). Was AMLO unable to foresee the ensuing economic downturn? Or maybe he did, and deemed it convenient for his own political gain?
The decline in economic activity in Mexico has obliterated 800,000 formal jobs. At the same time, the Mexican economy only created 240,000 formal jobs between May 2020 and January 2021. Mexican companies have been hit hard by the pandemic and they have not received any kind of fiscal support. At the same time, the private sector is also dealing with a host of new government regulations that have made formal employment in Mexico more costly. In contrast, the informal economy gained almost 9 million jobs between April and December 2020. But even in the informal economy many jobs disappeared. What are the living conditions of those Mexicans that cannot even find opportunity in informality?
The informal economy is not merely an escape valve. It is a space where millions of Mexicans engage in different ways with the government. AMLO understands such dynamic very well. That is where he built his bedrock of support when he was mayor of Mexico City between 2000 and 2005. The electoral machine AMLO created is so solid that the same leftist coalition remains in power to this day.
A government with appendages in the informal economy -and even in the criminal world- can base its political dominance on them. Anyone living in Mexico’s informal economy sort of inhabits a parallel country where taxes are paid in fees to set up shop in the street. At the same time, they provide leaders with political muscle for protests of all types. The relationship between Mexicans in the informal economy and government is based on discretion and all kinds of underhanded arrangements.
In contrast, private companies have a certain autonomy from the power of the Mexican government. The relationship is regulated by laws, which in principle protect the former. Many of Mexicans working for the private sector are part of the middle class and are generally critical of the AMLO government.
According to a recent survey, AMLO’s approval rating among informal workers was 72.5 percent in January, compared to 59.7 percent among average Mexicans, and 39.4 percent among businessmen. AMLO has a low approval rating among the unemployed: 49.4 percent. The reality is that few Mexicans remain in the unemployed category given that the country lacks an unemployment insurance. The vast majority enters the informal sector out of sheer need.
Mexico’s poverty-measurement agency (CONEVAL) said that the share of Mexicans whose income does not allow them to buy a basic basket of food went from 35.7 percent in the first quarter to 40.7 in the fourth quarter of 2020. However, the poor have a certain gratitude with AMLO given the myriad of cash assistance programs his government administers. They do not seem to blame the president for the increase in their numbers.
I have resisted believing that populist administrations -like AMLO’s- wish there were more people as a way to expand its most loyal political base. I have always thought that populist governments cause an increase in poverty because of poorly planned policies (such as AMLO’s bill in Congress to favor state-owned utility CFE over private renewables companies). However, it now seems to me that the former is a good working thesis to try to understand AMLO’s ingrained phrase: the crisis fit like a glove.
* Carlos Elizondo Mayer-Serra is professor at the School of Government and Public Transformation at Tec de Monterrey, in Mexico City. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @carloselizondom