It’s been more than 23 years since the nominally-leftist PRD political party won Mexico City’s mayoral election. It was the first time in 70 years that the mayor of Mexico City was elected by popular vote. The PRD’s heir, the MORENA party has governed Mexico’s capital city since 2018. We already know their talents and shortcomings. Their main achievement: winning elections. A second: expanding some civil rights, such as the right of women to decide over their own bodies. However, this last one only came after now-president Andrés Manuel López Obrador left the mayor’s office in 2005.
Throughout the years, the PRD and later MORENA, won at the polls without being able to destroy Mexico’s independent elections bodies of which they were suspicious. Ironically, the proper functioning of these institutions conferred to both parties the legitimacy to govern. Hopefully, president López Obrador gets to understand the value of these bodies and will not seek to do away with Mexico’s National Electoral Institute (INE) as he has promised. The question is if López Obrador’s recent verbal attacks on INE mean that he does not believe that his MORENA party has enough support to win the favor of the majority of Mexicans in free and fair elections.
Part of the Mexican left’s success at the polls in Mexico City is due to its great ability to distribute money among its residents. The non-contributory pension program for the elderly was López Obrador’s novel idea when he was city mayor. It worked for him and as president he has replicated it throughout the country. His greatest support lies among those Mexicans over 60. The reality is that the PRD in Mexico City took over, expanded, and improved the clientelist networks that the once all powerful PRI party had built. López Obrador’s political party has retained control of most of them.
What the Mexican left has not done in Mexico City is take advantage of the economic growth cycle of the world’s great cities over the last 30 years. The economic growth of Mexico’s capital city between 1998 and 2019 was 2.28 percent, against 2.25 countrywide. This contrasts with successful cities, like New York. Its growth was 3.84 percent, much higher than the US’ 2.09 percent.
Long-term planning is not the Mexican left’s strong suit. They have only built one single subway line in Mexico City in 23 years of rule. This is a shame because the left in power could help in preventing public protests that often hinder huge public works of this kind. The leftist mayors that governed Mexico City in the early 2000s enjoyed the revenue coming from high prices of Mexico’s oil. However, like in the rest of the country, little of that oil revenue went to sorely needed city works.
All politicians like ribbon-cuttings, but embarking on a complex project such as a city subway without a solid plan is reckless. Mexico City’s subway so-called “Golden Line” was built hastily and through cutting corners. The tragic collapse of an elevated section of Mexico City’s subway last week happened in a city where the left has no one else to blame but itself.
The writing is on the wall. Starting the construction of an airport like López Obrador’s pet project like Santa Lucia in central Mexico, without a clear idea of almost everything -including how planes will take off and land- is highly risky.
The subway overpass collapse was also the result of the detrimental effect of believing that effective public services can be offered to Mexican consumers at low prices. Raising the price of a subway ticket is politically and electorally very expensive. Mr. López Obrador did it once when he was mayor of Mexico City, in January 2002 (the price when it went from $1.50 to $2 Mexican pesos). That price held for 8 years until January 2010 when it rose to $3 pesos. Former mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera would increase the ticket price again in December 2013 up to $5 pesos (the equivalent of one quarter of a dollar). That ticket price holds today. The result: Mexico City’s is one of the cheapest and one of the most poorly maintained subway systems in the world.
Low ticket prices drain Mexico City’s operation funds, not to mention that more money is lost with each new line but of thought. In a mindset of ill-conceived thrift, of under-deploying the scant resources available, maintenance to subway lines has been postponed, done shoddily or both. It is a widespread problem: much of the urban infrastructure of Mexico City is in a deplorable state.
What would the country look like if we have two administrations in the style of López Obrador’s? Everything points to Mexico City growing less than what was possible. Mexico is going to miss out on the U.S’ accelerated growth cycle. Along the way, a poor approach to thrift will lead to infrastructure and institutions deteriorating further.
If López Obrador can control the electoral processes and win future elections, it would lose its legitimacy to govern. Low growth and diminished legitimacy make a dreadful combination indeed.
* 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