With all the legitimacy and power garnered from his presidential victory three years ago, the table was set for Andrés Manuel López Obrador to be a great president of Mexico. There was no inherited economic crisis and he enjoyed a smooth hand-off from his predecessor Enrique Peña Nieto.
López Obrador has had enormous success as president on issues where he used his power without destroying what was in place, like increasing tax collection. I doubt there is any other country in the world that, in the midst of the 2020 recession, has managed to increase VAT and ISR revenue without raising taxes. López Obrador’s results revealed the huge corrupt arrangements involving Mexican tax officials and taxpayers, including a huge fake invoice market.
Given the discredited state of the Mexican opposition and the control he has over the news cycle, if López Obrador have had more governing successes, his party’s majority in Congress would have soared during the recent midterm election. That could have given him a good reason to celebrate.
It was not so. López Obrador’s party, MORENA, won only 34 percent of the popular vote for Mexico’s Lower House of Congress. This is less than what the PRI party got in the 2009 midterm election. However, the president’s governing coalition (which also includes the PT and PVEM parties) got 42 percent of the vote. Thanks to Mexico’s electoral system -which gives an overrepresentation advantage to the largest parties-, Lopez Obrador´s coalitions has 56 percent of the legislators in the Lower House. It must be said that the PVEM could decamp to any new legislative coalition when convenient.
The problem for the current administration has been the large number of preposterous projects in which López Obrador has used his presidential power. The most visible and tragic: the dismantlement of the medicine purchasing and distribution framework for Mexico’s public healthcare system. It is true that in previous administrations, the framework had issues, but it worked. López Obrador dismantled the entire arrangement with no idea what to install in its place, even though the lives of thousands of Mexicans hung in the balance. The administration still has not figured out how to get the medicines that the public healthcare system needs. How many thousands of deaths will we needlessly see as a result?
The number of things that López Obrador has destroyed during his term in office far exceeds what he has built, including those he has simply left to deteriorate. This is not so apparent, except when there is an external assessment. That was the case when the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) downgraded Mexico’s aviation safety rating earlier this year. It was no secret that the FAA will lower the rating: Mexico was lacking proper equipment and there was no money to hire new air traffic controllers. But in a centralized administration where everything depends on a single man, the information did not reach López Obrador in time. The damage to Mexico’s tourism industry and aviation is colossal. Their growth will be limited by the country being blocked from launching new service routes, courtesy of the government’s incompetent management.
In the area of public security, López Obrador says he hasn’t seen the rise of new transnational organized groups (the so-called “cartels”). He sees this as a great achievement, but the reality is that the cartels needed to be contained. López Obrador’s vaunted strategy of “not fighting violence with violence” has not worked. One cannot confront bloodthirsty criminals armed with assault rifles by only trying to improve the living conditions of young people in the country’s poorest areas. To top it all off, López Obrador has not been successful in the latter: there is more poverty in Mexico today.
López Obrador is right to celebrate some things, such as Mexico’s successful electoral processes. However, this success hangs on the independent nature of Mexico’s electoral body INE which the administration threatened to undermine. Without disregarding the fact that 36 political candidates were assassinated prior to the June midterm election, peace prevailed afterwards. Given the pandemic economic downturn like last year’s, that is no small feat.
All things considered Mexico’s future doesn’t look bad in some areas. The country has a privileged geographic position which will gain a lot from the expansion of the U. S. economy. Fortunately, when the new USMCA trade deal was being negotiated in 2018, López Obrador decided not to sabotage it.
However, a better public policy would have rendered Mexico higher economic growth. For example, if López Obrador realized the mistake he made of destroying Mexico’s open and competitive electric energy market, more companies would come to develop new plants in Mexico. During the previous administration, the Mexican electricity sector was sizeable and growing. Since 2018, investment has nosedived. This is true for private energy companies and for state-owned utility CFE.
Best not to mention this and many other issues that have been raised in the third anniversary of López Obrador’s triumph in the polls. At parties one does not speak ill of the honoree. Particularly if he is the host.
* 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