On the wrong track
Mexican politics are going through a tough, divisive, and uncertain time. Mexico does not stand alone; the trend is prevalent in many countries, rich and poor and involves leaders of all political persuasions. There are many reasons for this, no doubt, but in the case of Mexico, the political class deserves most of the blame. In my opinion, the country’s political leadership, both governing and in opposition, has taken actions which soon enough will prove to be strategic blunders, if not for their political prospects, for the country itself —even as these appear to generate short-term wins.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) remains undoubtedly popular, but he cannot escape the fact that most metrics show Mexico is not in the right direction. This, it can be argued, is what most polls reflect: a high presidential approval rate (about 60 percent) but with far fewer Mexicans thinking that things are going well (roughly 38 percent). The Mexican opposition naturally points to the lack of results, but has hardly chipped away at the President’s popularity, and has been unable to convince the electorate that it can provide a better alternative. In the meantime, political compromise is a rarity and it is hard to make the case that we are on a sustainable track to improving the lives of a majority of Mexicans.
Making history at any cost
Every morning President López Obrador’s press conference —colloquially called the mañanera in Spanish— opens up with a phrase previously promoted on his Twitter feed. One of the phrases a few days ago was: “True politics means making history”. Personally, I am skeptical of any leader that tells you that he or she does not want to make history, but I am even more uneasy about those who intend to do so at any cost. The fact that Mr. López Obrador was able to be elected President of Mexico in 2018 was in itself a historical event. After a decades-long political career and three attempts, he became the first president from a Mexican party that is —nominally at least— from the left. A fierce social fighter and a self-made leader who persevered and, against all odds, won the opportunity to make history. However, the approach he has taken as President is now more likely than not to ruin such opportunity.
Indeed, in what seems to be an effort to make history at any cost, the President forced the country into a “regime change’” that failed to recognize that Mexico was already a democracy, albeit an imperfect one —as Jesús Silva Herzog Márquez suggests in his recent assertive book: The House of Contradiction. All presidents want to be transformational, especially if they are not facing an immediate threat to the state which would simply call for survival. Yet, an incapacity or unwillingness to see what had actually worked in Mexico and could help him, has resulted in López Obrador’s government being more a purge than a transformation.
With few exceptions, the trade agreement with the United States and Canada (USMCA) being one of them, President López Obrador has discarded, if not outright destroyed, policies and institutions built during Mexico’s most recent history in realms such as public health, energy, education, welfare, and public security. Even the fight against corruption, inherent to his government program, seems to rely more on President’s will than on the laws, regulations and institutions that are needed to do the work. Irrespective of how he currently describes his actions, it will actually be history that judges them.
In their classic book, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision, Richard Neustadt and Ernest May —professors at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government— provide a blueprint for the appropriate uses of history for statecraft. They argue that careful historical analysis can be very useful; however, they caution that historical analogies used by politicians don’t always apply to contemporary situations and, thus, can guide leaders to bad decisions and policies. Again, in relation to Mexico, President López Obrador views the country’s economic policy of the 1950s and 1960s as the model to follow. The economic era known as Mexico’s “stabilizing development” (desarrollo estabilizador in Spanish)- managed to bring progress and economic growth. But López Obrador’s analogy might just not be appropriate today. As I have written in these pages, returning to the 1950s and 1960s might seem attractive, but the way Mexico interacts with the world economically, technological change and the country’s sociopolitical evolution just make this impossible. The Covid-19 pandemic aside, Mexico’s economy has basically not grown since he took office.
Moreover, in his transformation effort, President López Obrador has not visibly attempted to convene the support of relevant actors beyond political allies. He has adopted a go-it-alone and keep-all-the-chips strategy, hardly leaving any for the Mexican opposition. This, in my view, is not wise in modern democratic settings. Great transformations sometimes come as a result of work between great adversaries. Not only does this possibility seem to be gone for López Obrador, but when his adversaries govern Mexico sometime in the future, they will try to rewrite his history just as he has done so.
A Danger to Mexico
Going after a President that is not only popular but also a masterful communicator is a hard thing to do. During Mexico’s 2006 and 2012 presidential elections, López Obrador’s political adversaries were largely successful in portraying him as a Hugo Chávez-like danger to Mexico. Even if that were the case, López Obrador’s victory in the 2018 election made clear that just repeating the analogy to Chávez was simply not enough. By focusing on López Obrador himself, Mexico’s political opposition and the President’s critics in general have played into the “us versus them rhetoric”. They have allowed López Obrador to portray himself as the underdog, a role he plays well and that many Mexicans believe to be true, despite being a very powerful President. Opposition parties have centered the Mexican public debate around López Obrador’s figure and not about his policies and their outcomes -a healthy practice that is expected in any modern democracy. Analysts suggest that Mr. López Obrador’s solid voting base is around 30 percent of the Mexican electorate (close to the 34 percent that his MORENA party won in the 2021 midterm legislative election). His current approval rate as well as the percentage of the votes he obtained in the 2018 presidential election puts him at over 50 percent. This means that a fair number of Mexicans give López Obrador the benefit of the doubt but might not really be convinced about him. If the Mexican opposition centers on the “danger-to-Mexico strategy”, they help validate the notion that the elites are “out to get” him, not because of his policies, results, or the lack of them, but because of who he is and what he stands for. The President might very well be a danger to Mexico —a discussion that deserves a separate article— but what the opposition does not seem to get is that many Mexicans might simply not care about this. There are surely many things the Mexican opposition can do better, but I certainly think that one of them is relying on a narrative about the future, about a post-López Obrador era, and not mostly about him. The Mexican opposition needs to convince voters that the country is not only in the wrong direction, but that it can actually bring about a better future.
In the end, yes, politics requires brinksmanship and perhaps that is what we are seeing now in Mexico: López Obrador pushing hard for what he believes as much as the opposition does. But it also requires —pardon my naivety— a good amount of generosity and a certain degree of camaraderie, if not out of conviction, perhaps because of the fact that, in a democracy, politics is a repetitive “game”, one in which the winner-take-all strategy is not the best for the long run.
* Gerónimo Gutiérrez Fernández is senior advisor at Covington and Burling, LLP and partner at BEEL Infrastructure. Twitter: @GERONIMO_GF