Democracy is a fragile form of governance for which there is no clear-cut recipe. Even when institutions seem strong, like in the U.S., a leader that flouts the rules and seeds social conflict can create dangerous fissures. Democracies come in multiple forms and tend to reflect the unique history of the country. In the case of Mexico, the country’s democracy is still in its youth and dates back to a little more than two decades ago when the PRI, the party that ruled the country for more than 70 years, lost the presidency for the first time.
The National Electoral Institute (INE) was created in order to ensure that after decades of fraudulent elections, everyone would accept the results. Today the INE’s credible functioning is a source of national pride and civic participation. Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) does not care much for institutions because he believes he and his movement, MORENA, represents the will of the people; it is that simple and that complicated.
In keeping with this idea, he has sought to weaken the INE, finding ways to ensure that those who serve as members of its board are amenable to his movement. The outcome of the “reform” of the INE has not yet been settled and legal changes passed this week in the Mexican Congress will surely reach the country’s Supreme Court. Happily, there has been pushback both from society – another march in favor of protecting the current INE structure is scheduled for February 26th – as well as from the opposition.
López Obrador grew up as a PRI stalwart and came to the presidency after many attempts. He views himself as the savior of the poor, which unfortunately still make up half of the population, the ranks of which have actually grown under his watch. According to CONEVAL, a decentralized government-funded organization, from 2018 to 2020 poverty increased from 41.9 percent to 43.9 percent and extreme poverty from 7.0 percent to 8.5 percent, this despite the direct cash transfers AMLO’s government regularly provides.
His style of governance and ideology are difficult to characterize. He presents himself as a leftist who fights against corruption and decries the use of force in almost all instances, even the legitimate sovereign use of force (e.g., his idea of hugging organized crime instead of shooting them, abrazos no balazos). Despite the President’s insistence that there is no corruption in his government, uncomfortably, Mexico’s ranking by Transparency International remains static and is the country lowest ranked in the OECD, after Turkey.
What people outside of Mexico often fail to understand is that AMLO is not a leftist like the leaders we have seen in parts of South America that bloat the state apparatus, but rather he is a fiscal and social conservative. His Covid-19 strategy consisted of encouraging people to pray, literally (e.g., el Detente), and then asking the international community for help, despite his nationalist bent.
As for feminists and uncomfortable topics like gay marriage, he prefers not to discuss them. Instead of taking the situation of feminicide seriously – approximately 11 women are killed a day by their partners or as a result of their condition as women – he and the person he has tapped as his potential successor, Claudia Sheinbuam (the head of the government of Mexico City), have dismissed the growing feminist movement as radicalized by their opponents.
AMLO’s vision is corporativist, in keeping with his PRI roots, and yet he has dismantled or weakened many state institutions. One prime example is the healthcare system, which is in complete disarray. Medicine is in short supply and the poorest segment of the population, which previously had access to care via what was known as the Seguro Popular, now have nothing; a new institution called INSABI created by AMLO’s government never got off the ground.
Perhaps the most ominous trend has been López Obrador’s decision to empower the military, something for which there is no historical precedent. Unlike the violent military regimes in South America, Mexico’s army has remained in the barracks for the better part of the last 100 years; they were generally well-taken care of and well-respected, and known for their contributions to assisting in national emergencies, such as earthquakes.
Now however, the National Guard has taken over responsibility for civil policing and the military is seen on the streets. While AMLO’s government has slashed government budgets across the board, the military budget has almost doubled in the last five years. The army is running the new airport – one of the president’s pet projects – and has been given several economic concessions. Further, the government has transferred 80 civil functions to the military. As other countries have learned the hard way, it is easy to hand power to the military, but getting it back then requires risking your life. After all, they’re the ones with the guns.
Why then does AMLO have approval ratings above 60 percent, you might ask? First, these ratings are typical for Mexican presidents given the general cultural respect for authority and the office. But most importantly, AMLO hit on something that is undeniable: Mexico is a country with massive social and economic inequalities. Making fun of Mexico’s upper classes and oligarchs (he calls them fifis) and praising those who have been given short shrift for the better part of two centuries makes him lovable in the eyes of his supporters. Frankly, who can blame them?
While this context may sound discouraging, there are several bright spots in the balance. First, Mexicans are not keeping quiet. The press is chock full of criticism of the government and there is a robust discussion of what the opposition should do in the run up to the 2024 presidential election. Second, while the opposition is in disarray and parties like the PRI have been discredited, there are new options emerging – like Movimiento Ciudadano (MC), a party that holds the governorships in Nuevo León and Jalisco – and citizen movements like the recently announced #MéxicoColectivo. While it is uncertain what will come of these new political forces, it is encouraging that they are emerging to provide the population with some alternatives.
While many political analysts will tell you that a Morena victory is a foregone conclusion in 2024 (AMLO cannot be re-elected), I would argue that it is still early days. President López Obrador himself seems uncertain that his movement can retain power, which is precisely why he is trying to stack the deck at the INE. If an opposition candidate hopes to win, a united front that includes all of the disparate political forces will be necessary to come out ahead of MORENA, an open question.
Regardless of the outcome of the next presidential election, it will be important that the result is perceived as fair and that institutional independence is not compromised. Like all democracies, Mexico’s democracy will remain imperfect, but it is critical that it remains intact.
*Amy Glover is president of Agil(e) and Co-Chair of 5050 Women on Boards in Mexico. She is also member of the Board of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI) Twitter: @chilangagringa