How Amlo became Mexico’s new president

This article originally appeared on RTÉ Brainstorm

Opinion: Monumental challenges lie ahead following Mexico’s decisive vote for a president and government committed to social and political change

It is difficult to overstate the significance of Mexico’s election results and the sense of possibility that they promise. Mexicans voted for a president and a government of the political left, committed to radical social and political change, and an end to the widespread corruption, impunity and violence that has blighted their lives for years.

Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador (Amlo) won the presidency as a candidate for the Together We Will Make History coalition. With a robust if not historic 62 percent turnout, preliminary official results put Amlo at 53 percent of the vote, 31 points ahead of his nearest rival. He won a majority of votes in 31 of Mexico’s 32 states, while his party, Morena, and its coalition partners have won a majority in both the Federal Congress’ Chamber of Deputies and in the Senate.

They also won five out of the nine state governorships that were also being contested, including Mexico City, which elected its first female governor Claudia Sheinbaum. Indeed, for the first time in its history, the Chamber of Deputies has achieved gender parity. It was an emphatic and exhilarating victory across the political system and an unequivocal demand for change and for hope.

This puts an extraordinary burden of expectation on Amlo’s shoulders. In some English-language press, Amlo has tended to be characterised as a “populist”, a lazy label that has been thrown around all manner of political contexts recently and which has negative connotations of authoritarianism in Latin America. To the extent that populism is used derogatorily, it suggests a lack of political sophistication among supporters, and especially when they are poor. It suggests populism is not “real” politics, even when widespread movements like this one expose the extent to which “real” politics is rooted in corruption and moral bankruptcy.

That Amlo is popular does not necessarily mean he is a populist. He seeks to confront social and political inequality, whereas a populist would seek to disguise it. This characterisation tends to overlook the levels of support for Amlo in previous contests and the fact that he has headed the main opposition to the political establishment for the last 12 years, during which he has worked tirelessly to expand his base.

In 2006, as candidate for the centre-left PRD, he lost the presidential election to the PAN party’s Felipe Calderón, after a result so close and an election so fraught with irregularities that many called for a total recount of the vote and regarded Calderón’s victory as a fraud (not least Amlo himself). Calderón, who had ironically claimed Amlo was “a danger for Mexico”, went on to introduce his militarised war on drugs, instigating the spiral of violence and corruption that continues to shatter the country.

Running again with the PRD in 2012, Amlo lost to the PRI party’s Peña Nieto, the current incumbent. The result then was not as close but, at six points, much closer than predicted. That election was marred by extraordinary levels of campaign spending and vote buying on the part of the PRI, as well as many (unanswered) questions about the dubious origins of the money. Nieto’s presidency has been marked by corruption, the exposure of complicity between regional politics and organised crime, rising poverty, unpopular reforms and, over the last 18 months, a significant spike in homicidal violence.

In 2006, Amlo’s supporters occupied Mexico City’s Zocalo to protest a stolen election, symbolising a politically divided nation. In 2018, a far more unified electorate flooded in to celebrate his resounding victory. There are many reasons to hope that Amlo will rein in a neo-liberal economic model that has produced increased poverty, inequality and precarity while permitting a massive concentration of wealth closely linked to the corruption and impunity that fuels organised violence and a crisis of public security. Those struggling with exclusion, gender inequality or for indigenous, reproductive and LGBT rights can expect to be heard and taken seriously.

There are also many reasons to be extremely cautious. The challenges are monumental. Mexico’s transnational capitalist elite are likely to move to protect their privileges, while organised crime will not easily renounce their regional dominance – conflict and repression have been central to the success of both. Amlo and his government are also tasked with confronting corruption in the security forces, and clientelism embedded within the political system. It is a system, though, that he knows well. His political career began when Mexico was effectively a one party state, led by the PRI, and he has been an important figure throughout the long struggle to change it.

There is also, of course, Donald Trump with his documented racism towards Mexicans, his fabulist threats about the wall and his abuse of children as a means of border control. Trump was quick to contact Amlo and congratulate him on his victory. In turn, Amlo expressed his hope that the US will support him in his programmes for social development that will address the poverty and exclusion that contribute to both organised crime and to migration. If Trump has any sense – and let’s not go there – then he will.

More important still is support at home. Amlo is a man of undisputed energy, but these are not challenges that can be met by a charismatic leader alone. They will require the continued, concerted work and integrity of all of those on his political team who have won office. Mexican voters have already stepped up and shown themselves to be ready and willing.

View all NUI Galway articles on RTÉ Brainstorm.

Kathy Powell

Dr Kathy Powell is a lecturer in the Department of Politicial Science & Sociology at NUI Galway