Promising to take on the “mafia with power”, Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s record leaves much to be desired. Will he satisfy the aspirations of the Mexican workers, poor and youth?
Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (also known as “AMLO”) victory represents something positive, and the strength of his victory is something well worth noting, getting over half the votes in a multi-candidate race and the highest vote for any President in Mexican history. The turnout was high with over 60% of the population voting. It’s clear that the Mexican working class, poor and youth have spoken clearly in their endorsement of his campaign and the change that he represents.
While the AMLO campaign may have captured the hearts of the Mexican people, can it follow up and satisfy those aspirations? It is necessary to critically analyse the campaign. It’s worth taking a look at AMLO’s programme, the team he has around him and his historical record on key issues. Doing anything else would be walking towards celebration with our eyes closed to reality.
To attempt to gain a clear understanding of the significance of events and the future of Mexican politics, in this article I will present a profile of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, his political and governing history, and his political programme for government now, and show a political trajectory which may give indication as to where the AMLO Presidency will go.
Firstly, it’s worth recalling that AMLO’s electoral campaign was one not just of the left, but of the Christian evangelical right. AMLO’s campaign is one which has built itself on a coalition of MORENA, a left party based in social movements and with a strong activist base, the Labor Party (PT) a “pink tide” party of the left founded by ex-communists with a history of coalitonism with the extremely corrupt PRD, and the Social Encounter Party (PES), a right wing, anti-gay, anti-choice party. These three parties have united under the “Juntos Haremos Historia” – or “Together We Will Make History” – coalition.
In the 2018 elections, the Presidential, parliamentary and Senatorial elections all occurred simultaneously. As part of the coalition, MORENA, the PT and PES have divided electoral candidates among themselves, with MORENA selecting half of the electoral candidates, and the PT and PES having a quarter each. Similarly, the coalition will be replicated across 27 of the 30 states in Mexico for their local elections.
A realignment of forces
It is within this entire context that we must view the AMLO campaign – it is a major alignment of forces that will shape the structure of Mexican politics for the coming years. In addition to this, the election has taken place against a backdrop of economic stagnation and instability, both globally and in Mexico, an increasingly violent society and a polarised politics, with a new stage of stagnation for American empire and a realignment of the forces of global imperialism, waters which the new Mexican government will inevitably have to navigate.
Within Mexico, the PRI government has engaged in wide ranging neoliberal reforms, the privatisation of services and sections of the state-owned economy (such as ending the state monopoly on oil), coupled with austerity measures and inflation. The outlook for the Mexican economy is for low growth of less than 2%, showing the decisive failures of the right wing economic policies which were allegedly put in place in order to stimulate the economic growth.
The AMLO campaign in the context of a complete collapse of the legitimacy of the extremely corrupt establishment parties of the PRD and PRI has been an outlet of working class anger and an anti-establishment revolt. It marks a decisive turn in Mexican politics and a new point of reference in the anti-capitalist struggle internationally. This is down to the social forces which have rallied around the AMLO campaign in a period of historical political instability for the establishment, as opposed to the AMLO campaign making a markedly progressive break with the political establishment itself.
Mayor of Mexico City
AMLO, like many politicians in the Mexican system, began his political career as a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), before splitting with others in the late 1980’s and forming the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). AMLO has been the mayor of Mexico City, and has run for President two times previously in 2006 and 2012 – all under the banner of the PRD, which AMLO himself lead from 1996 until 1999.
Prior to his electoral successes, he was an activist and often in the lead of militant protests. In the mid 1990’s he launched a campaign of non-payment of electricity bills over extortionate prices, and in 1996 AMLO joined with indigenous communities, farmers and fishermen to blockade Pemex oil wells and demand compensation over the pollution caused by Pemex operations. At the same time, AMLO also engaged with oil workers in support over grievances with pay and conditions.
It was with this profile that he had built as an activist that AMLO took office as mayor of Mexico City, unseating the PRI. AMLO was a gentrifier, a “law and order” mayor –
spending $4.3 million to hire New York’s Rudolph Giuliani as an adviser and ultimately implementing his “broken windows” policy – and engaged in practices designed to boost the profits of property developers, by giving them massive tax breaks in exchange for private housing builds, today a standard tactic of neoliberal policy making. At the same time, AMLO engaged in public works programmes while some neighbourhoods of Mexico City continued to live without electricity. However, over his time as mayor, AMLO did invest in pensions for the elderly and public services, including the founding of Métrobus.
Perhaps the height of the AMLO mayoralty was the struggle against the right wing National Action Party (PAN) government. In late 2000, the then-PRI mayor expropriated land for public use to improve infrastructure leading to a private hospital. The former owner of the land brought forward a legal challenge and all work on the land was ordered to be stopped. Once AMLO came in, work recommenced in defiance of the court ruling and ultimately proceedings began to strip AMLO of immunity and take him to court. Under Mexican law, high-ranking government officials are immune from criminal prosecution until they leave their post – meaning that for prosecution to commence, the Chamber of Deputies must hold a vote to strip someone of that protection.
This process was lead by the right wing PAN and then-President Vincente Fox, and ironically backed by the PRI whose mayor had expropriated the land in the first place. At the time, AMLO was leading in polls for the 2006 Presidential election, and the political motivations behind pushing this process were abundantly clear. Gaining international and domestic support, AMLO refused to capitulate and in April 2005 a rally of over a million people caused Fox to climb down, and the prosecution was suspended.
Fighting for the Presidency
In 2006 and 2012, AMLO ran as the President on the PRD ticket, supported by the Labor Party and Convergence (now known as the Citizens’ Movement).
The 2006 campaign was controversial due to AMLO’s inclusion of many right wing elements, including ex-PRI advisers, in his team. The founder of PRD, Cuauthémoc
Cárdenas, refused to engage in campaigning events and Subcommandante Marcos of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation condemned AMLO as a “false-left” candidate. One of the most odious advisers AMLO had brought around him was the ex-PRI Arturo Núñez, who was the mastermind behind the Mexican Fobaproa plan which converted billions of private debt into public debt as part of a banking bailout to stabilise the system, while shoving the debt onto the people of Mexico.
Ironically, AMLO focused much of his 2006 campaign on attacking “parasitical” bankers and promising a “Mexican New Deal” – stimulating job growth, reneging on NAFTA, improving infrastructure through public works and a government promise to build up to one million houses which they would then sell back to the poor at affordable prices. At the same time, AMLO was appealing to the business community and arguing that he only had a problem with those in business who “traffic in influence” and were “corrupt”. The reception was mixed, with US firm Barclays Capital saying that there was “market pessimism” resulting from the AMLO campaign, but that his record as mayor of Mexico City did “not appear worrisome”.
In an election marked by electoral fraud by the sitting PAN government, AMLO lost the vote by roughly 250,000 and came in second place. In a result considered broadly to be illegitimate, street protests erupted. International observers of the 2006 election criticised the level of electoral fraud and some called for a full recount. There were instances of ballot box tampering, statistical anomalies, vote buying and illegitimate annulling of votes in pro-AMLO constituencies. The protests peaked with AMLO supporters proclaiming him to be the “legitimate President”, but without ongoing mass engagement they simmered out and so the result was kept.
By the next election, AMLO had changed his tone and no longer launched scathing attacks on “parasitical” bankers or focused on public works and state intervention. Instead, he focused his campaign on issues of introducing budget cuts of over 10%, cutting government pay and stimulating private market competition by ending monopolies. He also promised a restructuring of the taxation system so that those with higher incomes paid more, an ending of “tax privileges”, and an ambitious job creation programme of 1.2 million per year, more than double of what it was under his opponents. Similar to the previous election, fraud was rife and the right wing PRI came into power under Enrique Peña Nieto.
Challenging in 2018
In the years after, AMLO moderated his rhetoric significantly, and has moved to the right on a number of issues. In March 2018 he told a conference of bankers that he would “support the banks” and that there would be no “nationalisations” under his government. No longer attacking ruling elites or engaging in class-based rhetoric, AMLO has refocused his attention on the “mafia with power”, a vague term which loosely applies to those sections of the political and economic elite which don’t support anti-corruption measures. Figures of the establishment have also welcomed Carlos Uruza as AMLO’s choice for Finance Minister, with economist Benito Berber stating that Uruza was “definitely good news” for Mexico’s fiscal outlook.
This chimes with the new team of economists he’s brought around him, such as his campaign manager, Alfonso Romo – a hardline neoliberal, World Bank adviser and hedge fund manager. According to Romo himself, he is a convert away from the “mafia with power”, hinting at the rather nebulous nature of the label.
By framing the dominating conflict in Mexican society as between “the people” and “the mafia with power”, it allows AMLO to bury fundamental and irreconcilable class antagonisms and sells the Mexican people a future of social harmonisation. This somewhat chafes with AMLO’s own campaign rhetoric of challenging the liberalisation of the economy which he lays firmly at the feet of this very same mafia.
However, such contradictions are not rare coming from AMLO. Whilst challenging economic liberalisation, he has refused to promise a firm break with it, and has only offered shifts away from the neoliberal model in specific areas as part of an essentially populist political programme. For example, AMLO has in the past called for a referendum on the partial privatisation of Pemex which occurred in 2013, and has promised to hold one if elected. The prospect was enough to have both the Peña Nieto government and the oil companies press for Mexico’s energy reforms to be written into NAFTA during renegotiations in order to prevent a future AMLO government from undoing them. In stark contrast to AMLO, his top adviser Alfonso Romo argues that the bulk of the oil tenders have been “beneficial for Mexico”.
AMLO’s plan to renationalise Pemex, however, seems to be part of a broader plan to make Mexico completely energy self-sufficient as part of a process of building more oil wells and expanding production – a set of policies that will inevitably place him in conflict with the indigenous and environmentalist groups which he fought alongside decades previously, in addition to placing him on the road to conflict with sections of the US capitalist establishment currently profiting from the privatisations of Mexico’s oil, a prospect which AMLO does not appear to have considered or prepared for.
In reality, outside of the oil sector it appears AMLO is going to appeal rather strongly for foreign direct investment, including potentially the creation of special economic zones with lower tax rates, emulating the model of Baja Calafornia’s border economic zone. Historically, the special economic zones come under federal control and as such local residents (who are disproportionately indigenous peoples) have little to no recourse when they have grievance with the activities of the state or corporations.
Women and the LGBTQ+ community have also been left behind by AMLO’s campaign, with his alignment with the Christian right putting questions of abortion rights and marriage equality firmly on the back burner as far as his campaign is concerned. The growing discontent among the Mexican youth on these key social issues, however, are likely to come out into the open even stronger than previously and put huge pressure on the government to change state policy. It remains to be seen if AMLO will place his alignment with the PES over the popular demands for social progress and the struggle against the Catholic Church’s influence in Mexican society. The impact of events such as the abortion rights referendum in the Republic of Ireland will no doubt give a boost to those struggling for the same rights in Mexico.
That said, his campaign offers a lot to be positive about – the doubling of the minimum wage and of elderly pensions, scaling back the war on drugs and the provision of “free medicine” on the back of a war against corruption. Slashing the pay for political representatives seems high on the list of AMLO’s priorities and is something that will likely be implemented early in his Presidency. He has also promised an end to rising fuel prices, a major source of discontent and protest in the past few years.
Challenges to come
Ultimately, the nature of the AMLO government remains entirely to be seen. As we’ve seen repeatedly over the past few decades, parties claiming to be of the left often come to
power and go back on their promises, either due to an opportunist ideological shift within the party or as a result of a capitulation during confrontation with capital. The most recent and stark example of this is the 2015 SYRIZA government in Greece which came to power on a leftist anti-austerity platform. Completely unprepared for the all-out assault by European and Greek capitalists on the Greek state and economy in retaliation for their moderate programme, the SYRIZA government completely capitulated to the financial and economic elites and has subsequently engaged in one of the most horrific lootings of a country by its own government in human history.
Facing into a situation of greater instability in one of the most important economies on the planet, it is beyond doubt that the government of AMLO will face conflict with the ruling elites, including those which AMLO does not consider part of his “mafia with power”. Any attempt to reverse neoliberal reforms or improve the conditions of the Mexican people must necessarily infringe on the profits of big business and tap into the hoarded wealth of the super-rich. A resolution of the inequality within Mexico cannot be achieved within the limited perspective of AMLO’s “balanced budget” approach, with absurd claims that he can bring in the reforms necessary and shift fiscal policy without tax increases or going into debt. While corruption certainly creates overhead on state expenditure, the bold claim that simply eradicating it (a lengthy process in of itself) will be enough to provide for the increased expenditures that AMLO is promising is a claim with no basis in reality. However, this argument allows him to avoid the key questions of taxing corporations, the wealthy, and ultimately taking on the power of capital.
Which side of history his government falls on depends on the balance of social forces in Mexican society. MORENA is viewed by many on the left as a means for the establishment to re-legitimise itself in the context of a historic moral bankruptcy, and with the party’s leadership orientating more towards the ruling elites than it is towards popular struggle, it has become a landing point for many figures of the establishment fleeing the sinking ships of the PRI, PRD and PAN. Despite this, it remains the case that millions of Mexican workers and poor see it as a vehicle for change. This contradiction between the aspirations of the base, and rank and file of the party against the reality of a conservative leadership, will come to the fore in the coming years as AMLO comes under increasing pressure from the capitalist elite to abandon any notions of social and economic justice. To genuinely implement his programme, he must in reality take steps which go far beyond it.
These would include the taking of the banking system and other key sectors of the economy into public ownership and control as well as tapping into the huge amounts of hoarded wealth by the Mexican elites and turning it into productive capital. Only on the basis of controlling the key sectors of the economy can there be a secure foundation for a break with globally hegemonic neoliberalism – any other route leaves Mexico’s new government open to attack on every front, risking capital strikes and economic warfare in response to leftist policies.
Whether these steps will be taken depends on the strength and influence of the Mexican working class, and if they take the initiative and pressure the new government to act in their interests, as opposed to the interests of capitalism both Mexican and international.