AMLO’s Insular Politics Predicted a Global Shift, But Will It Protect His Legacy?

Just as the world becomes more like him, a challenger has emerged who emulates the Mexican president’s populist methods.

(Bloomberg) — On a Saturday afternoon in early July, Mexico City’s vast Zócalo square was packed wall-to-wall with supporters gathered to mark the fifth anniversary of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s election to the presidency.

Not many political leaders can draw on such devotion, let alone in the final year of their mandate. Still less can they expect the world to have shifted their way, from globalization toward domestic self-resilience, bolstering the economy and adding an air of validity to policy choices once dismissed as idiosyncratic.

Yet that’s where López Obrador finds himself as he enters the last leg of his single, six-year term and sets about making his impact on Mexico a lasting one. For all the criticism levelled at him, from his failure to staunch Mexico’s violent crime to a focus on quixotic personal projects and an energy policy that shut out investors, the president enjoys a near-60% approval rating that lifts his Morena party going into next year’s elections.

To many Mexicans, AMLO — as the president is known — is Morena, and ensuring his project lives on in the party after he exits the political stage is paramount. But as Morena prepares to unveil its lead candidate on Sept. 6, unexpected complications are emerging for the 69-year-old president’s efforts to secure his legacy.

AMLO’s popularity is thanks in large part to his central plank of fighting corruption and creating opportunities for the poor laced with attacks on the powerful “oligarchy,” an approach he bills the “Fourth Transformation” after three prior pivotal moments in Mexican history going back to the war of independence that began in 1810. It’s one that supporters who turned out for the July 1 commemoration said they want to see carry on once he leaves office.

“He cares, from the kids to the old folks,” said Lucely del Carmen, 57, who’d made the 22-hour bus ride to the capital for the event from her hometown of Pocboc in the Yucatán peninsula, where she tends chickens and pigs and sells traditional foods including tamales with her husband. “We want the transformation to continue,” she said, “because six years isn’t enough.”

Even a couple of months ago, it seemed a safe bet that whoever won the top role for Morena would sweep to the presidency, simply by being AMLO’s heir. Top contenders include former Mexico City mayor Claudia Sheinbaum and former Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, who have spent the last few weeks touring the country touting their credentials as the best pick to carry the torch for AMLO. Neither has the president’s charisma or public appeal, though both benefit from the reach of his party, which with its allies holds 23 of Mexico’s 32 governorships. 

But in recent weeks, a challenger has appeared. The opposition coalition drew up a similar process to pick a coordinator of their own, and the most buzz is swirling around lawmaker Xóchitl Gálvez, a businesswoman-turned-politician of Indigenous descent.

Gálvez is making a national impact by playing AMLO at his own game, using stunts such as showing up to his morning press conference wielding a judicial order demanding a right to reply to his criticisms, and chaining herself to the Senate furniture to protest the hobbling of the freedom of information agency. She’s known for riding her bike to the Senate, unlike many politicians who take a private chauffeur, and regularly taunts the president for being a “macho” afraid of “strong women.”

While polls suggest Gálvez still trails too far behind the Morena candidates to be an imminent threat to AMLO’s succession plans, she has drawn plenty of attention and is narrowing the gap, with the result that analysts warn her folksy appeal could lead Morena to lose key congress seats. That would severely affect the next president’s ability to pass legislation — AMLO has already felt the impact of a diminished force in Congress after Morena lost seats in mid-term elections.

AMLO isn’t concerned about the opposition in the coming elections, confident that they don’t stand a chance, according to a person close to the president who asked not to speak publicly to be able to discuss his thinking. What’s more, Gálvez still needs to fight her own primary, on Sept. 3, to secure a shot at the presidency. Even so, AMLO has repeatedly criticized Gálvez for being the “oligarchy’s pick,” making her a target of his daily three-hour long press conferences in which he covers everything from his administration’s weekly wins to musing about baseball, music and other pop culture topics of the moment.

To an extent, the rise of a candidate like Gálvez, who grew up in an impoverished community in central Mexico selling tamales and Jell-o, wouldn’t be possible without the precedent AMLO himself set. Gone are the days when presidents could take private jets and boast of their lavish lifestyles. AMLO sold the presidential plane—at a loss— to fund hospitals, and has been seen flying coach.

“Mexicans are used to presidents like Enrique Peña Nieto, who was holed up in his office, or out playing golf, with an actress as a wife. People couldn’t relate,” said Gerardo Esquivel, a former central bank deputy governor under AMLO. “President López Obrador is someone people want to take a photo with.”

For his supporters, AMLO is the most relatable leader the country has had in decades. Yet others struggle to explain the president’s appeal after policy quirks that appear to turn conventional political wisdom on its head. His lavishing of aid on national oil company Petróleos Mexicanos seems at odds with his refusal to spend during the pandemic; his reluctance to travel overseas, except to the US, has risked diminishing Mexico’s standing abroad; while his form of populism can come across as aggressively nationalistic and anti-business.

As he enters the last lap of his presidency, AMLO suddenly finds the world has become more like him. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown that the world still needs fossil fuels, and his focus on Mexico first is in tune with an age when self-sufficiency and resilient supply chains is the new normal. US-China competition has been a boon to Mexico’s economy as the move toward near-shoring brings companies like Tesla Inc. south of the US border. As food security topped the global agenda, he sought to defend domestic corn production while picking a fight with US farmers, saying he didn’t want Mexicans to eat their genetically modified corn.   

His focus on domestic politics resonates with those for whom globalization has failed, according to a former government official who asked not to be named. The global shift toward more nationalistic views has helped him slot into the current moment after decades of pursuing these ideas, the official said.

It’s a development that became accentuated during the pandemic, when the key response came from governments and not political blocs, according to Carolina Muñoz Canto, politics professor at the Colegio de Tlaxcala in San Pablo Apetatitlán, who wrote her doctoral thesis on AMLO before he won the presidency.

“There seemed to be a return to the nation-state as the basic entity that could provide assistance and give the population a certain amount of security,” she said. “The language of López Obrador connects to this questioning of political blocs and the return to the nation-state,” with the addition of rhetoric about seeking oil and food independence, she said.

AMLO says his government strategy can be boiled down to fighting corruption. “This is fundamental, the rest is an accessory,” he said at his Aug. 1 press conference. Corruption, he added, was more than a pandemic, “it was a pest devastating everything.” 

He swept to power in December 2018 at a time of general discontent among the population with the political class and institutions, much of it related to corruption, while low to near-zero economic growth perpetuated inequality, according to Adriana Báez Carlos, politics professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

He tapped into that sentiment and made it his own, with the result that all Morena candidates plan to follow his lead, while even the opposition needs to pay heed to his style and focus. “It’s clear that the people are asking for more attention, and it has to be taken into account,” she said.

Whoever ends up succeeding him will have a tough act to follow. He’s leaving an economy that is growing, with the peso strengthening to an eight-year high and investment arriving, buoyed by the country’s proximity to the US. He boosted pensions and strengthened labor rights, while Congress added vacation time and discussed shortening the work week. Unemployment is at historically low levels, the minimum wage has grown exponentially, and some 30 million families receive cash transfers. 

“After so many years of seeking a change, it’s finally here,” said Roberto Zaldivar, 78, from Mexico City, who attended the July event in the Zócalo with his wife, daughter, two sons, granddaughter and nephew. “Now we really want the transformation to carry on.”

Critics call it a campaign ploy, or a rewriting of previously announced aid programs. For Felipe Hernández of Bloomberg Economics, AMLO’s policies on salaries helped contribute to household incomes and domestic demand, but his record overall is one of wasted potential, in the main due to his nationalist rhetoric.  “You can say that the economy did relatively well during his administration, but could have done significantly better,” Hernandez said.

What’s sure is that he’s bequeathing his successor a worsening fiscal outlook, and as popular as AMLO is, his polling in economic performance and security is negative, posing an electoral risk for Morena. But behind closed doors, even bankers and top investors who hardly sympathize with his views acknowledge that by strengthening labor conditions and boosting handouts for older citizens, AMLO has made an impact on Mexican society.

“His diagnosis of the country was the right one,” said Esquivel, who argues the gap in earnings between the richest Mexicans and the poorest has shrunk, in part because the least affluent households have seen their incomes rise by about 20%. “He’s kept his word.” 

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