The 2018 Mexican presidential results: between Lula, Messi and the Bolivarian Revolution

In today’s post Dr. Valeria Guarneros-Mesa reflects on the recent electoral victory in Mexico of Andrés Manuel López Obrador. She argues that ‘AMLO’s’ victory is an important win for the Latin American left that is likely to follow a Lula-style “progressive neoliberal” agenda, rather than a revolutionary “Chavista-Bolivarian” one. Valeria also points to some of the likely frailties of AMLO’s project to redistribute wealth and battle corruption, such as the institutional embeddedness of corruption and deep-seated tendencies to “caudillista” leadership. She argues that the best hope for counter-acting these is for MORENA (the coalition led by AMLO) to maintain and strengthen ties with civil society and critical social movements.

By 10:30pm of 1 July 2018, preliminary electoral results started to indicate that Andrés Manuel López Obrador was the winner of the Mexican presidential election. AMLO, the candidate for the Together We Will Make Histoty coalition (composed of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), Social Encounter Party, and the Labour Party) won with almost 53% of the votes, while obtaining a majority in Congress and the Senate. Commentators have underlined the results as a historical moment for Mexican politics and its electoral democracy. The results caused moments of exhilaration and joy for a majority of the population and revived hope in Latin America’s left. But for many others, this was a moment of anguish, disappointment and concern as they envisaged the challenges that a fragmented and violent Mexico will bring, accompanied by the unfounded fear by liberal-conservatives that Mexico will become another Venezuela, another dictatorship.

The immediate comments, after the preliminary results were published, underlined the effectiveness of the electoral democratic institutions in so far as the incumbent party, PRI, and the other traditional parties, PAN and PRD, were recognising their loss and congratulating AMLO for his victory. AMLO’s presence in Mexico City’s Zocalo late that evening was accompanied by words of gratitude that were emotive and fulfilling people’s hope. AMLO’s reiteration that his government was to be ruled by three principles: ‘not lying, not stealing and not betraying the people’ seem to mark a clear distinction against the political corrupt oligarchy of the PRI, PAN and PRD. These warm words, however, did not reassure people who experienced political violence during the day of the election in cities of Jalisco and Puebla States.

AMLO is unlikely to follow Chavismo’s Bolivarian Revolution of the 21st Century. Instead, it is more likely that he follows the steps of Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, through redistribution of wealth, while maintaining a ‘progressive’ neoliberal economic approach that promotes global trade and finance with regards to commodities.

Two elements provide an indication to make this a credible argument (but see Financial Times for a contrary view). The first is the fact that the core of the old oligarchy that supported Salinismo began to support AMLO’s candidacy few weeks before the elections. Salinismo (1988-1994) was the presidential period in which neoliberal economic polices reached their peak and when NAFTA was signed.

These new alliances indicate that AMLO obtained their support in exchange of continuation with neoliberalism and to counter the threats that NAFTA’s dissolution cast upon the country’s current economy. His book ‘La salida’ also shows cosmetic modifications to the wave of privatisations in the education and energy sectors introduced in the post-2012 years.

The second is AMLO’s attachment to the corrupt machinery that has permeated Mexican politics. Several individuals supporting his campaign have had records of embezzlement, hence the likely assumption that these common and corrupt practices will begin to infiltrate the good intentions that AMLO’s persona insists to tackle.

The lack of transparency in selecting MORENA’s candidates for several political local posts has been one of the main criticisms against AMLO’s inability to break with clientelism and co-optation. On the one hand, this forms part of the tactics the mafia’s political system relies on and; on the other hand, it breaks with any channels of communication held with social movements that gave birth to MORENA, let alone with those that sit more on the radical spectrum of the Left and which are key to bring into account AMLO’s government and other political and economic institutions.

Civil society and its activism have been considered the main axis to counter the continuation of neoliberal politics and corruption. However, progressive critics sustain that civil society is not ready to scrutinise government. Social movements have used different repertoires of action that include fighting the Mexican state (i.e. Zapatismo and its legacies), collaborating and negotiating with it (clientelism and co-optation) and, more recently, recurring to socio-legal action to sue the state abuses against human rights of indigenous and other marginalised communities.

However, mobilisations’ multiple repertoires of action to counter the state in intermittent ways are not including mechanisms of scrutiny and oversight that the political system requires to minimise impunity, beyond the state’s own reforms to its judicial and prosecution systems. Although this type of experience from civil society is not inexistent (for example, Artículo 19 or Instituto de Acción Ciudadana para la Justicia y Democracia), it is quite fragmented and too small to counter the great machinery of state corruption.

AMLO’s administration will encounter another challenge with regards to its leadership. As all good charismatic leaders in Latin America, the figure of a single, strong ‘caudillo’ is a formula that all political leaders instinctively pursue. This has been observed from Simon Bolivar fighting Spanish colonialism, to Fidel Castro’s communism and Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution. AMLO will be no different, especially as his leadership derives from this same understanding. The problem is that this type of leadership suffers from the Lionel Messi curse of overperformance, observed in the 2018 World Cup match Argentina vs Croatia, where the latter won by 3-0 as the whole Argentine team was relying on Messi to score.

If MORENA and its coalition are to be able to transcend, a cadre of multiple leaders must be prepared to relay AMLO. It is precisely this lack of shared leadership that has led ‘pink tide’ front-runners Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales to organise referenda to make constitutional changes that allow presidential re-elections and prolong their periods in office. Centralisation of power, while a new successor is appointed, is likely to become a tactic to which AMLO may recur to if his admnistation is not watched closely.

Finally, if AMLO’s administration is to transcend, it is because it is not left alone, the internationalisation of what is happening at the grassroots level, within and against the state, must be recognised. His administration has not only to maintain open and transparent channels of communication with social movements, civil society groups and ordinary citizens and build a shared leadership; but also, initiatives that prompt these grassroots to contribute to the broader ‘transnational social class’ -which has aimed to challenge decisions that tend to benefit the traditional neoliberal oligarchy -shall be encouraged by his administration.

If his coalition is genuinely wanting to become a motor of historical transformation, as opposed to just ‘the left of the institutionalised right’, relationships with other international Left parties, which have been more genuine to include grassroots and establish links with social movements, (i.e. Corbynism and DiEM25) have  to be consolidated, alongside the emblematic Latin American spaces created by the World Social Forum and Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our Americas-People’s Trade Agreement. A recognition and acceptance of international groups’ criticisms against the state’s human rights abuses and violence, must be included in his government plans, which unfortunately have been a moot topic in AMLO’s campaign.

Valeria Guarneros-Meza is Reader in Politics and Public Policy, De Montfort University and a CURA member.

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