Originally published in the Globe and Mail on July 3, 2018.
The victory of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in the Mexican presidential election is nothing short of historic. A political party that did not exist six years ago – the National Regeneration Movement or “Morena” – is poised to control the presidency and the national Congress, with the help of its coalition partners.
As the counting of ballots continues across Mexico, it appears that Mr. Lopez Obrador, or AMLO as most call him, will receive more than 50 per cent of the vote in the presidential race – a feat that eluded Vicente Fox in the so-called “change election” of 2000, which ended seven decades of single-party rule in the country.
This year, supporters of the defeated presidential candidates spent the last two weeks of the campaign arguing for an unsanctioned vote-swap that would propel either of them to victory. Talk of implementing a run-off in Mexican presidential elections has vanished, given the advantage that AMLO has over his rivals.
The primary focus of his campaign was to eradicate corruption. Many Mexicans have grown tired of jumping through endless bureaucratic hoops, and paying bribes along the way, so that the government can deliver the simplest of tasks.
Corruption, however, is not limited to government employees at service counters. The sight of eight different former state governors facing charges of embezzlement helped AMLO paint a picture of a Mexico where the well-connected thrive and the hard-working suffer. All eight governors were once members of the only two parties that have run the federal government.
In the end, Mr. Lopez Obrador capitalized on emotion in a way the other contenders could not match. He became a charismatic option who could point to the many misdeeds of past governments. The two other main presidential contenders were unable to defend themselves.
The youth vote – crucial in a country where 46 per cent of the electorate has not yet turned 35 – was particularly uninterested in which candidate had more experience or better credentials. AMLO outlined a country that was far more attractive than the CVs and university degrees of his rivals.
As proud as Mexicans should feel about their electoral process, there is a shameful reality that cannot be overlooked: violence. More than 130 candidates were killed in the nine months prior to election day. Since 2000, more than 100 journalists have brutally lost their lives.
Last year, drug-related violence claimed the lives of more than 29,000 people in Mexico. Retrieving the feeling of safety that Mexicans used to enjoy is directly related to AMLO’s key pledge: rooting out corruption.
During the campaign, Mr. Lopez Obrador suggested that Mexico should consider a form of amnesty for drug-related offences. This idea, which has not been satisfactorily explained, has befuddled Mexicans. After all, what the country is dealing with is not the aftermath of a state-sponsored campaign of terrorizing opponents for political gain, like in Chile, Argentina or South Africa. Just who, or what, will be forgiven is unclear.
The second challenge for the incoming Mexican president is handling the country’s finances. In February, as he was leading in voting-intention polls, AMLO asked to be part of the negotiating team that was discussing the future of the North American free-trade agreement with Canadian and U.S. officials.
It was unthinkable for the Mexican government to offer a seat to an opposition candidate, or his staff, at that particular point. Mr. Lopez Obrador’s cabinet will face a steep learning curve, which will be made even more difficult by the fact that they will be dealing with U.S. President Donald Trump.
Mr. Lopez Obrador is scheduled to take office on Dec. 1, just a few weeks after the midterm elections in the United States. He may encounter a weakened Mr. Trump if there are significant losses in Congress for the Republican Party. He will also deal with a Canadian federal government that may be in precampaign mode when bilateral discussions ensue.
The initial six months of the first purely leftist government in Mexico will require action on these two fronts. If the fight against corruption is not accompanied by tighter controls on the drug trade and a drop in violence, goodwill for the government will erode among voters. If the economy starts to tumble and the prospect of a devalued currency affects public mood, it will not be enough to argue that the country is “cleaner” than it was under previous administrations.
Credit: Diego Delso