Dreams of a Better Mexico

Violence, corruption, inequality — AMLO has the chance to attack all three and transform Mexico for the better.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, president-elect of Mexico, speaks during a celebration event at Zocalo Main Square on July 1 in Mexico City. Alfredo Martinez / Getty

Mexico’s 2018 elections were the bloodiest in living memory.

At latest count, 136 candidates and party workers had been killed, with attacks on some three hundred. Hundreds of candidates pulled out of races, some in fear for their lives, some because they were discovered to have ties to organized crime — my colleague at Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, Carlos Figueroa Ibarra, head of Morena’s human rights division, puts this figure at an astonishing six hundred politicians.

The stakes were high, and several “wars from below” raged in advance of the election. Most of the killing seems to have happened in Northern Puebla, rural Oaxaca, Guerrero, and scattered states experiencing narco-warfare. Many Morena candidates were killed or threatened.

This is no surprise: historically, the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI by its Spanish acronym) wages low-intensity warfare and selective assassination campaigns against its left-wing opponents. In Northern Puebla and rural Oaxaca, PRI strongholds were fighting — ultimately unsuccessfully — to retain political control. But candidates from all parties have been killed.

What surprises everyone is the large number of PRI candidates assassinated — more than from any other party. Various explanations are in the air, though weighing them is difficult. Some say that the narcos want amnesty and a peace plan (which Morena supports and the PRI opposes). Others suggest that it’s part of a high-stakes conflict about the future of PRI. In some cases, the local candidates were apparently viewed as being unfavorable to the cartels.

There’s no single explanation for the violence, but the pattern fits with the bigger picture: last year was Mexico’s most violent year in recent memory, and this year seems on track to top that number.

The bottom line on the chaotic pre-election violence: the old political system is tearing apart at the seams. This election was a scramble for position before the change comes.

The Results

The expected landslide materialized, despite ample credible reports of ballot-box tampering. Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) finished thirty points ahead of his nearest rival. Fraud may have nibbled at the margins or captured a governorship or two, but in the end, AMLO captured 53 to 54 percent of the reported vote.

Even more remarkably, his new party, Morena, and its allies took 73 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 56 percent of the Senate. Morena also took several governorships away from the PRI and the PAN. Even journalists from Televisa, the massive Mexican media firm that has favored corporate-backed candidates of the Right in the past, were enthusing about the marvels of democracy in election-eve coverage.

Enrique, my partner, tells me that in his pueblo — a poor, working-class town historically aligned with the PRI — people were laughing, shouting, and crying in the streets, a post-election response that he’s never seen before. We witnessed a massive political realignment this week: the PAN saw some defections, of course, but the PRI all but collapsed. Towns and villages historically aligned with the PRI switched sides. (In the chamber of deputies, the PRI is down from 204 to fifteen. Morena now has 218 seats in the body.) It’s unclear whether the PRI can survive such a defeat; the party was wiped out in its bases, the pueblos.

I’ve always maintained that Mexicans are nostalgic for the days when the PRI was a center-left party, implementing some social-democratic and business-friendly programs that produced the Mexican Miracle: forty-some years of continuous economic growth with redistribution. But they’re also afraid of reproducing the dictatorship, which over time became increasingly corrupt and violent.

For some, then, the vote was a vote to return to the glory days of Mexican nationalism and development, before neoliberal policies turned the country into an economic annex of the US. For others, it was a wager that AMLO is not the undemocratic figure he is often derided as being.

This is the end of a fifty-year struggle. In 1988, the democratic and socialist currents of the PRI fused with a smattering of left-sectarian parties to form the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD). The democratic current derived from the New Left student struggles of 1968, which exposed the brutality and conservatism of the dictatorship. But the 1988 vote was stolen in plain sight. 2018 is the vindication of 1988 and 1968.

The PRD is dead now, captured by the sort of forces it set out to uproot. (It was a PRD governor in Guerrero who is implicated in the massacre of forty-three student protesters at Ayotzinapa.) The PRI is reduced to a small rump party. The PAN survives and will be the conservative opposition. Morena takes the mantle of the party purporting to guard and extend the Mexican Revolution.

The Electoral Map

In 2006, the electoral map was neatly bifurcated: Felipe Calderon carried almost every state in the North; Lopez Obrador carried almost everything in the South. The dividing line was sharp. Scholars and journalists wrote about the political division of the country: the North’s embrace of Americanism, with the South inexplicably mired in poverty and backwardness.

By contrast, the 2018 election-day map was almost uniformly brown, the color of Morena.

AMLO ran a thirty-one-state campaign and won thirty — everything except Guanajuato, a PAN stronghold — on a crisp, clear message to combat corruption, wind down the narco war, and reduce social inequality. With tireless stump speeches and stops in every pueblo, he took this message into the supposedly conservative North of the country, as well as the left-leaning South.

I’ve never seen a better-run campaign, a better-pitched message, than AMLO’s (in sharp contrast to his lackluster runs in 2006 and 2012).

The candidate essentially deferred the social issues — abortion, gay marriage, and adoption — in favor of three broad, popular themes. The work that urgently needs to be done, he explained in various speeches and interviews, requires a diverse coalition: people of goodwill who have different opinions about these other matters. We will hold a national discussion on the social issues at a later date. I doubt that this sort of move could ever be pulled off in the US, but it does suggest that prioritizing is an important factor in vote-getting.

Meanwhile, international leftists were consistently second-guessing the candidate’s every move, accusing him of moving too far to the right, of not having a sufficiently socialist agenda, and so on. These are not criticisms that one encounters here in Mexico. The main fear that I hear, over and over again on the morning after, is that AMLO won’t be able to fulfill his campaign promises. What if he can’t do what he’s promised to do?

Pace external critics, the candidate’s overarching goal of a fourth Mexican “refounding” is itself quite radical, if vague. (The conquest, independence, and the revolution were the first three.) So, too, the promise to launch a genuine campaign against corruption.

The playbook for all of this was there in a short book AMLO wrote in the aftermath of the 2006 debacle: Mexico, he argued, isn’t a genuine democracy. It’s a quasi-authoritarian regime run by a powerful mafia that controls the media and fixes elections. Mexico also doesn’t have a genuine capitalist class; what it has instead are crony businessmen who cut juicy deals with the state, run by the mafia.

In other words, the system isn’t merely embellished or distorted by graft, corruption, or takings; it is defined by those features.

The 2018 campaign was a promise to change that. If international leftists weren’t especially inspired by the message, the fault was their own. Mexicans understand all too well what kind of system they inhabit.

The Victory Speech

AMLO’s victory speech was calming: it bolstered friends and reassured adversaries. The rhetoric was lapidary, and the peso rallied. He even had kind words for outgoing president Enrique Peña Nieto (who did not attempt to interfere in the elections).

From the victory speech: “I call on all Mexicans to reconciliation, and to put above their personal interests, however legitimate, the greater interest, the general interest,” he said. “The state will cease to be a committee at the service of a minority and will represent all Mexicans, rich and poor, those who live in the country and in the city, migrants, believers and nonbelievers, to people of all philosophies and sexual preferences.”

Every time I read a headline that calls AMLO a “firebrand,” I have to wonder: has the author ever sat through one of the president-elect’s speeches or interviews? He’s quite possibly one of the most uncharismatic speakers ever. He is calm, quiet, he often speaks painfully slowly, as though weighing every word, and only warms to his theme when he closes in on social gospel rhetoric.

But the journalistic template is already written. “Populists” — and Lopez Obrador must be a populist; what else could he be? — are always overheated rubes with a flair for drama, the kind of fool who pounds the podium with a machete just to hear the people scream his name.

The most common chant using AMLO’s name is of a more considered tone: “Es un honor estar con Obrador” — “It’s an honor to be with Obrador.” This underscores something important. His charisma, to the extent that he has any, is distinctly negative. He’s not trying to pull one over on you. He lives a simple, austere life; he invites political and business foes over to his house for quiet conversations (which often win them over); he’s the only politician on the scene about whom there is no whiff of scandal or corruption. This a rarity in politics: a genuinely honorable man.

After attending the 2006 counter-inaugural in Mexico City, I commented to a supporter as AMLO read through a long list of promises and proposed programs that it was like listening to Hubert Humphrey on quaaludes. “That’s what I like about him,” she said. “He tells you exactly what he’s going to do, and you have that list to hold him to it.”

I had a long chat with two socialists last night, laying out for them the persistent criticism that one encounters in North Atlantic left publications: that AMLO has moved too far to the right, that he is now too moderate to undertake the necessary transformations.

They shook their heads. “Of course, it’s not enough, it’s never enough,” they said. “But Mexico is a relatively conservative country, and to build a movement, the issues have to be framed just so.”

In fact, AMLO hit the sweet spot at the right time. He spoke in general terms about how he wanted to emulate some of the great national heroes in Mexican history, how the neoliberal present was one long deviation from the dream of a better Mexico. The press and his opponents pooh-poohed the idea: more messianism from AMLO, poor thing. The people, on the other hand, were stirred by historical memories of Benito Juarez and Lázaro Cárdenas.

Besides, a “fourth founding” is, in fact, a pretty radical conceptual launchpad.