On December 1, before a heaving crowd of supporters packed into the Zócalo in the heart of Mexico City, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) launched Mexico’s “Fourth Transformation” — an ambitious project of political, social, and ecological reform that aims “to purify public life.”
At the inauguration of this transformational project, a record number of women entered into political office, indigenous rites were incorporated into presidential ceremonies for the first time, and AMLO forfeited more than half of his presidential salary — as well as selling off his presidential plane. “We’re going to lower the salaries of those on the top because this way we can save in order to attend to the demands of justice,” he said.
But if millions of Mexicans were filled with hope for the AMLO presidency, international commentators were filled mostly with despair. They depict a “throwback to an age of caudillos, or populist strongmen that the region had seemingly left behind.” They claim AMLO is “indifferent to – if not contemptuous of – democratic process.” They warn that he is already “spooking foreign investors.”
Indeed, the hope of the Mexican people appears directly proportional to the dread of this commentariat. Rather than celebrate AMLO’s democratic mandate — as evidence of the people’s shared vision of change, as the basis for a legitimate transition out of violence and corruption and toward a brighter future — they fear it. “AMLO will be the most powerful Mexican president in decades,” the Economist warns. “López Obrador is bigger threat to liberal democracy than Bolsonaro,” the Financial Times concludes.
But these reports reveal far more about their authors — and the attitude of the international commentariat toward democracy in the global south, more broadly — than they do about the Mexican situation.
Let’s begin with the basic argument that AMLO is a danger to Mexican democracy. “Can [Mexico’s] young democratic institutions withstand an executive who aspires to centralize power in the same way the legendary Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) did in the 20th century?” asks the Wall Street Journal.
This portrait of Mexican politics — an authoritarian AMLO banging down the doors of Mexico’s democratic institutions — is odd for one simple reason: Mexico doesn’t have democratic institutions.
The Mexican experiment in democratization has been an unmitigated disaster: local governments have been captured by cartels, police forces have been weaponized against the people they were designed to protect, and political candidates are regularly slaughtered by their opposition in the run-up to elections. Were it located elsewhere in the world, we might be tempted to call Mexico a failed state. The country reported more than 30,000 homicides last year — the highest number in its history, and nowhere near the total number, given Mexico’s severe problem of underreported crime.
So when the Wall Street Journal warns us to brace for a “significant strain on the rule of law,” we must honestly ask: Have they ever been to Mexico?
In the context of this crisis, then, a tepid approach to reform would be woefully insufficient. Anything short of a full-scale “transformation” will enable the country to slide further into the abyss, with unimaginable casualties along the way.
The severity of the Mexican crisis has created what I call “AMLO’s double bind”:
If he succeeds in his effort to reconstruct the Mexican state and introduce wide-ranging reforms, he will be slandered as authoritarian, centralizing power to realize his platform — a Mexican Chavez. If he fails to follow through on his ambitious platform, however, he will be slandered as a false prophet.
The Economist’s post-election portrait of AMLO sets out this dilemma perfectly. On the one hand, they lambast AMLO’s transformational ambitions: “What looks like extra accountability is, in fact, a way of amassing power,” they say of his political reforms. On the other, they demand that AMLO follow through on this ambitious program, or lose all legitimacy: “AMLO will have no excuses for failure,” they write. In other words, they set the bar impossibly high for the new Mexican administration — and then protest its efforts to clear it.
But this commentary points to something more profound than mere anti-AMLO sentiment. It reveals a much deeper disregard for the democratic will in countries of the developing world.
Time and again, politicians who introduce unpopular free-market reforms are celebrated as courageous and tough, doing the dirty work of economic modernization, even if it comes at the sacrifice of their public image. When thousands of people demonstrated in the streets against the inauguration of President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2012, for example, the Economist waved them away, claiming that his election “was always likely to attract protest,” while dismissing the protestors as “masked youths [smashing] the windows of banks and hotels.”
In contrast, when AMLO and his Morena party swept into power — ousting corrupt administrations up and down the country — they wrung their hands. “Critics have gone quiet,” they complained (perhaps one of the strangest formulations of “people are generally excited” that one could imagine). This is where the “populist” tag finds its true purpose: a clever way to dismiss AMLO’s popularity as the manipulation of voter discontent.
Many commentators will claim the AMLO earns his title as a populist because he makes promises he cannot keep. But this is another double standard. Back in 2014, the Economist lauded Peña Nieto’s wide-ranging intention to “shake up the economy.” “Few governments can truly claim to be radical. The administration of Enrique Peña Nieto is on its way to joining this rare breed.” Four years later, they excoriate AMLO for his own ambitions. “Andrés Manuel López Obrador has retreated from pragmatism,” they wrote. “The markets are worried.”
Here, the commentariat shows its cards. Their key concern is not the will of the people, but the will of the markets. When the Wall Street Journal warned of a “strain on the rule of law,” they were not referring to slaughtered students, disappeared women, or rampant corruption at all levels of Mexican government. They were worried primarily about property rights.
Hence the ubiquitous concern — in all the coverage of AMLO’s inauguration — about the Mexico City airport, a $13 billion project that AMLO has sought to halt on the basis of widespread local opposition and concern for its harsh ecological impact. “If this were only about a bad airport decision, Mexicans might relax,” wrote the WSJ. “But a president who believes he can tear up contracts and rule by decree won’t stop at cancelling new runways.”
AMLO’s democratic mandate terrifies these commentators because it removes the possibility of market discipline. When a president is clinging to power, the markets can bully him around: poor growth prospects fuel opposition, so he must appeal time and again for the approval of international investors. Strong support among voters, by contrast, frees an administration to pursue their policy goals and — hopefully — to challenge international investors’ claim to Mexico’s land and resources.
The new administration is far from perfect. The Mexico City airport affair was, by all accounts, poorly managed. And Morena still revolves too closely around the personality of AMLO himself.
But the dominant narrative around AMLO’s administration has been written backwards. By focusing so narrowly on issues like the Mexico City airport, it portrays property rights as the foundation of Mexican democracy. But in reality, existing property rights are the primary barriers to Mexican democracy, protecting an indefensibly unequal and disastrously unsustainable status quo. When international outlets depict investor confidence as the canary in the coalmine for AMLO’s authoritarian ambitions, they reveal their allegiance to markets over the needs — and democratically mandated desires — of Mexicans themselves.
We should be watchful that AMLO’s popularity does not slide into cheap populism. But given the strength of his double bind, let us judge this administration on the merits of its policy agenda, the satisfaction of the people — and never the approval of the Wall Street Journal.