In Mexico, MORENA Is on a Path to Win a Second Term

Andrés Manuel López Obrador has led MORENA through the first half of its six-year term. The party is on track to win six more years in office, but to secure victory AMLO must deliver on the energy and electoral reforms he has promised.

Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) gestures during his morning press conference on December 16, 2021. (Hector Vivas / Getty Images)

The new year is looking bright for Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his party, MORENA. Despite a two-year pandemic that has taken its toll on other world leaders, his popularity rating remains high. After months of scuffles with the opposition, the recall election he promised to hold at the halfway point of his presidency is finally set for April 10; save some form of epic, unforeseen calamity, he will win in a rout. The year began with significant increases to the universal senior pension and the minimum wage. And as for MORENA, it is poised to win as many as five of the six governorships up for grabs in 2022.

Meanwhile, the opposition continues to flounder, with the Va por México electoral coalition fracturing in a number of states and little sign of a viable presidential candidate on the horizon. And all of this is before several of the president’s signal infrastructure projects are unveiled this year, beginning in March with the Felipe Ángeles Airport in Mexico City. In July, ribbons will be cut at the Dos Bocas refinery in Tabasco, which, together with the recently purchased Deer Park refinery in Texas, will bring Mexico two steps closer to energy independence. Pending the results of a February referendum, the Lake Texcoco area will be declared a natural protected area in advance of its transformation into an ecological park. And then there are the projects AMLO inherited from previous administrations that he is bringing to a close, such as the interurban Mexico City–Toluca train and the decades-delayed Barranca Larga-Ventanilla highway to the coast at Puerto Escondido.

But, however favorable the panorama at the moment, the dangers of a second-half slump are not to be underestimated. Fatigue sets in, ambitions become blunted, and the accumulation of errors and attacks weighs ever further on the scale. This is all the more true in Mexico, where the heavy weight of presidentialism is combined, awkwardly, with the president’s inability to run for reelection. Add in the recurring economic crises that have often accompanied the transition from one administration to the next and you have all the ingredients for a slippery slide into an early-onset lame duck period.

MORENA’s “Fourth Transformation” cannot afford to let anything like this happen. In order to avoid it, president, party, and movement are going to have to navigate a series of rapids that, even now, are looming downstream. Here are some of the most important of them.

The Three Reforms

In order to keep the momentum going, AMLO has flagged three constitutional reforms he hopes to pass in the second half of his term. The first and most imperative is his energy reform, which would strengthen the role of the public energy sector while nationalizing all minerals deemed vital for the nation’s energy transition — most notably its lithium stores, among the largest in the world.

Although the reform would still leave up to 46 percent of energy production in private hands, it remains a necessary step toward regaining sovereignty in a strategic area that has seen Mexico bled dry by foreign multinationals and the rapacious interests of domestic energy importers. Framing the reform as a historic sequel to the expropriations of the past, combined with a sprinkling of patronage, AMLO appears likely to overcome the ongoing threats of US senators and Biden administration officials and see it passed in the next couple of months.

Second, and hardly less pressing, is a root and branch electoral reform to fundamentally clean out an electoral system that, both in form and function, is a holdover from the old days of excess, partiality, and fraud. Entitled, reactive, and prone to spectacular overspending on frivolous luxuries, the leaders of the National Electoral Institute continued to show their colors in last year’s midterm elections by doing everything possible to stack the deck against the MORENA coalition. In recent months, they’ve been at it again, attempting to block the upcoming recall election to such an extent that the Supreme Court had to step in and tell them to do their job.

Important as this is, it must not be paired with a rollback of democratic gains in other areas. Another plank in the proposed reform would reduce or altogether eliminate proportional representation seats in Congress, which amount to 200 of 500 in the lower house and 32 of 128 in the Senate. While there is no doubt that the list system has been used to provide some disreputable figures with safe seats and keep some of the most disreputable parties — like the so-called “Green” Party, a franchise wholly owned by the family of Jorge González Torres — alive past their expiration date, it remains the case that proportional representation was one of the most significant progressive gains of the previous generation, the first crack in the hegemonic monolith.

Returning to a purely first-past-the-post system would give MORENA, which owes its meteoric rise both to public financing and proportional representation, the right to close the same door through which it got in, providing it with a near monopoly on one half of the political spectrum while conveniently blocking any future challengers from the left, should it stray too far to the center.

Energy and electoral reform: so far, so good. The third reform, however, is much more problematic, as it would bring the National Guard — the militarized police force established in 2019 as part of AMLO’s attempt to pacify a nation scourged by a scorched-earth “drug war” — under the direct control of the Defense Department (SEDENA). While the president justifies the move as being necessary to prevent the corps from becoming infiltrated and compromised (as happened with the Federal Police established by Felipe Calderón), it runs the risk of baking in what was supposed to be a temporary expedient.

Although the 2019 reform took pains to stipulate that the use of the armed forces in policing would be “special, regulated, overseen, subordinate, and complementary,” while setting a sunset period of five years, this new proposal raises serious questions about whether such a strategy is now to be made permanent — or, if not, what the role of the guard as a branch of the Defense Department would be as of 2024. In light of ongoing violence and the continued assassinations of journalists, now would be an opportune time to review whether AMLO’s pacification strategy, which perpetuates and gives added legal weight to the de facto blurring of police and military functions that existed before him, is not in need of a halftime rethink.

Succession Blues

With AMLO unable to run again, the battle for the 2024 nomination is already heating up in ways that threaten to upend a young party that, until now, has been held together by the cohesive force of AMLO.

While the race to succeed him has until recently appeared to be a more or less straight-up fight between the two leading contenders — Claudia Sheinbaum, the mayor of Mexico City, and Marcelo Ebrard, the foreign minister — things took a bizarre turn in December when a high-ranking civil servant in the Senate, José Manuel del Río Virgen, was arrested for allegedly masterminding the assassination of a mayoral candidate in Veracruz in last year’s midterm elections. While Del Río is a member of the opposition Movimiento Ciudadano party, he is a close ally of Senate majority leader Ricardo Monreal, who is also seeking the presidential nomination for MORENA. Monreal leapt to Del Río’s defense, rushing to the prison where he was being held and accusing the MORENA governor of the state, Cuitláhuac García, of engaging in “political persecution.” Marcelo Ebrard then proceeded to back up Monreal on Twitter, lauding his “human quality and integrity” in not abandoning his friend at Christmastime. The clumsy misstep by the foreign minister, which produced a backlash of indignation, did at least have the advantage of flushing out into the open the tacit Ebrard-Monreal alliance that has been brewing for months.

This is hardly the first such incident for the majority leader, who has been accused on multiple occasions of putting his personal ambitions ahead of the party. The president, for his part, has provided his unequivocal support for Governor García, distancing himself in the process from the Ebrard-Monreal tandem.

While AMLO’s preference for Mayor Sheinbaum has long been something of an open secret, the president, of late, has quietly been promoting a stalking horse in the person of governance secretary Adán Augusto. A fellow Tabascan, the no-nonsense Augusto has proven adept in his five months in the cabinet both in standing in for the president at his morning press conferences and in negotiating with the opposition and within MORENA itself. The move is an astute one: in promoting Augusto, AMLO has provided the party with an insurance policy in case the war between the top contenders overheats, while at the same time prodding those same contenders to up their game.

Rounding out the list of potential candidates is Congressman Gerardo Fernández Noroña. The brash, compulsively eloquent legislator from the Workers’ Party has become a hero to many on the Left for his electrifying eviscerations of the opposition and for headline-grabbing moments such as his trip to Trump Tower to announce that Mexico would indeed pay for the border wall, but on its 1830 borders. But while his in-your-face style has served him well in protests and at the podium — most notably in his courageous denunciation of the crimes of Felipe Calderón’s security minister, Genaro García Luna, long before his arrest in the United States for complicity with the Sinaloa Cartel — it has also embroiled him in unnecessary confrontations and verbal spats that have diminished his chances of breaking through to the top tier of contenders.

Missed Opportunities

Keenly aware of the broken promises and abandoned plans of previous administrations — such as Felipe Calderón’s legendary oil refinery, of which only a $620 million perimeter wall was ever built — AMLO has made it clear that, come hell or high water, he intends to get his own projects over the finish line. In the face of an unrelenting campaign of lawfare by his opponents against practically every piece of his major legislation, this has at times meant playing hardball. Thus his executive order to classify his major infrastructure projects as matters of national security; thus the administration’s expropriation of a series of lots along the line of the Maya Train in the Yucatán in order to avoid property speculation by large hotel chains.

At other times, however, the administration’s laser focus on its pet priorities has meant missing out on other openings. When Telmex’s operating license expired last year, the telephone company whose privatization has made its owner, Carlos Slim, one of the richest men in the world, the government went ahead and renewed it without a hitch. At his morning press conference, AMLO allowed that, if the decision had come earlier in his administration, he might have proceeded to nationalize it.

Similarly, when, in early January, Citigroup announced that it would be selling Banamex as part of a worldwide retreat from consumer banking, the administration had a golden opportunity to return the bank to what it was from 1884 until its privatization a little over a century later: the National Bank of Mexico. Again it declined. Although picking one’s battles has its logic, the practical effects of these decisions will mean that two key once-public companies, which have made their owners fantastically wealthy at the expense of the consumer, will remain in the hands of the same “mafia of power” the president spent decades railing about.

When AMLO took office in 2018, domestic opponents and international commentators were licking their lips, predicting that, by now, his government would be in free fall. And at every turn since, from the tariff standoff of 2019 to the COVID crisis to the recent spike in inflation, they have dutifully repeated the same doomsday predictions.

And just as consistently, those predictions have fallen wide of the mark. The Fourth Transformation is popular, it has wind in its sails, and, in a delightful irony, it is the Right that is fractured and squabbling among itself. But maintaining momentum in the second half will be even tougher than the first. As AMLO has repeatedly stated, this movement has no right to fail. All the more reason, then, to attend to the rapids ahead.