Not Chávez. Not Lula. AMLO Can Win, But He’s Hot Air

It is election year in Mexico, and with presidential terms limited to one per candidate, one thing is clear: Enrique Peña Nieto is out. With the experience from the past elections in the global north – and beyond – economists are concerned about a variety of populist forces taking power.

US President Trump is probably the most visible representative of this new current, but with UKIP in Great Britain, the FPÖ in Austria, and the AfD in Germany, a new brand of right-wing protectionist nationalism is clearly discernible.

And when it comes to the left, Left populist movements such as Syriza in Greece, the Momentum wing under Corbyn’s British Labor Party, and the mobilization around Bernie Sanders all point to the growth of a left-wing flank against the logic of globalization.

The global market – carefully put together, bit by bit, piece by piece since the 1980s appears to be falling out of favor internationally. What was once confined to renegade movements in the global south, has made its way northwards, finding comfortable homes at the core of the world market.

Of course, what these new political movements can do once they’re in office is an entirely different story. Depending on the governmental systems, these forces have very different possibilities of implementing their political agenda. Even where they hold a strong position (such as the executive office of the American government), state structures are set up to keep the power of individual people and parties in check.

So, with Mexico’s election around the corner, the big question is, will Mexico’s executive office become the next seat taken as part of this new wave of anti-globalization? It seems it’s ripe to be.

Since the beginning of the year, polls see the left populist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO, as he is universally referred to) in the lead – although a large amount of voters usually claims to be undecided. After twelve years between the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the National Action Party (PAN), it appears both have lost legitimacy especially around the problem of an unending war on cartels.

While AMLO is certainly not a new face in Mexican politics (this will be his third time up to bat for the presidency), at least he carries none of the baggage of either the PRI or the PAN.

For this reason, markets are reacting with alarm that AMLO might come in as the next rabble-rouser ready to throw stones at the global economy. And the markets have already reacted to his possible election. In fact, the Mexican peso is losing the gains it made after Trump’s election. There’s clear insecurity over Mexico’s economic and political future if AMLO will actually be elected to become the next president.

But are these fears actually justified? No doubt, the question of economic continuity and volatility should be everyone’s concern, and if AMLO is going to shake the cage, so to speak, people should be prepared. The question is, will he?

From Nicolás Maduro, to Hugo Chávez, to Luís Ignácio Lula da Silva – comparisons of AMLO to other Latin American threats to the economic order are in no short supply. Luckily, unlike many of his counterparts in the rising anti-globalization current in Europe and the Americas, AMLO has a long track record in the halls of government. And when we take this into account, and analyze his network of forces, we will see that these comparisons, their intellectual weight, are wanting, if not altogether contrived.

Certainly Not Chávez, Definitely Not Lula

Dispelling the AMLO-Chávez comparison is easy: it doesn’t stand because México isn’t in the middle of an economic crisis that is bringing in skepticism around a global market and AMLO has no base whatsoever within the military. Of course he isn’t Maduro either, who was a bus driver before being taken under the wing of Chávez. AMLO is a seasoned politician.

The closest comparison we can conjure is certainly that of Lula. And when Lula came to power, there was definitely a lot of panic around what the former steelworker unionist had up his sleeve, but Lula and the Workers’ Party had deeply trenched networks of grassroots support.

That support was the product of a long history of engagement in Brazil’s labour struggles. Born in 1952 (just one year before AMLO), the future president of Brazil grew up selling peanuts and tapioca pastries on street corners and began working a wage at a local factory by his eighth birthday. Lula grew up apolitical and uneducated (having only graduated from primary school as a child), but was a tactician through and through. When he was first promoted to a union post in 1968, he was given the position under the idea that he would be easily manageable. But by 1976, he had climbed the union ladder and found himself sitting at the president’s seat of the Metalworkers’ Union and, by the following year, embarked on a “wage recovery campaign” that transformed him into a leader of the working-class.

It was this campaign that would function as a social catalyst and helped set the foundation for the establishment of the PT by 1980. The end of the 1970s in Brazil was marked by complete political ossification within the governmental apparatus of the military-ruled state on the one hand, and increased movement of the people on the other. Strike waves defined these years as they spread from state to state, city to city, sector to sector – resulting in new wage and labour laws.

Alfredo Saad-Filho and Lecio Morais observed that this strike movement “signalled to the country that resistance was both possible and potentially rewarding, and that the regime was vulnerable to mass action.” This revolt against the military dictatorship lead to the establishment of a political network – with the newly forming PT at the core – that brought together a wide array of political actors.This network that represented a substantial portion of Brazilian society – such as unions, dissident wings of the Catholic Church, student and women’s’ organizations, NGOs, etc. It was the organizational existence of mass organs that mediated social life that made this network possible. These organs brought large portions of society together into a common vehicle (the PT).

While Lula was certainly not the only hero of this period, he quickly became the uncontested driver of this new vehicle that these actors were building. From the 1980s through the 1990s, the PT spread its network across Brazil and landed a number of positions in government – while consistently losing at the presidential ballot in 1989, 1994, and 1998 with Lula at the helm. A dynamic that bears certain resemblances with AMLO and his Morena.

It wasn’t until 2002 that Lula finally won. So what changed? Brazil’s slow integration into the global market created not only winners and Lula sought to bring these “losers” of the reforms into a common tactical coalition. This meant bringing together the traditional workforce, the informal workforce, business sector’s that held onto the promise of welfare policies and government regulation, and a cut of regional oligarchs that had become outmoded by new elitely-trained technocrats.

This opportunist coalition shared little in terms of interests and even less in terms of political ideology – but it was enough to win. In 2003, Lula won. But the storm that the media had been predicting for years on the contingency that Lula won never materialized.

Instead, Lula presided over an economic boom that was marked by pocketed progressive social measures, but nothing that ever really challenged or threatened Brazil’s place in the global economy. Leading up to his election, Lula had even pledged that he would continue with policies that reflected the values of the global market. Hardly the Hugo Chávez some thought he would be.

Over the years of Lula’s tenure in office, he secured a number of progressive policies, including the Bolsa Familia program (a conditional cash transfer program aimed at assisting the poor if certain conditions are met), the Fome Zero program (an initiative geared at ending food scarcity), and the Minha Casa Minha Vida program (a public-private partnership program geared at developing low-income housing). These programs count as his most outstanding initiatives and they hardly cut at the principle of private property or the demands of the market – nothing beyond the pale of FDR or Eisenhower.

Coming into the presidency, Lula had an incredible deal of power. His reputation was forged in the heat of labor struggle and seemed to ooze off in the way he moved and the way he talked. But most importantly, he and the PT had stitched together an incredible blanket of countervailing power – a power that Lula never once called into action. If Lula wanted, he could have called for strikes against the very heart of the laws of the market (like Chávez) and yet, he never did. But still, it was this network of political organs and social infrastructures that could have given him an extra-parliamentary power to do so, if he had pleased, and in this respect, the clamor that defined the fanfare of his presidency was legitimate.

It is this power that is altogether lacking in the capacities Mr. López Obrador.  

MORENA and Its Base

AMLO is a man with a rather colorful political past. Born in Tabasco in 1953, he joined the PRI as a young man where he quickly made a career in the authoritarian state system. From a position of political power he then left the party in 1988, together with the PRI’s left wing, in order to found a new movement which eventually turned into the PRD, the Party for Democratic Revolution. Hardly the independent working-class firebrand that Lula was.

With this PRI spin-off party, AMLO ran for president in both 2006 and 2012, before he withdrew from the party in November of that year, to found (again) a new party – the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA).

The motivation behind this new organization was from the beginning to support AMLO’s presidency. Painted and dressed as if it were a movement, he attempted to institutionalize his supporter base beyond political parties and currents. But to this day, MORENA remains a rather artificial organ that is incapable to mobilize beyond the personality of its leader.

Already, the comparisons with Lula begin to crack before our eyes. Where Lula was a seasoned negotiator that brought forces together, AMLO has a history of driving forces apart.

The absence of a political history allows Lopéz Obrador a high flexibility on his political positions as well as coalition partners on the one hand, but lacks a solid voter base on the other. Currently he seems to use this flexibility by forming a coalition with the Social Encounter Party (PES) – a christian conservative party that is largely regarded as “right-wing”. While this decision might open new voter bases to AMLO’s MORENA, it also runs the risk of weakening his appeal to the left leaning supporters he used to mobilize. Without a doubt, within parliament, the PES is unlikely to support any radical measure, and if he starts bleeding left support, the possibility of flexing that kind of extra-parliamentary, countervailing power that Lula could have relied on and held in his pocket becomes altogether absent in AMLO’s case.

And in a state structure like Mexico’s, he’ll need this kind of extra-parliamentary pressure in order to implement political change. Winning the presidency alone does not bring actual political power: With only a 60 % majority the senate can override the necessity of presidential agreement as well as his veto. And currently there is little hope for López Obrador that the senate is willing to support any radical anti-capitalist – or anti-globalization at that matter – endeavour.

Outside of the parliamentary structures, Mexico historically suffers from a lack of independent civil society organizations. A hallmark of PRI dictatorial heritage, the party constructed is a “state-party,” meaning that historically the PRI was made inseparable from state and civil structures. Hence, the vast majority of organizations – from unions to sport clubs to business associations – became subsumed into the state apparatus and therefore the PRI.

If MORENA is supposed to be the presidential candidate’s answer to this lack of civil society power, he seems to not understand how such a social organ develops. The lack of clear positions as well as the lack of historical social embeddedness will not allow MORENA to become a meaningful beacon to the majority of Mexicans.

Again, unlike Lula, AMLO relies on the spontaneous favor of society. He lacks the kind of network of organs and infrastructures that made Lula and the PT so powerful. Once upon a time, the PT was an umbrella under which a plurality of voices spoke and these voices spoke in favor of Lula. But when Lula took the presidency, the PT wasn’t Lula’s personal vehicle of careerist ambition.

AMLO thus lacks the networked embeddedness and the authenticity that Lula enjoyed.

With such a fragile base, his ability to win the presidency is already in question. His position is further weakened by the reality that he lacks any kind of support within either the legislature or the judiciary – in difference to Lula, he will not have the chance to threaten these branches with an ability to generate popular resistance or pressure.

Where Does This Journey Go? Left Populism in Mexico

So let’s assume AMLO does in fact win the elections. What happens then?

Certainly, there are indicators that put him in the same corner as other anti-free market populists. One example is his position against the privatization of PeMex, Mexico’s oil company. Voices in the industry expressed concerns that he would re-nationalize the country’s resources. And the signals the candidate and his team are sending on the matter are in fact rather concerning for foreign investors. While AMLO’s chief economic advisor told Bloomberg in late February that there will be “no drastic change” in the country’s oil policies, the candidate himself confirmed in mid-March that he will prevent foreign investors from getting a hold of Mexican oil.

Another risk for economic development is the future of NAFTA. The US – once the driving force behind the trade agreement – has changed its position under the Trump administration drastically (a more accurate statement on the matter of NAFTA in the US has proven Trump’s isolation from the rest of the American business community). If Mexico would now begin to equally step back from the agreement, investors in North America could be in serious trouble.

But with the described lack of power, the candidate’s abilities to change the economic order of the whole region should not be overrated. He should instead be understood more as a toothless populist. Aside from these rather loud promises his agenda falls back to the stale proposals that most candidates make: fighting organized crime and standing up against corruption.

One of his strategies against crime is certainly coming from the left: he plans to extensively fund education and youth employment as a deterrent against organized crime. After the military’s and police’s failure at combating organized crime, new approaches are certainly needed. And while there is no reason for very high hopes in these battles against corruption and crime, AMLO’s ideas are certainly not threatening economic stability. Since crime and corruption actually threaten the economic development of the country, the market would most likely reward him if he would seriously be able to fight them successfully,.

Given all of these factors, it becomes obvious that AMLO will hardly the be the next Chávez. He won’t even be Lula. At best, he will be able to develop some soft social initiatives, like Lula, while simultaneously continuing a path of general fiscal austerity. Most likely, AMLO will be a lame duck president that will be easily coerced by the other branches of the government.


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