AMLO, Making Enemies is Part of the Job

Of course, the Mexican president is formally the president of all Mexicans, but similar to the head of state of any other country, a president always represents some groups a bit more than others. This month we are looking at Mexico’s newly elected President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and his party MORENA. We are looking at his political promises, his strategies and his chances to actually implement any of his announced projects, such as his plan to end corruption.

One factor we have hinted to before, but not yet analyzed further, is the question of civil society support. For a president that truly wants to change power configurations within any given state this support is crucial. Based on the lessons one can learn from history, we have to assume that he will only have limited support within the apparatuses of the government. We have seen a similar dynamic, when Trump took office in the US and and many of the state employees slowed down the flow of information or refused to execute new rules.

While politically clearly on very different sides, they’ll like share this problem. Only that the changes AMLO has promised are somewhat more severe. The opposition that Trump faced by his administration was motivated by ethical or moral concerns, by solidarity and probably to some degree by political conviction. What AMLO is aiming for is limiting the power and the actual income of rather powerful people within the broader bureaucracy of the state. He will ask them to give up their power and money for the greater good. Hence, we have to assume that the opposition he will face will be much stronger.

Additionally we have to take in account that the activities he wants to end are already illegal. He cannot just change the rules – let’s say abolish the Environmental Protection Agency – and assume that they will have an effect. Being corrupt means to not care for the existing rules, so why assume that new ones would suddenly be cared for.

With little support from the administration and strong opponents in the form of criminal networks, AMLO will need ‘the streets’ to push for change. He will need masses that express their desire to see the new order that AMLO promises in order to pressure unwilling administrators to follow the rules. He will have to constantly mobilize in order to shift the public reception of what is acceptable and what is not.

Something that President Trump understood quickly – it is no coincidence that we all feel like that the 45th president of the US never left the campaign trail.

AMLO’s Current Base

Throughout his campaign, AMLO was not picky in his search for support. The decision to include the right-wing Christian Social Encounter Party into his coalition is strong proof of that. But, while building a broad front was a good strategy to get into office, it is a less useful one for actually having a lasting impact once power has been seized.

Because even a good populist cannot mobilize around his person alone: he needs to stand for something. With the broad coalition AMLO forged, he now depends on the support of radical Christians in the senate in order to pass legislation. During his campaign this had already effected AMLO’s position on women’s rights – he had simply decided to avoid the question of access to abortion in order to not offend any of his support groups.

Avoidance and the like might have been a strategy for the limited time of the campaign but on the mid- and long-term it cannot hold. At some point he will have to answer the question of abortion, he will have to say who he wants to tax and then actually tax them, he will have to sell Mexico’s oil company or keep it. In short, he will have to pick a clear base and lose others in the process.

The question is, who will it be?

Winning Support in the Near Future

Two actions give us a clue who the groups will be. And both seem to hint to a relatively left orientation, although both can also just be paper tigers. A first step was the announcement in the first week of July to now finally implement the San Andrés Accords. The agreement was developed in 1996 in a lengthy negotiation between the then PRI government and the EZLN, an indigenous guerilla group from Chiapas.  

It was supposed to reorganize the relation between Mexico’s indigenous population the central government, with a focus on respect for diversity and self determination. At the time of the negotiation the government began to increase military presence in Chiapas and never actually engaged in any of the promised projects. The accords have since been proof for the EZLN that negotiations with the central government are impossible.

AMLO’s announcement to now implement the accords can be seen as a) a peace offering to the EZLN and b) a signal to everyone that the new government will stand to its word. But the announcement has already hit a bump in the road: civil rights activist and clergyman Alejandro Solalinde has claimed to have delivered a direct offer to talk with the EZLN on AMLO’s behalf, but the EZLN denied any direct contact. They immediately expressed their doubt regarding the usefulness of any talks with the federal government.

Another project might therefore be a stronger tool for his attempt to solidify his power. Last Sunday, the 22nd of July, the president-elect presented his ideas for a so-called ‘Listening Forums to Trace the Path of the Pacification of the Country and National Reconciliation’ that are to be hold between 7th of August and October in all parts of the country.

These forums are supposed to offer a space for debate and participation for all the different parts of the country’s population in order to collect ideas for reforms and changes and to develop a more solid understanding of the actual problems that face society at its grassroots. Such an inquiry can have a two fold effect: on the one hand, the collected information actually gives a better understanding which problems are particularly pressing or what ways people have already found to circumvent such problems.

On the other hand, they can be very mobilizing. They invite everyday people to think about strategies for a better future, they invite communities to come together and debate politics and they allow for the development of new alliances through these debates. The big risk that comes with them is that it will be nothing more than nice talks (again). During the past decades, the country did not suffer from a lack of ideas but from a total lack of implementation. With countless little debates all over the country, AMLO will necessarily end up ignoring a lot of input. Finding a way to keep the inclusive and trustworthy image alive that brought him the presidency will need some very convincing explanations.

While these approaches send certain signals, what remains to be seen is the first movements of actual practice. In trying to reach out to the indigenous on the one hand and develop mass forums on the other, it is clear thus far that AMLO seems aware of the necessity to develop and organize a mass base. Because as far as we know, his opposition is itself organized and knows exactly where its power lies beyond the ballot. Something that AMLO’s ambiguous base seems itself uncertain of.

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