Mexico: Will AMLO Bring a “Fourth Transformation” or Return to Authoritarian Past?

By Daniela Stevens*

President-Elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador / Eneas / 500px / Creative Commons

A week before his inauguration, Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) continues to stress his commitment to be a “good president” and leader of the country’s “Fourth Transformation,” but some of his early actions suggest that he will challenge political pluralism and destabilize the investment environment.  His sexenio could have a rocky start both politically and economically.

  • AMLO’s handling of a “national consultation” over the ongoing construction of Mexico City’s new international airport – a project that he criticized as corruption-laden – raised red flags about his intended governing style. Most observers say the consultation was unconstitutional and, with only one percent of registered voters participating, inconsistent with the President-elect’s pledge to respect the “people’s will.”  AMLO’s reaction to the criticism – asking “¿quién manda?” (who governs?) – was widely interpreted as a sign that the airport maneuver was not about careful financial planning but rather political power.  He held another referendum last weekend, a “consultation” with citizens on 10 projects on which he seemed to have made up his mind beforehand.  These referendums seem intended to legitimize his intentions and enhance his power.
  • He and his party, Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional (Morena), appear to be moving ahead with plans to increase control over public spending, eroding institutional checks on presidential power. The Morena majority in the Tabasco state congress, for example, last month approved a provision empowering the next governor, also from Morena, to assign public works and acquisitions directly, without public bidding.  If the Supreme Court does not deem the reform unconstitutional, the administration will build a refinery in Tabasco without any review of the integrity of the process.
  • To reduce imports of gasoline and natural gas, AMLO plans to halt oil exports and reserve production for national consumption only, as well as to build a new refinery and modernize six existing ones. Critics say such policies reflect an outdated vision of national sovereignty closely tied to oil, and that they would directly diminish Mexico’s creditworthiness, endanger the finances of state-owned Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), and, according to Moody’s, result in a two percent decrease in GDP.  Additionally, oil experts say, the emphasis on refining would detract from important efforts to expand exploration and production.  The country cannot immediately meet domestic demand for crude.  Similarly, the transition team seems to disregard the potential of renewable energies and the need to electrify transportation.

Morena proposals to reduce the autonomy of regulatory agencies are scaring investors as well.  A Morena Congressman, for example, is pushing to incorporate the energy sector’s regulatory agencies into the Secretariat of Energy, subordinating them to greater political control.  Although AMLO did not publicly support the initiative, his appointee as Secretary of Energy, Rocío Nahle, has already asked the director of the National Commission of Hydrocarbons, one of the regulatory agencies, to step down three years ahead of schedule.  Given its debt and deficits, Pemex can ill afford to strain its partnerships with private capital.

It’s too early to assess how many of these actions reflect AMLO’s and Morena’s inexperience or a considered approach to governing, but the incoming leadership so far seems unaware or unconcerned that such measures undercut their stated vision of ushering in a “Fourth Transformation” on a par with the country’s three previous ones – independence (1810–1821), the Reforma wars (1857–1861), and revolution (1910).  The hints of authoritarianism, alongside decisions to appoint single-representatives in the states and to maintain a pervasive military presence in the streets, suggest AMLO’s tenure may indeed transcend history – as a government not different from the priista centralized governments of the 20th century, and the militarized calderonista administration (2006 2012) he vehemently criticizes.  After 1997, when the hegemonic Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) – from which AMLO had already defected to lead the leftwing Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) – lost the majority of the Chamber of Deputies for the first time, political analysts and academics pointed out the disadvantages of divided governments in presidential systems, such as political gridlock.  A unified government under AMLO, however, may not be the answer for Mexico either, unless progressives in Morena committed to democracy and its institutions find a way to restrain his impulses and keep his government on a democratic path. 

November 27, 2018

* Daniela Stevens is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science in the School of Public Affairs at American University.