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 Critics say such policies reflect an outdated vision of national sovereignty closely tied to oil, and that they would directly diminish Mexico’s creditworthiness, endanger the finances of state-owned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.

Mexico: Is Centralization the Way to Battle Corruption?

By Daniela Stevens*

A large group of people stand on a stage.

Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador (center left) meets with current President Enrique Peña Nieto and members of his cabinet during the transitional government period. / Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Half way through Mexico’s five-month transition period, an effort by President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) to increase central government oversight over states’ affairs suggests an agenda that may go beyond the “republican austerity” he frequently calls for.  His plans to lower the numbers and salaries of high-ranking bureaucrats have been well received, but he raised hackles when he announced plans to appoint a single federal representative – a delegado – to liaise with each of the 32 states, eliminating the 20 to 30 central government representatives that until now have been dispersed throughout each jurisdiction.  He claims the measure is to save on the bureaucracy payroll, but many observers are concerned it will concentrate more power in his own hands.

  • Criticism has already forced AMLO to repackage his plan somewhat. He uses mixed language to refer to the responsibilities of the delegados.  While he has strongly defended his legal ability to appoint a single delegado, he more recently reassured aggravated governors that his representatives would maintain “institutional relations” and respect local elected officials’ autonomy and authority.  Olga Sánchez Cordero, AMLO’s appointee as Secretary of the Interior, further clarified that the delegates would only be in charge of social development programs, constituting a “layer of proximity to citizens” currently or potentially enrolled in social programs.  Under AMLO’s proposal, delegados would take over all kinds of programs, including youth scholarships, conservation efforts, health care, and social security programs for special populations – a herculean portfolio for a single representative.
  • Critics argue that the appointment of single delegados reporting directly to AMLO will undermine federalism. Electoral and administrative decentralization were integral to Mexico’s long democratization process.  For decades, the president was not only the predominant force over the legislative and judicial powers; he also appointed governors from the hegemonic party to the states.  The delegados would potentially create a power structure that parallels and rivals that of the state governors.  Some governors argue that the constitution does not recognize intermediate authorities, and wonder whether persons with partisan agendas will get too deeply involved in local budgets and policies.  In addition, the position would be coveted for its discretionary power and direct link to the president – giving politicians from AMLO’s party, Morena, a leg up as potential candidates for governor.

If done right, however, the measure could alleviate the plague of corruption that permeates the states, and the governorships in particular, and which AMLO has repeatedly condemned.  Governors routinely abuse their powers and engage in serious acts of corruption and financial crime.  As Agustina Giraudy has documented, undemocratic governors have used their offices to perpetuate “subnational undemocratic regimes” in the wake of Mexico’s 2000 transition to electoral democracy at the national level.  Former Governor Javier Duarte, of Veracruz, stole hundreds of millions of dollars from the public budget, and others, like Humberto Moreira in Coahuila, left their state with large debts.  Oversight from an anti-corruption executive in Mexico City might not necessarily be a bad thing.

Ideally, state legislatures – rather than the president or his delegado – would constitute the brake on governors’ decisions, providing a real counterweight anchored in local political dynamics.  AMLO’s efforts to turn Mexico into an “authentic democracy” will miss the mark – and amount to a crass political move – if the transformation does not include an institutionalization of leadership.  His party, Morena, is extraordinarily dependent on his personal leadership; it is an amalgam of politicians who abandoned other parties or joined it because of personal ties to him.  AMLO, who plans to preach integrity by example, cannot alone be the foundation of the “fourth transformation” he purports to lead (the first being independence, the second the “Reforma,” wars, and the third the 1910 Revolution).  With institutionalization, AMLO and Morena could put appointees and delegados through a transparent, legal vetting process – based on merit – and give them clear, legal operational responsibilities.  Failing that, their reforms may prove to be a primarily partisan project.

September 14, 2018

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

Mexico: Tough Congressional-Executive Relations Ahead

By Daniela Stevens*

Piñata with the Mexican flag in the background

Bandera mexicana en el Zócalo de la Ciudad de México / Wikimedia/ Creative Commons

Whoever wins Mexico’s presidential election on July 1 probably will face a divided and cantankerous Congress – especially if, as appears likely, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Morena Party is the victor.  López Obrador has been ridiculed by the Mexican political class, some of whose leaders have called him the next Hugo Chávez, but most polls give the polemical candidate at least a 10-point lead over Ricardo Anaya of the coalition Por México al Frente.  In Congressional races, polls also give the advantage to López Obrador’s party and its coalition partners, including Partido del Trabajo (PT) and Partido Encuentro Social (PES), under the joint banner of Juntos Haremos Historia.  According to the Parametría poll, 32 percent of respondents intend to vote for Morena, five percent for PT, and two percent for PES.  Other polls give them higher numbers.

  • The formerly hegemonic Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) appears likely to fall to third place due to President Peña Nieto’s poor performance and the party’s association with corruption, while the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD), traditionally the largest leftist party, would be the fourth.
  • Under the most likely post-election scenarios, López Obrador’s coalition would constitute the largest minority in the Chamber but still fall short of the 51 percent absolute majority, except perhaps by the thinnest of margins. Under Mexico’s mixed electoral system – with both majority and “proportional representation” determining the allocation of Congressional seats – the larger parties lure the smaller ones into coalitions, but unity is often seriously challenged during legislative and other battles.

The traditional categories of left and right are growing obsolete in Mexico, as parties and candidates increasingly resort to opportunism rather than act based on loyalty to any particular ideology or party.  Personal and political grudges also often trump political agendas.

  • As a result, an alternative scenario may emerge in which alliances shift after election day in a way that enhances López Obrador’s power. Tensions between the left-leaning PRD and López Obrador, who was its leader for many years, were so deep that the candidate split with it and created Morena as a party in 2014, but opportunists in the party could well jump ship and join him if he wins by a comfortable margin.  In the PRI also, frustration with party leadership could also prompt defections, and López Obrador – a prominent Priista in the 1970s and 1980s – could also harness their backing.
  • Party switching from one election to another has long been a common practice of politicians in Mexico, but only recently have representatives switched parties in the midst of legislative periods. In particular the PRD’s ranks significantly dwindled as legislators elected under its rubric defected to join Morena. Were this to be replicated later this year or next, López Obrador’s congressional majority could be larger than polls suggest.
  • Party discipline in Mexico has been comparatively higher than in other multi-partisan presidential systems such as Brazil, because of the constitutional prohibition of consecutive reelection. In the past, incumbents did not have incentives to serve their constituencies because their careers depended strictly on party leaders, who centralized nominations to elective positions.  From 2018 on, representatives in both Chambers may run for reelection.  The promise of a Morena candidacy can fuel even more defections into its ranks if the party keeps growing its electoral base.
  • If Morena achieves such dominance, the Congress’s commissions, the equivalent of U.S. Congressional committees, could be important partners of López Obrador because the executive delivers proposals directly to them, and they, in turn, issue the final dictamen that the plenary votes on. Juntos’ influence in the commissions would translate into a fairly unexamined prioritization of the presidential agenda.

Even a comfortable victory on July 1 will not assure López Obrador a readily compliant Congress.  Most legislators in the Por México al Frente coalition, which includes PAN, PRD, and Movimiento Ciudadano stalwarts, will certainly constitute an obstructionist opposition.  How successfully they can sabotage the president’s agenda will obviously depend on their numbers, but unity in opposition to Constitutional amendments required by some of his campaign promises appears certain.  Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority in both chambers of Congress and in a majority of state legislatures – unachievable in any likely political configuration during a López Obrador administration.  His proposals for revocation of presidential tenure, lowering high-ranking officials’ salaries, and reversing education reforms– which would require Constitutional amendments – thus appear dead on arrival.  Absent reliable Congressional support, López Obrador would also have difficulty passing essential budget and revenue bills and gaining confirmation of important appointees such as the attorney general and key prosecutors.  No candidate would have an easy Congress, but the Mexican parties’ willingness to set aside petty divisions and coalesce behind pressing issues, at least early in the presidential term, appears lower than ever before.  Thus, López Obrador would have a lot riding on the willingness of some sectors of the opposition to defect.

May 24, 2018

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