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Mexico's AMLO: Adored but dangerous?

Sandra Weiss
March 10, 2019

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's first 100 days in office have showcased one thing above all: a new political style. The people love him for it, but experts are alarmed.

Mexiko - Hilfe für Ölkonzern PEMEX - Präsident Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador
Image: Reuters/H. Romero

Mexico adores its new president. Mitofsky, a polling institution, claims that after 100 days in office, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) and his left-wing nationalist "Fourth Transformation" project enjoy a 67 percent approval rating among Mexican voters. True, leaders generally enjoy favorable ratings during the grace period of their first three months in office. AMLO's predecessors, however, actually laid down clear policy indicators during that time.

Filipe Calderon, a conservative, began his war on drugs, and Enrique Pena Nieto of the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) found compromise with political opponents, enabling changes to the constitution — and thus, among other things, opening up the oil sector, as well as reforming the education system.

Journalist Ivonne Melgar tells Deutsche Welle that the one thing Lopez Obrador has excelled at so far has been talking: "He is a powerful speaker and has a potent propaganda apparatus that works well on social media. Lopez Obrador has trashed everything that has happened in Mexico over the last 30 years, and his black-and-white world view plays well with his base."

Each day's agenda is announced at AMLO's morning press conference. By the time citizens open the newspaper to read an analysis the next day, Lopez Obrador has already moved on to something new. One topic pushes the next aside: The caravan of migrants on the Yucatan Peninsula gives way to a debate on women's shelters, which in turn fades when it comes to new supreme court appointments.

No deep dives here; everything remains shallow. The only thing the people remember are the symbolic gestures: Retirement for former presidents is cut, or new welfare programs are created — stipends for apprentices, social security for domestic workers, or a universal minimum retirement wage of about €60 ($67) a month for those over 68 are all programs designed to keep the base happy.

Read more: US-Mexico relations: Will AMLO bring a new era?

Line of cars waiting at gas station in Zapopan, Mexico
Closing the pipelines led to long queues at gas stationsImage: Getty Images/AFP/U. Ruiz

Serving the greater good or buying a political base?

Many observers have been impressed by Lopez Obrador's tough approach to the gasoline cartel, leading to the first threats on his life. Until recently, the cartel controlled roughly one-third of production at Mexico's state-owned oil company Pemex. Lopez Obrador fired corrupt officials at the company and moved the military in to guard its facilities. He claims the actions will save the company as much as $2.5 billion €2.2 billion).

The public barely registers the fact that transporting oil via tanker truck rather than pipeline could lead to shortages – as it did early in the year — or that lucrative deals are being awarded in no-bid contracts.

And that is what most worries experts. The NGO Mexico Evalua, for instance, claims that 31 social welfare programs for vulnerable communities have been cut from this year's budget, only to be replaced by 20 new programs directly controlled by the president. Of those 20, it says, 19 have no clear guidelines and operate on the basis of direct aid.

"Is that something that serves the public good, or will it simply create a new political clientele?" asked the NGO's director, Edna Jaime, while speaking with the daily newspaper El Financiero. The Mexican Center for Environmental Law (CEMDA) also laments the fact that the Ministry of Environment's budget was slashed by 32 percent.

No progress in the war on drugs

Murder and violence are still an everyday occurrence in the ongoing fight against Mexico's drug cartels, and five journalists have been killed since Lopez Obrador took office. Catalina Perez Correa of the think tank CIDE decries the lack of progress when it comes to security improvements promised by the new leader.

Speaking with DW, Perez Correa said that although the new national guard was not directly subordinate to the military as was originally planned, "[l]eadership is still in the hands of the military. They can now monitor communications and investigate crimes. That is a blank check for an army that has not been held to account for all the civilians it has killed over the past five years."

She also sees regression when it comes to the rule of law: "Neither the candidates for supreme court nor attorney general's office appointments are independent, but rather, have close ties to Lopez Obrador." With that, the battle for more transparency and judicial independence that has been being waged by civil society for years has been lost. She also notes that Lopez Obrador has openly declared war on that civil society.

Journalist Ivonne Melgar sees political calculus behind winning control of the judicial system: "In a system as corrupt as Mexico's, everyone can be blackmailed. The prospect of having impunity will make politicians and business leaders bend to the president's will."

People holding posters of missing students
Lopez Obrador has done nothing to prevent murders and violence continuingImage: picture-alliance/Zumapress/A. Nava

Hoping for economic growth

Polls suggest that Mexicans are more confident in the country's economic prospects than they have been in a very long time, but businesses and ratings agencies are that much more skeptical. Lopez Obrador has promised 4 percent GDP growth, whereas banks say the more realistic number lies somewhere under 2 percent.

"Above all, I see uncertainty and nervousness," says Gabriela Siller, chief economist at Banco BASE financial consultants. She says that has to do with a lack of clarity regarding protectionism and Mexico's most important trading partner, the USA, but also with Lopez Obrador himself: "He wants to build oil refineries. But that is much less lucrative than production and exploration, where profit margins are much larger. It is unclear what his economic model is at this point, and that is why investors are holding back," says Siller.

Economist Luis Rubio attributes the divergence of expert and public opinion to psychology: "Voters have an almost religious relationship to the president, whereas experts attempt to interpret the irrational with rational means."

Writing in the newspaper Reforma, Rubio says societal expectations can be manipulated for a while – for instance by inventing scapegoats: "But in the end, the only thing that matters is whether the standard of living improves. Subsidies […] can gloss over shortcomings for a while, but they aren't a long-term solution because there simply isn't enough money for that."     

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