The Trump Effect: Will Mexico’s Left Populist Leader Prevail in the 2018 Presidential Election?

Morena Rally, 2014

Morena Rally, 2014

     A growing number of U.S. observers are watching the impact of Donald Trump policy pronouncements on Mexican politics with considerable unease. Left populist leader, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador (or AMLO as he is widely known), currently the favoured candidate in the 2018 presidential election, has been variously characterized as a Mexican Donald Trump and as a Mexican Hugo Chavez. In some ways, these characterizations are apt. AMLO is a charismatic leader, who has regularly delivered tirades against free trade (including NAFTA), rigged elections, corruption in high places, and the country’s ruling elite, which he refers to as the “power mafia.” He voices strong opposition to U.S. Imperialism, a position that is proving particularly attractive given President Trump’s support for a wall along the Mexican U.S. border, his threat of a 20 percent tariff on goods coming from Mexico, and his promises to deport Mexicans working in the United States. President Trump’s recently leaked suggestion that the U.S. might send in its military to help the Mexican government round up its “bad hombres” is only the most recent offensive remark contributing to growing Mexican nationalist sentiment. 

AMLO’s Support Base

     However, support for AMLO is more deeply rooted than an emotionally charged nationalist reaction to Trump’s threats. López Obrador is no political neophyte; he has been a fixture in Mexican politics since the 1970s and he has a dedicated core of strong supporters among the lower socioeconomic classes who have some very good reasons for wanting him to be president. He served two terms as mayor of Mexico City, where he was, by all accounts, a competent administrator. He implemented a number of social programs, including a popular pension program for the elderly poor and a program to support needy single mothers. Since at least 2012, he has been talking about the importance of industrial policy and employment generation. He ran in two presidential elections (2006 and 2012), narrowly missing the presidency in 2006 by a mere .56 of the popular vote. His opposition to the country’s market liberalization program throughout his political career has been vigorous and consistent. He founded the party he currently leads, Morena (Movement for National Regeneration) in 2013 when he departed from the left PRD (the Party of the Democratic Revolution ), an organization perceived as tainted by corruption and by too many compromises with neoliberalism. 

     AMLO has been probably the strongest nation-wide advocate of the country’s indigenous population and poor farmers, devastated, as I explain in an earlier post, by the massive influx of subsidized corn from the U.S. that occurred with trade liberalization following the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He has pledged that if elected he will implement a program to support the country’s corn, bean and rice farmers, who have been “irrationally abandoned” by past governments. AMLO has called for self-sufficiency in these agricultural products; agriculture, he claims, is an essential aspect of Mexican culture. U.S. agricultural producers, particularly corn producers, are understandably very worried. They have lobbied the Trump administration to preserve the benefits bestowed on U.S. agriculture by NAFTA. 

AMLO and the Mexican Business Community

     Despite his leadership in the polls, however, AMLO’s victory is far from a done deal. In past elections, AMLO has faced stiff opposition from members of Mexico’s powerful business community who took a dim view of his anti-free trade/anti NAFTA and anti-business stance. More recently, his opposition to the government’s opening up of the energy sector to private investment aroused the concern of both the political establishment and business sector. However, there would appear to be an opening for at least some accommodation with the country’s business interests since the private sector is profoundly unhappy with the current government’s performance, characterized, as it is, by low economic growth, a loathed tax reform, and high levels of corruption and crime. In 2015, twenty of the country’s business associations withdrew support from current president Peña Nieto. Recently, AMLO has toned down his anti-business rhetoric and integrated a few powerful figures, some with close ties to the business community, into his campaign team. He has also opened a dialogue with the powerful business interests of Nuevo León. Finally, AMLO’s statement that his party is not against those who “commit to invest, create jobs, earn legitimate profits, and to the development of Mexico,” is seen as an attempt to assuage the concerns of the country’s most powerful business interests

Still. . . The Outcome is Far from Certain

     While the situation looks promising for AMLO, a great deal can happen between now and the presidential election in 2018. The spectre of a left populist president coming to power has always caused considerable uneasiness among a wide swath of the public. If, as election day approaches, powerful business interests use their media connections to arouse fear among the undecided public, the extra voters needed to put AMLO over the top may not emerge or may dissipate. López Obrador will have to attract at least a portion of the country’s middle class, a group that has in recent years supported the centre/right National Action Party (PAN). The country’s lacklustre economic performance feeds into middle class securities, likely rendering this traditionally conservative group reluctant to vote for substantial change. At the same time, AMLO’s courting of the country’s business class is already alienating those among the left who fear (with some justification) that AMLO and Morena will eventually stray from promises of substantial change. 

     Nevertheless, circumstances have changed considerably from previous elections. At the time that NAFTA was signed, the Mexican establishment sold the agreement to the public as a panacea for the country’s poverty and low growth rates—signing on was supposed to bring Mexico into the developed world. It has taken time for the inadequacies of the neoliberal direction of previous administrations to become apparent. Now, however, more and more critics point to low economic growth rates, the decline in manufacturing employment and the absence of substantial and sustainable reductions in poverty as indicative of the failure of past economic policies. The final straw in this discouraging scenario, however, is the fact that the U.S. is now abandoning the very neoliberal economic formula that its economic and political leaders had so strenuously pushed on Latin American countries, including Mexico. We should therefore perhaps not be surprised if the Mexican public opts for something different in 2018.