Andrés Manuel López Obrador (also known as AMLO) led his National Regeneration Movement (also known as Morena) to a landslide in the Mexican elections on Sunday. He won the presidential race with more than half the vote. His party comrades are poised to have a large presence in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. This is a seismic shift for Mexico. It is comparable to the victory of Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN) in 2000. At that time, Fox’s party broke the long-standing one-party rule of the PRI, whose name (Party of the Institutionalized Revolution) captured the stasis of its governance. Over the past decade and a half, the PRI and the PAN fought each other in elections, but their power base fused into what people began to call the PRI-PAN. This PRI-PAN became a new ruling bloc that enabled the one-party rule of the oligarchs. López Obrador and Morena broke out from that suffocation with the promise to chart a new way. It is what earned them the landslide.
‘The transformation we will carry out,’ López Obrador said as he accepted the mandate, ‘will basically consist of kicking out corruption from our country. We won’t have any problem with this because the people of Mexico are the heir of a great civilization. Corruption is not a cultural phenomenon, but the result of a decadent political regime.’ No-one is for corruption. There is no Party of Corruption. Everyone is against it. But most political parties have no credibility when it comes to standing against corruption. Each new leader claims the mandate of anti-corruption, even as their feet are stuck in the mud of their own corrupt political parties. López Obrador, despite scandals that shook him when he was the Mayor of Mexico City (the names René Bejarano and Carlos Ahumada Kurtz are important here), has been able to craft himself as the antithesis of corruption. That is what earned him the anti-PRI-PAN vote.
It is important that López Obrador made it clear that Mexican corruption is not Mexican. It is in line with the decadence of social maladies produced by neo-liberal hierarchies of one kind or another. What is the difference between the nepotism that produces Mexican corruption and the nepotism of the Trump family? Corruption is another name for capitalism – a sign of how property favours its own, letting those who struggle outside a share of social wealth.
López Obrador ran twice before for the presidency. It is widely thought that he won the election in 2006 – the high point of the pink tide that swept through Latin America. At that time, the Mexican oligarchy, backed by the US government, would not permit him to win. The election was taken and delivered to Felipe Calderon of the PAN. López Obrador asked his followers to seize the centre of Mexico City as part of a protest. They sat there for months to no avail.
In 2012, López Obrador was defeated by Enrique Peña Nieto, again of the PRI. Once more, López Obrador claimed that by fraud he had been defeated. Again, it is likely that López Obrador was correct. It was unthinkable for the Mexican oligarchy and the US government to allow this socialist politician to take charge of one of Latin America’s most important countries at a time when the pink tide remained triumphant. Imagine what it would have meant to the Bolivarian movement in 2006 if a socialist had become the president of Mexico.
Fraud is the political analogue of economic corruption. The dominant class can only tolerate certain rulers and it can only allow certain people to benefit from the system.
The socialism of López Obrador is rooted in Mexico’s history. He was born in the southern state of Tabasco and studied political science between 1973 and 1976 at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). López Obrador came to UNAM five years after the bloody murder of Mexican students – the infamous Tlatelolco massacre. The harsh repression against the Mexican Left in the Dirty Wars of that era did not disillusion López Obrador nor send him to the far left. He joined the PRI, at that time still notionally a socialist party. In 1987, when it became clear that the PRI had abandoned any pretence of socialism, López Obrador joined other socialists to abandon the PRI and back the presidential campaign of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas. Many believe that Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas won the election of 1988 but was denied the mandate. It is important to underline that Cárdenas is the son of Lázaro Cárdenas, the last socialist to govern Mexico. In the 1930s, Lázaro Cárdenas nationalized the oil industry and produced Mexico’s extensive welfare system. His son, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, ran to defend the gains of the Mexican Revolution – as developed by his father. Cárdenas’ party – the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) – absorbed the currents of the Mexican left.
As a member of the PRD, López Obrador quickly experienced the fraudulent nature of Mexican democracy. When he won an election to be a governor of Tabasco, the post was stolen from him. Armed men removed him from the office and installed the PRI candidate in his place. It was in reference to such behaviour that Julio Hernandez López wrote in La Jornada, ‘Mexico is quickly becoming a democracy without people.’ The Left could mobilize people, but that was irrelevant to the democratic system; the system functioned largely to protect the interests of the oligarchy.
The mobilization of people is fundamental to the politics of López Obrador. When the mandate was denied to him in 2006 and in 2012, he flooded Mexico City with his followers, mostly people who live in the periphery of the city – the delegaciones of Mexico City. These protests in Mexico City’s Zócalo define the kind of politics of López Obrador – although his earnestness to be at the head of a protests comes before 2006. In 1996, he joined thousands of farmers of the Chontal community to fight against the pollution from oil wells along their Gulf Coast. In 1998, he went to his home state of Tabasco to lead a long march to Mexico City. This was a notable demonstration, since it ended with the production of thousands of boxes of documents that proved the depth of corruption in Mexico.
It is López Obrador’s insistence on popular struggle that gave him the name ‘populist.’ But this is a hasty definition. It is clearer to see him as rooted in the legacy of the Mexican Revolution, in its boldness and its compromises, in its insistence on fighting against hunger and in the redistribution of land as well as its failure to expropriate the oligarchy.
It is also important to point out that the election of 2018 is not the mandate only of López Obrador. It is also the election of the Morena leaders into other positions of authority – people such as the scientist Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo, the new Mayor of Mexico City, and the football star Cuauhtémoc Blanco, the new governor of Morelos, and the mining leader Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, most likely to take his seat in the Senate.
A True Mafioso State
In 2014, López Obrador created Morena – the National Regeneration Movement. It struck a nerve. The party took a strong position against the ‘liberalization of the economy,’ calling this policy a ‘regime of oppression, corruption and privileges.’ The phrases are powerful, the definition of the Mexican state as ‘a true Mafioso state’ evocative. But what will all this mean? Will López Obrador, the standard bearer of Mexican Socialism, be able to move an agenda against neo-liberal policy?
The context is bad. Mexico suffers from a long-standing fiscal crisis, one sharpened by the global credit crunch of 2007. The corrupt state is entangled in fierce internal wars, wars around drugs and against women, wars that produce thousands of incidents of violence that are unsolved (including the incident at Ayotzinapa, when 43 students ‘disappeared’ in 2014 and the incidents of murdered women in the line of towns on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border). Add to this, the anti-immigrant pressure and the tariff war from the United States, a harsh regime of austerity insisted upon by the IMF and lack of access to capital for humane development inside Mexico. More, the Bolivarian dynamic is in deep crisis, with the siege of Venezuela ongoing and with other states, including Nicaragua and Cuba, under immense pressure.
López Obrador won the election fair and square. The mandate was far too large to steal the election from him this time. But what has he inherited? A country fractured and impoverished. The space for manoeuver is limited. Pressure from the banks and Washington will be fierce. Even a social democratic agenda will be seen as too much.
López Obrador has said he will remain close to the people. He will likely push to extend the subsidies populares – the subsidies for the indigent and the elderly, the unemployed and the handicapped. His statements about the drug war and the security state could help shape a debate in Mexico around the compact between the people and the government. This will have a qualitative impact on Mexican political discourse. All this is important.
A socialist has won the election in Mexico. But will he be able to govern as a socialist?
Vijay Prashad is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is also the author of Red Star Over the Third World (LeftWord, 2017) and The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016), among other books.