AMLO and Mexico’s Liberal Consensus: Prospects and Problems

In 2006, when Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the leftwing Partido de la Revolución Democrática narrowly lost the presidency of Mexico to Felipe Calderón of the center-right Partido Acción Nacional, López Obrador assailed the electoral authorities in these terms: “To hell with your institutions!”

This December, he’ll be inaugurated on the strength of his landslide victory at the head of a new coalition of parties tailor-made for him, in the most resounding electoral win since one-party rule ended in Mexico in 2000. The burning question: Will the new President now be more respectful of the institutions?

It is not an easy question to answer. But one thing we do know is that AMLO (as he is often called) and his coalition will push for the state to play a greater role in specific areas of the economy, and markets will be more constrained than before. Already the incoming administration has announced that a number of new oil refineries will be built by the state-owned Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex). Although there is not much economic sense in such a decision, the incoming government wants to achieve “energy security” by decreasing Mexico’s dependence on American fuels.

The Existing Liberal Consensus

Yet it is too early to predict a new Venezuela south of the Rio Grande. After his July 1 victory at the polls, López Obrador moved quickly to reassure the markets. New policies would not be funded by new taxes and the public debt would be kept in check. Mexico’s social programs, it is claimed, will only be financed by cuts in the federal budget and by curbing money-wasting corruption.

On the campaign trail, AMLO regularly attacked the “neoliberal” policies first pursued in Mexico in the early 1980s by President Miguel de la Madrid. Instead he praised the economic policies of the 1950s and 1960s, when the country relied chiefly on its internal market for growth. Again we have, on the other hand, the fact that his economic team is composed of highly respected economists, some of them trained at the best U.S. universities—and his team has given assurances that private property will be respected and that existing contracts will be honored.

The signs of an ambitious rollback are not there, at least not yet. Part of the reason is what we might call the liberal consensus that has formed in Mexican society over the last three decades or so. To a large degree, that consensus still holds. There is, for example, no current public outcry for the state to reacquire companies that were privatized in the 1990s. AMLO’s followers are not demanding a return to the kind of  dirigisme that prevailed before the de la Madrid reforms of 1983. The next President has declared that he will respect the constitutional autonomy of the Central Bank (Banco de México).

Indeed, notwithstanding the victory of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) coalition that López Obrador leads, it is not clear that Mexican society has repudiated liberal ideas in bulk. As I outlined in my previous post, Mexico partook of a global movement, one that accelerated after the Soviet Union collapsed, toward restructuring economies in a free-market direction. The idea of shrinking bloated goverments around the world dovetailed with the Mexican liberalismo of the 19th century (typified by Francisco Madero, President from 1911 to 1913), which promoted the separation of church and state, a decentralized and republican form of government, a free press, and an end to corruption and rigged elections.

In fact, as the historian and public intellectual Héctor Aguilar Camín (no relation to the author) has observed, what now prevails in Mexico is a belief that “elections are the only legitimate path to power.” Moreover, says Aguilar Camín,

Nobody denies that corruption must come to an end and that increased transparency and accountability are needed. Nobody denies that human rights must be respected and that access to justice must be improved. Public safety must be achieved and impunity must cease. There is a widely shared agreement that poverty must be combated. People expect better social security. Also, Mexican society has developed an “allergy” to high public deficits, to macroeconomic imbalances and to discretionary public spending. Nobody speaks in favor of monopolies, oligopolies and the de facto powers. There is agreement on the benefits accrued by globalization, free trade and even the economic integration with North America. Finally, there are high expectations of jobs, material well-being and prosperity.[1]

It is unlikely that this consensus, which after all took many years to form, will unravel in a few months. One can even say that in some key aspects, such as the fight against corruption, the new administration seems to appeal to it.

A Mega-Mandate

Mexicans of course would be wise to remain vigilant given how young and fragile is the country’s democratic regime. Pluralism and limited government are but recently established innovations. For most of its history, Mexico has been ruled by strong central governments.

The true wild card here is the sheer amount of power that voters have placed in the hands of López Obrador and MORENA. It has no precedent in the short life of Mexican democracy. He won the presidency with 53.3 percent of the vote, notching a 31 percent margin of victory over the second-place finisher, Ricardo Anaya of the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN). To find similar numbers one would need to reach back to the 1929-2000 period of one-party domination by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI),  when elections were not free.

Not since Madero’s election in 1911 have Mexicans voters given a candidate such a clear mandate. And not only that, AMLO and his coalition also won control of both chambers of Congress, falling only a few votes short of achieving a two-thirds majority. MORENA also holds the majority in the legislatures of over half of the 31 states of the Union.

Thus, the new President could effect constitutional changes with little or no checks whatsoever.

A New Political Machine?

The concentration of power is, as I mentioned, a well-established tradition in Mexico. In spite of multiple legal reforms the country has not been able to break away fully from arbitrary government. But Mexicans have endeavored in recent decades to build capable modern institutions. Mexico created a Central Bank to keep inflation in check and an independent electoral institution (the Instituto Federal Electoral) to ensure that elections were genuinely competitive, free, and fair. Likewise, the judiciary was strengthened and empowered. Today an independent Supreme Court rules on key political issues. Several regulatory organs were endowed with constitutional autonomy to secure their independence.

All of these institutions have been, at one time or another, the target of López Obrador’s fiery leftwing rhetoric.

Further motive for concern is the actual state of the opposition after the July 2018 vote. A scrambling of the usual political alignments has occurred. For 30 years, the Mexican political landscape was populated by three main parties: the old PRI, the center-right PAN, and a Left opposition, the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD). The first two date back to the 1930s. The youngest is the PRD, which was formed in the 1980s by the combining of a splinter of the PRI with the remains of the Mexican Communist Party.

From 1997 to 2018, Mexican voters elected divided governments every election cycle. The party of the President did not control Congress. All executives had to negotiate their agendas with the opposition. As a result, political gridlock was common. The dawn of unified government in Mexico poses a threat to liberty, and would do so regardless of ideology. But MORENA was created to expressly to enable the presidential ambitions of López Obrador, and in it he has built his own personalistic political machine.

AMLO, who carried with him many militants and political cadres from the PRD, managed this feat in just five years, and is now the unrivaled master of this catch-all party. MORENA managed to attract radical leftist intellectuals as well well as the evangelical conservative party, Encuentro Social (PES). Some see it replacing the PRI as the hegemonic party in Mexico. Meanwhile, the PRI itself suffered a massive blow in July that put its very existence into question. The PAN fared somewhat better, but lost many seats in Congress and some governorships. A very diminished PRD, once the home of López Obrador, is barely alive and its survival is in doubt.

Thus the ability of the opposition to check a populist government is quite uncertain. MORENA and its allies hold the key not only to ordinary legislation but also to constitutional reform.

The institutional checks that do remain healthy are the judiciary and the autonomous agencies I mentioned. Yet constitutional reforms could severely undermine both their standing and their ability to balance the government. There is already talk of a constitutional reform that would divide the Supreme Court into two different bodies. It is also likely that the autonomous agencies will be cornered and pressured by the new administration into compliance.

Thus, it would seem that a full-blown restoration of presidentialism has occurred, and while this has historically been a non-democratic phenomenon in Mexico, this time it is the result of free elections. That poses distinct challenges for liberals.

If in the past, several modernizing administrations vainly attempted to dismantle the illiberal and corporatist legacy of Mexico, now that heritage has been validated by a significant proportion of voters. A political and symbolic regression has taken place though its scope is as yet unclear. Consider that many voters chose AMLO and MORENA as a means to punish an inefficient and corrupt government but do not desire to turn back the clock. Meanwhile other voters are looking for a lasting transformation of the political landscape of the nation.

The Paradox

Liberalism is a political doctrine that seeks to limit power; not only despotic power, but also democratic power. The new political configuration in Mexico means that liberals will consistently be, some way or another, in the minority. But this is traditional, for it has been in the opposition that liberalism has defined and reinvented itself over time. A succession of governments after the 1910-1920 Mexican Revolution were opposed by liberal politicians and writers such as Jorge Cuesta, Gustavo Velasco, Daniel Cosío Villegas, Gabriel Zaíd, and Octavio Paz. They fought a regime that appropriated not only absolute power but also the symbolic representation of the Nation.

The example of those men is more relevant today than ever, as for the first time Mexican liberals face what other Latin American nations have experienced: a triumphant and potentially quite illiberal force with wide popular support. It would seem that, paradoxically, the success of liberal ideas in the past few decades weakened those same ideas. Success meant that cherished ideas were not subjected to critical examination. Liberalism became in some ways complacent.

Something similar happened in the 19th century, when liberals fought military and political battles against throne-and-altar conservatives and decisively defeated them. Self-examination is an imperative for liberals. They need to go back to first principles to correctly understand what their role is in the new political circumstances. They must be ready to speak for, and persuade others about, the core practices and institutions of a liberal order: toleration, freedom of discussion, restrictions on police behavior, free elections, constitutional government based on a separation of powers, publicly inspected state budgets, and economic policies committed to sustained growth on the basis of private property and freedom of contract.[2]

It is possible that many of these principles, and the fledging institutions that support them, will come under heavy attack in the months and years ahead. If they do, liberals must not only defend them but also remember why they wanted them in the first place.

[1] Héctor Aguilar Camín and José Antonio Aguilar Rivera, “Ideas invisibles, creencias en tránsito,” Nexos, July 2014.

[2] Stephen Holmes, The Anatomy of Antiliberalism (Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 3-4.



Burke and the Nation

Our particular national character, as Burke could see even before American independence, is uniquely oriented by certain principled commitments.