The power and the glory of Mexico’s populist president
Andrés Martinez, Professor of practice at the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University/Reuters
If you really want to understand contemporary Mexico, skip “Narcos” and watch the series “Un Extraño Enemigo” instead. The drama about the horrifying crackdown on the student movement on the eve of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics captures the essence of one-party authoritarianism under the long-ruling PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party. Its characters are the commander of internal security forces, student protest leaders, the slithery CIA station chief, then-president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, and the cabinet members jockeying to succeed him. But at heart, the protagonist of “Enemigo” is the unvarnished, omnipotent power radiating from the presidency.
“Enemigo” may seem like an odd introduction to the era of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO), the populist Mexican president sworn into office on Saturday to succeed PRI president Enrique Peña Nieto. AMLO says he is assuming power to represent Mexico’s powerless, the millions left behind by the nation’s fitful modernization. And one of the central paradoxes of populism, even in its well-intentioned version, is that it takes an awful lot of power and force to vindicate the interests of the powerless against entrenched elites. AMLO is determined to reconstitute the awesome power of the presidency, not to crack down on the disaffected left as Díaz Ordaz did, but to champion it.
Mexico opened up to the outside world a generation ago, the generation between the period depicted in ”Un Extraño Enemigo” (“An Unknown Enemy”) and the current moment, embracing free trade and an electoral democracy. The results were positive for Mexico’s educated elite, and for the considerable number of families who joined the global middle class and turned the country into a massive buyer of U.S. goods. Voters invested in the steady development of this more globalized Mexico turned down AMLO’s retro vision of a more statist, self-contained Mexico in the 2006 and 2012 elections. He finally won on his third try in July, an unexpectedly resounding, mandate-conferring triumph, as a result of previous governments’ failure to broaden and deepen development, not only to lift more Mexicans out of poverty, but to temper rampant corruption and establish peace and the rule of law in the parts of the country rendered ungovernable by violence and insecurity. The gap between the country’s First World modernity and connectivity in some parts of its economy, and its Third World inequality and governance in too many areas, had become too glaring, too unsustainable. And so plenty of centrist independent-minded voters decided to roll the dice on the populist candidate clamoring for the interests of “the people” all these years, figuring that he might close the gap without necessarily being able to reverse Mexico’s decades-long opening to the outside world.
These voters might be proven wrong. The popularity of this ostentatious austerity is understandable, but it also represents an assertion of power, a move to transcend established institutional norms and practices and make clear who gets to set the rules.
AMLO’s most decisive act during the transition was to signal to the nation’s globalized elite that they’d be grounded until certain things changed in the country. The president-elect in October scrapped plans for a new $13 billion international airport outside Mexico City, never mind the fact that construction had begun back in 2015, contracts had been signed, commitments made, and experts insisted it was needed. AMLO had railed against the project as candidate and his dislike for it was ratified by an impromptu “consulta popular,” an informal pop-up referendum he organized to allow “the people” to weigh in. That move, and AMLO’s admonition that such consultas displacing technocratic governance will become the new normal (including the alarming promise of a biennial vote for people to weigh in on whether he should stay in office), triggered a decline in the Mexican stock market and in the value of the peso.