Mexican Elections - Biting the Populist Bullet

Ben Dinsdale

March, 2018

PRD, PAN Coalition Rally in Mexico City

PRD, PAN Coalition Rally in Mexico City


Polanco is the among the wealthiest of Mexico City’s neighbourhoods. North of the city’s largest park Chapultepec, the tree-lined boulevards and massive houses packed tightly together are reminiscent of Paris or Seville. The streets have names like Kant, Galileo, and Homer, and have expensive boutique clothing and food stores. The top hotels in Mexico City are also located in Polanco, as well as a park that pays homage to figures like Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, and Abraham Lincoln.

However, a quick drive out of this oasis reveals a different picture. Mexico City is located in a valley, with the city in the centre, and sprawling unplanned suburbs climbing higher and higher up the mountainside each year. Some of the houses in the outer towns and inner neighbourhoods are tiny, packed together, and made mostly of tin panelling.

These areas, known as colonias populares, have been leading the growth in urban poverty in Mexico, spurred on by continuing immigration into cities from rural parts of the country.

The poverty in Mexico City is emblematic of the greater issue that currently plagues the country. This same issue has given rise to a new party and re-emergence to an old candidate. Andreas Manuel Lopez Obradour (or AMLO as he is known) was the runner-up in the 2012 Mexican election for the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). However, he was defeated in 2012 by the Enrique Pena Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionist Party (PRI).

He was also the PRD candidate in 2006, when he was narrowly defeated by Felipe Calderon, and instigated widespread protest over election results, declaring himself the “legitimate president”.

Following the 2012 election, AMLO left the PRD and created his own party, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), which described themselves as a group of outsiders, tired of the state of Mexican politics and ready for change.

Although rampant poverty is a huge issue in Mexico, persistent political corruption has been another factor leading to growing resentment from the populace. For 70 years Mexico was a pseudo democracy, as their fixed six-year presidential term limits made the state appear democratic, but the PRI’s candidate was elected every year from 1929 to 2000, and the party maintained full control over the country’s politics.

Following this period, government positions have been routinely filled with important party figures and members of parliament are frequently charged in corruption related cases. Corruption limits the ability of politicians to represent their people and increases the discontent that Mexicans feel towards their government.

The Trump presidency has also had a huge effect on Mexican politics. Prior to President Trump’s election, Mexicans held America in relatively high-regard with about two-thirds of the population having a favorable view on their northern neighbours. Now, this figure is 30%. It is the first time in 15 years that a majority of Mexicans view America unfavourably.

Perhaps more astonishing is that 93% of Mexicans now have no confidence in the U.S. President to do the right thing in international affairs, up from 45% at the end of Obama’s Presidency.

AMLO stands are as a figure against all these issues. The PAN and PRI have traditionally been the more pro-American parties, with PRI in power when NAFTA was signed, and the former PAN President Vicente Fox campaigning around Mexico as one of the nation’s most vocal pro-NAFTA activist.

AMLO has jumped on President Nieto’s handling of the Trump government, denouncing Nieto for his weak response to Trump’s racist remarks towards Mexicans.

AMLO has also called out the PAN and PRI as one in the same when it comes to corruption, arguing that they will simply be a continuation of current policies that work to benefit the rich and do nothing for the poor. He has criticized the economic liberalization that has occurred under President Nieto and vowed to focus on social welfare and inequality instead of liberalization.

However, there are many concerns about what an AMLO presidency will look like. His strong anti-American position promises to make the NAFTA renegotiation process more difficult. He has in the past said that he would try to halt the privatization of Mexico’s oil company PEMEX and has been criticized for being too anti-business.

Although he has claimed that he is against corrupt politicians, and not the business community, there are significant concerns among investors that his presidency could have a negative impact on the Mexican economy. Although the Peso had been gaining value with some of Nieto’s liberalizations efforts, this has turned around as AMLO’s lead in the polls has risen.

But of concern than his economic polices are AMLO’s anti-democratic tendencies. He has drawn comparisons to other Latin American leaders like Hugo Chavez, and his destabilizing actions following the 2006 elections have made many uneasy.

Some have accused him of being a fake populist, with achieving power being his main concern, and say that he could have an incredibly destabilizing effects if elected.

Perhaps the Chavez comparisons are unfair, but there are many concerning things about AMLO, and the uncertainty that comes with his presidency has garnered some well-deserved trepidation.

That being said, when I spent a day in Polanco and then drove over the mountains to a city south of the capital called Cuernavaca, is was hard to disagree with those who call for change. The dichotomy between neighborhoods like Polanco and colonias populares is striking. The inequality is severe, impossible to ignore, and - perhaps the greatest call for concern - growing. AMLO stands as a figure that could fight against this, and although his policies may be anti-American and potentially harmful for the Mexican economy, the change that he is promising is greatly needed.