Why we should welcome the populist victory in Mexico
Credit: Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images   

Yesterday Mexico went to the polls, and, as predicted, threw out the ruling party in favour of a Leftist ‘populist’.

The landslide victory of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador – or Amlo as he known – brings to an end the long-run dominance of Mexico’s pro-market PRI and PAN parties.

Although shaky on specifics during the campaign, Lopez Obrador has promised to transform Mexico. His critics fear a shift towards socialist autocracy, leading to ruinous decline à la Hugo Chavez. Supporters see a socialist saviour who will deliver the fair, safe and universally prosperous future they dream of. It is the populist tale of our age. His acceptance speech, though, hints at a more moderate middle way.

But regardless of the course he charts, the Mexican electorate has sent a resounding message: the status quo must end, change is needed.

Like his fellow populist leaders, he has pledged to overthrow the establishment. His criticism of the ‘mafia of power’ has proved a powerful rallying call

What remains striking in this era of political realignment is the continuing failure of establishment politicians and pundits to adjust to this new normal. How many ‘upsets’ will it take before they accept that the demand for ‘change’ isn’t some mad cry for revolution, but the reasonable demand of electorates with legitimate grievances?

For while the severity of the three key issues which drove voters into the arms of Lopez Obrador are on a scale we in the West can hardly imagine, each of those drivers is nonetheless also behind the rise of populist politics in Europe and America.

Like UKIP’s Nigel Farage, Podemos’ Pablo Iglesias and Five Star’s Beppe Grillo, Lopez Obrador has presented himself as the ‘outsider’. And like his fellow populist leaders, he has pledged to overthrow the establishment. His criticism of the “mafia of power” proved a powerful rallying call in a country where corruption is endemic – votes are bought, public monies embezzled, and public contracts awarded to cronies.

Ordinary Mexicans, especially those outside the big cities, have had enough of an elite focused on lining their own pockets. It’s a familiar story.

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In Spain last month, corruption forced the resignation of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, and a more general backlash against the establishment has seen the rise of socialist populist party Podemos. In Italy, the populist Five Star Movement has built its platform in opposition to the corruption at the heart of Italian politics.

Across Western democracies, the people are revolting against what they see as self-serving, clubby elites. When Trump promised to “drain the swamp” we all knew what he meant – even if he doesn’t appear to be following through with it.

Lopez Obrador’s promise to clean up politics also came with a commitment to invest in social programmes – funded by the savings from his anti-corruption crusade. Echoes, perhaps, of the domestic investment promised by Brexiteers once the EU gravy train is halted.

Perhaps most damning, average incomes in Mexico have barely changed under NAFTA, and six in ten Mexicans still work in the informal economy

Which brings us to the second driver of voter behaviour: poverty and inequality.

By Mexico’s own measure, half of its population live in poverty. In a country with a relatively new and burgeoning middle class, the gap between the haves and have-nots is stark. And, as is the case in many countries, that economic division is mirrored geographically, with high levels of deprivation in the South of Mexico in comparison with a relatively prosperous North.

Just as stagnating wages, insecure work and high levels of income and wealth inequality have called into question the efficacy of capitalism in the West, many in Mexico are questioning the wisdom of economic liberalisation and free trade.

NAFTA (the free trade agreement between America, Mexico and Canada signed in 1993) may have led to billions of dollars of foreign investment for Mexico, and a dramatic surge in exports, but not everyone benefited.

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Border cities (and big business) boomed, while the rural South suffered – by 2007, Mexico had experienced a net loss of two million farming jobs. Average incomes in Mexico barely changed under NAFTA, and six in ten Mexicans still work in the informal economy. The higher paying, higher skilled jobs that were created didn’t neatly replace those jobs that were lost – a problem all too familiar to Rust Belt America and deindustrialised Northern Britain.

It is unsurprising that Lopez Obrador’s promise to redistribute the wealth and rein in big business proved so popular – just as Jeremy Corbyn’s promise did in Britain. Even the staunchest defender of free trade must recognise that globalisation has its limits, and domestic policy should seek to mitigate its harsher impacts.

The third issue driving the desire for change was, in a country notorious for its drug cartels and the violence they perpetrate, security. In 2017, Mexico recorded its highest death toll since records began. 2018 isn’t looking any better – almost 3,000 people were murdered in the single month of May, that’s pushing 100 deaths per day.

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Successive PRI and PAN governments have proved powerless to stem the violence with their law and order ‘solutions’ (PAN President Felipe Calderon’s military-led war on the drug cartels saw the death toll rise). Lopez Obrador is pledging a new approach: an amnesty for drug traffickers. Crazy as that might sound, for a terrorised nation, exhausted from decades of failed initiatives, a change of tactic is exactly what people are looking for.

Even here there are parallels with Europe and America, where, although for very different reasons, security is a growing concern. A recent YouGov poll asked citizens in 11 European countries what they thought the top two issues were facing the European Union: they were terrorism and immigration (though domestic issues were of much greater concern at a personal level).

The devastating spate of terrorist attacks through 2016 and 2017 appeared to show that governments could not perform the first priority of any state: keeping its citizens safe. And populist leaders were quick to jump on those fears – France’s Marie Le Pen has railed against “Islamism”, and Trump made a Muslim travel ban a key campaign pledge.

In Germany, the 2016 New Year’s eve Cologne attacks triggered the anti-immigration backlash that has helped propel AFD into the centre of German politics. And the populist Sweden Democrats are gaining ground, helped by rising violence which is being tied to immigration.

Significant portions of electorates across the West have lost faith in the establishment’s approach to security and are turning to more radical options.

Disparaging as populism the call for change is arrogant and counter-productive

Mexico’s problems are the West’s writ large.

Lopez Obrador’s 30-point win over his nearest rival appears to give the Leftist a clear mandate for change, but it is not yet clear that his party – Moreno – will win a majority in congress. If they do, it will be the first time that a Mexican president has commanded a legislative majority since 1997, and his ability to implement a more radical set of reforms will be significantly increased. And that, of course, is scaring the establishment horses.

In the aftermath of the British vote to leave the EU in 2016, the British Pound took a hit, just as the weakening of Angela Merkel’s grip and the rise of the far-right in last year’s German elections saw the Euro dip. In Mexico, as the scale of Lopez Obrador’s victory has become apparent, the Peso wobbled. The global markets – and their Davos backers – do not like disruption.

But disruption is exactly what voters in Mexico, and across Western democracies, are demanding. Disparaging the call for change as ‘populism’ is arrogant and counter-productive. If, instead of hurling insults, the establishment and one percenters had paid their fair share of tax, invested in re-skilling and decent wages, and acted like responsible economic stewards rather than drunken casino goers, the status quo may just have been palatable.

Until they realise that, populist leaders – like Lopez Obrador – will keep winning. And that, of course, is the beauty of democracy.

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