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What Corbyn can learn from Mexico’s populist president

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrado. Credit: Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrado. Credit: Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images

December 7, 2018   4 mins

If you think Theresa May has it tough, spare a thought for Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The man inaugurated as president of Mexico last Saturday has, in his in-tray, growing levels of inequality, a stalling economy, investor flight, rampant corruption, immigrant caravans, all-powerful narco-gangs – and Donald Trump.

There is one further pressure: he has become the most powerful Left-wing leader in the world. On his shoulders rest the hopes not just of tens of millions of Mexicans but voters in many countries who cleave to a revival of socialism as a means of addressing the many fissures of globalisation.

That is why the relationship between Obrador and Jeremy Corbyn is so important. The Labour leader, whose wife is Mexican and who has frequently visited Latin America, is a close friend. On the eve of his inauguration, Obrador made a public gesture of welcoming Corbyn to his country home in the southern state of Chiapas.

Mexico’s journey in the coming months will provide Corbyn with valuable lessons, to prepare him in the event of getting to power. In these times of deep cynicism and fear, the enthusiasm among a broad swathe of Mexicans is striking. They see in Amlo, his name’s initials by which he is best known, the answer to their prayers.

In his first few days in charge he has done little to dampen expectations. Launching a 100-point plan, no less, he vowed to reverse decades of free market liberal economics, put the interests of the poor and indigenous communities first, decentralise power to the regions and revive the oil industry. Five months of planning since his landslide victory in early July – perhaps the longest transition in any country’s constitution – have removed much of the surprise. Everyone has known for some time what is coming.

During a working trip at the end of August I was struck by the disdain in which Amlo is held by many professionals I met. Part of it is pure snobbery. Like Corbyn, he has spruced himself up, but he still doesn’t cut it as a suave, jet-setting leader in the style of previous presidents. Part of the ill will is simple economics. This is a deeply divided society. Polanco and Condesa, the two swankiest districts of Mexico City, resemble London’s Knightsbridge and Notting Hill. Meanwhile, the grinding poverty for millions is visible everywhere.

In a second trip over the past few days, some of the wealthier were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, assuming that he won’t really go after them, and if he does, they have ways of spiriting their money out. So far the Mexican peso and stock market have fallen sharply but there has been no dramatic run – yet.

The silver-haired son of a shopkeeper has tried to become Mexico’s president twice before. In 2006 he lost by just 0.5% of the vote, claiming that he had been robbed and setting up a tented protest village for months. On his second attempt in 2012 he lost by a more convincing 7%. Some thought his time was up.

In his manner of governing, he has pledged to be as different from his centre-Right predecessor Enrique Pena Nieto as possible. On Monday, on his first morning in charge, he despatched the presidential Boeing 787 jet (more lavish, it is said, than Air Force One) back to California for safekeeping until a suitable oligarch can be found to buy it. Amlo plans to fly economy on commercial airliners, and he plans to get rid of the 60 planes and 70 helicopters on the government’s books. He has refused to live in the presidential compound, Los Pinos (the Pines), and has opened it up to the public. He has promised to work 16 hours a day, starting with a 6am security briefing and a 7am press conference.

He is proud to call this austerity – but not the British version where the general population, particularly the poorer, shouldered the biggest burden. He is going after government spending on luxuries. No meetings in restaurants or posh hotels. Only in plain government offices.

One of Amlo’s most symbolic decisions, taken during the transition, was to hold a referendum on plans for a new airport, designed by Norman Foster. This was a waste of money; plane travel, he implied, was a plaything of the rich. A majority voted to scrap it, but the turnout was tiny (one million out of 45 million who voted in July’s election) and the ballot was run not by the electoral commission but by his Morena party, raising fears of ballot stuffing.

Electoral promises will be kept. The people are sovereign. Sound familiar? Amlo appears a curious mix of Brexit-era and Trumpist populism.  Trump couldn’t stand Pena Nieto (the feeling was mutual) and tweeted hearty congrats to his successor. On the chummy level there is every chance the two will get on just fine. Here are two folksy, call-it-as-it-is, leaders; convergence of the angry Right with the angry Left. But that’s before they start to deal with the detail on trade and immigration.

There is also a comparison to be made with the smooth Davos-man Blair, a man who could not be more different to the new Mexican president. Not in policies or behaviour, but expectations. To watch Amlo’s victory speech at Zocalo, Mexico City’s colonial-era vast central square, evokes the less iconic but equally powerful setting of the Royal Festival Hall in May 1997. Things can only get better was the soundtrack. People hugged, believing a new Camelot had arrived.

Blair’s thesis, which propelled him to power with a similar landslide, was to portray the art of the possible as radical. New Labour would initiate change by stealth; he would keep on his side a country that the young prime minister believed was big C and small C conservative.  We know what eventually ensued: the financial crash and the end of centrist consensus, giving rise to the radical Left and Right.

No matter what era, however, and how it is dressed up, politics is the art of compromise, of marrying high principle with messy pragmatism. The inevitable conclusion is that he will disappoint. He has to, by the nature of the job. That is why, in his inaugural address, he asked the people for patience.

And that’s why it’s so crucial for Corbyn. Both men romanticise past Latin American revolutionaries (including the current regimes in Venezuela and Cuba). The reality of office will be more mundane. How much can radical Left-wing leaders really change within the confines of democracies and market systems? When the going gets rough, do they plough on or do they retrench, to the consternation of those voters who yearned for radical change? It will all be about managing expectations. Getting rid of presidential jets is the easy part.

John Kampfner is an author, broadcaster, commentator and cultural entrepreneur.


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