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Mexico isn’t becoming a ‘dictatorship’ The nation's bruised democracy will stumble on

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or “Amlo” held rallies in El Zocalo (Cristopher Rogel Blanquet/Getty Images)

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or “Amlo” held rallies in El Zocalo (Cristopher Rogel Blanquet/Getty Images)


May 29, 2024   5 mins

Surrounded by both Aztec pyramids and a monumental baroque cathedral, Mexico City’s vast central square, known as the Zocalo, is a vibrant symbol of the country’s nationhood and democracy. Formally called “La Plaza de la Constitución”, it was here that Mexico’s insurgent army arrived in 1821 to consolidate independence from Spain; it was here that the peasant forces of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa assembled in 1914 during the Revolution; and it was here that students gathered in 1968 to protest authoritarian one-party rule.

More recently, the silver-haired populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or “Amlo”, chose the Zocalo as the site of dozens of rallies during his 12-year quest for power. When he finally won the top job in 2018 with his Morena party — short for “Movement for National Regeneration”, while also meaning “brown skinned woman” — he moved the seat of the presidency back to the square’s National Palace.

It was also in the Zocalo that the current opposition, centred around presidential contender Xóchitl Gálvez, filled the square with activists dressed in pink on Sunday 19 May, promising a “pink tide” to sweep to power and replace what they claim is an authoritarian government by Morena. (The pink signals Gálvez’s coalition of parties rather an ideological bent.) Come Sunday, however, it will almost certainly be Morena supporters who will be celebrating.

A 61-year-old environmental engineer, Claudia Sheinbaum — Amlo’s anointed successor — was mayor of Mexico City from 2018 to last year. With opinion polls showing her leading the polls by a whopping 20 to 30 points over Gálvez, the campaign has been no nail-biter. Either way, Sheinbaum or Gálvez will give Mexico its first female president, ahead of its super-power neighbour the United States.

Despite misgivings among commentators in the UK and US, this weekend’s election — the biggest in the nation’s history by number of eligible voters and positions being contested — is a testament to the tenacity of Mexico’s democracy. Undeniably, its political system is heavily flawed, besieged by drug cartels who finance and murder candidates as well as journalists. But, for the most part, especially when compared with the rest of Latin America, it still functions. Mexico, remember, is nothing like the nearby authoritarian regimes of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua; nor is it suffering the political meltdown of Peru nor the complete ungovernability of Haiti.

And yet, read the British and American press and you could be forgiven for thinking that Mexico is sliding into a dictatorship. Two years ago, for example, the London-based Index On Censorship named Amlo “Tyrant of the Year”, above Vladimir Putin or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, while The Economist Intelligence Unit downgraded Mexico from a “flawed democracy” to a “hybrid regime”. Elsewhere, the Financial Times has warned  that “the country’s democracy is now in real danger”, while a headline in The Atlantic referred to Amlo as “The Autocrat Next Door”.

At its heart, this is not necessarily an issue of Right vs Left. Amlo, after all, identifies as Left-wing and promotes a range of different social programmes, some of which have reduced poverty and which Sheinbaum promises to carry on. But, perhaps confusingly for many in the West, he does not talk about “socialism” and is socially conservative on some issues, being strongly nationalist and in favour of the family. “The Mexican family is the principal institution of social security,” he has said.

At the same time, however, Amlo is clearly populist, employing a rhetoric that pits the Mexican people against what he calls “a mafia of power”. This style has garnered comparisons with Donald Trump, with whom Amlo was friendly when he was US President. In a similar vein, since his election in 2018, critics have focused on how Morena has expanded its power across various state institutions, including the judicial system, a process they fear will carry on under Sheinbaum. They also point to Amlo’s combative approach with the media. In February, he published the telephone number of a New York Times reporter who had investigated narco-corruption, and revealed the supposed income of a Mexican journalist who wrote a report on the president’s son.

Both amounted to acts of gross intimidation that deserve to be condemned. They are, however, not necessarily symptoms of how an authoritarian regime might function. Under Amlo, for instance, there have not been any major violent crackdowns on protests or round ups of political prisoners, such as those in Nicaragua and Venezuela, let alone in Syria or China. Indeed, as Amlo goes through his last months of power, he remains genuinely popular with an approval of around 60%, according to newspaper El Financiero.

Moreover, focusing solely on Amlo risks ignoring the fact that Mexico was already a very flawed democracy before he took office. The nation’s democratic transition since was long and twisted, and it was only in 2000, after 72 years in power, that the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) lost the presidency and a real multiparty system took root. Nor did its trials end there. Under the new president Vicente Fox, there was a dubious criminal charge against Amlo in 2004 that would stop him running for president that was only dropped after huge protests (in the Zocalo again). Under Fox’s successor Felipe Calderón, the public security secretary Genaro García Luna was later found to be in the pocket of Mexico’s drug cartels. And under the next president, Enrique Peña Nieto, a scandal blew up over his wife buying a $7-million mansion from a company that received government contracts. In other words, Mexico’s democracy was hardly in fine shape before Amlo came along.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t single out Amlo for criticism, particularly when it comes to national security. During his five years in office, Mexico has suffered more than 150,000 murders, the worst stretch in recent history. Cartels continue to operate brazenly in swathes of the country, using drones to drop bombs and shaking down businesses, even tortilla sellers.

“None of this is to say that we shouldn’t single out Amlo for criticism, particularly when it comes to national security.”

And unsurprisingly, this violence places a great strain on Mexican democracy. Under Amlo, 37 journalists have been murdered, while over the past year, assassins have killed at least 30 political candidates seeking office, with victims from both Morena and the opposition. Yet while it is no excuse, the uncomfortable truth is that cartel violence has been soaking Mexico in blood for almost two decades. Neither Calderón nor Peña Nieto nor Amlo has found a solution to it. We can only hope that Sheinbaum has more success — although she has offered few concrete policies so far.

An argument made by critics is that Amlo is moving gradually towards an authoritarian system: that his aggressive rhetoric and greater control of institutions will lead to more open authoritarianism down the road. “The democratic retreat does not follow a fixed sequence,” writes Mexican journalist Eduardo Ruiz-Healy. “It is a gradual and prolonged process.” According to these fears, Amlo could still rule from behind the scenes with Sheinbaum as a puppet. However, surely it is dangerous to condemn a government for something that could happen in the future; we need to report the facts of what is actually happening.

It is common for anti-populist commentators to see populists as naturally inclined towards authoritarianism. According to this thinking, as soon as politicians start to talk of the people versus the elite, it is only a matter of time before they try to seize more power. The reality, however, is far more complex. Framing societal conflict in terms of a battle between the demos and their rulers is hardly a new phenomenon: rather, it can be traced back to the golden age of social democracy, including to the British Labour Party’s campaign in 1945.

Besides, in the following decades, a number of populist Latin American Presidents, including in Argentina and Ecuador, left office peacefully to be replaced by rival populists. Critics will rightfully point to the authoritarian takeovers in Nicaragua and Venezuela by self-avowed socialists, but they are the exception. Mexico, by contrast, is about to welcome North America’s first female president into power, off the back of a largely successful exercise in mass democracy.

Yes, it is imperfect — and yes, it can be dangerous. But after two and a half decades, Mexico’s democracy stumbles on.


Ioan Grillo is a journalist based in Mexico and the author, most recently, of Blood Gun Money.

ioangrillo

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ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
1 month ago

“Pink Tide” has the ring of a knock off sugary carbonated beverage or laundry detergent. Cartel Cola?

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
1 month ago

Elsewhere, the Financial Times has warned  that “the country’s democracy is now in real danger”.

So obviously, those plans to help poorer people are spooking the money men who can’t stand anything that even possibly challenges neoliberalism.

0 01
0 01
1 month ago

I think at this point the Mexican government is too weak and dysfunctional, as well corrupt and incompetent, that it has reach a point that its incapable of being a true dictatorship. AMLO and his successor may be able to completely dominate the state apparatus with little accountable, and thus stay in power by dispensing patronage to favored groups and persons and punish their enemies and reap personal benefit, but that wont mean much because the states power as receded across much of Mexico while cartel power grown in its retreat, AMLO’s ineptitude and shortsightedness has made that problem much worse. They will gain much personal power, but at the expense of the states power. I think there is a chance that a situation like we see Venezuela will develop, in which government authority has largely collapsed in rural areas. The result is that power in the countryside lies in the hands of collection of local regime aliened strongmen and their militias, political connected criminal gangs, and Columbian narco rebel groups that the regime supports, all of which are allowed to do what they want as long as the keep any opposition from threating the regime. This is done because the regime lacks the power exert sovereignty over its own lands, and outsources parts of its security to others to prevent the opposition from using the badlands as staging grounds and to prevent the local powers from turning against them by coopting them. It might also lead also to what we saw just after the Independence of Mexico or other Latin American state, local jefe’s who control the country’s various regions with the so-called President being just another jefe who has the added yet nominal role of being the Head of State do to just controlling the official capital of the country.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
1 month ago
Reply to  0 01

This comment is much better than the article itself and describes the situation on the ground much more precisely.

Daniel P
Daniel P
1 month ago

I love Mexico and have thought of moving there for retirement. Been going down there my entire life. My grandparents owned a home there. My aunt is from the Yukatan.

I love the people and the culture and I wish nothing more for them than that they find a solution to the cartel issues so that the country can finally thrive as it deserves.

William Reynolds
William Reynolds
1 month ago

.

Andrew Holmes
Andrew Holmes
1 month ago

Based upon the trends in AMLO’s maneuvering, his objective is a return to the oligarich order of the PRI. Transferring blocks of the economy into the hands of the military, blocking any disturbance of the corrupt financial links between the cartels and government officials, and weakening or eliminating all independent institutions that could effectively criticize his administration, speak to the pre-2000 Mexico, not a democratic future.

Roberto Sussman
Roberto Sussman
1 month ago

I am Mexican and live in Mexico. I did not vote for AMLO in 2018, but celebrated his victory and shared expectations of millions of Mexicans. At that point he enjoyed a lot of legitimacy and trust, besides political power not seen as concentrated in one party since the 1990s. We expected a populist, but a one willing to minimally clean up the rotten political system. Millions expected also a minimal level of competence as he exhibited during his tenure as Mexico City major in the early 2000s. But then he had counterweights. In 2018 he had none.

It is hard to describe how disappointing his tenure as president has been. He has violated almost everyone of his promises and commitments under which he was elected (and endorsed by many not voting for him). He promised transparency: nobody would be above the law, to abide by the constitution, to maintain the balance between the presidency, the legislative and judicial branches, to end official corruption, to enhance security by reinforcing police without the increasing military involvement in police work. He promised a health sector as in Denmark. Nobody expected fulfillment of these promises, politicians always promise, but we expected a minimal acceptable level of consistency. He made a complete U turn on every single promise: his administration is as opaque es during the PRI dictatorship of the XX century.

The disappointment began when he ordered the cancellation of a major airport with 30% construction out of his whims (to show “who is the boss”), without a valid reason (after a shady fabricated referendum). This airport would have solved Mexico City airspace problems and would have generated a lot of jobs and tax revenues. Instead AMLO ordered the construction of a small airport in an old air force base (the AIFA). The airport is there, but it lacks communication so it under used and heavily subsidized.

Instead of restricting the military to national security tasks, AMLO has commissioned the Army and Navy to undertake many civilian tasks: management of customs, ports, airports. Most importantly, the military provide the work force for construction and administration of his massive infrastructure public works: the AIFA airport, a train surrounding the Yucatan peninsula (tren maya) and a large petroleum refinery (dos bocas). These works lack proper technical evaluation of functionally, environmental impact and affordability. Worse, they have costed much more than the projected expense, so they have sucked from the public budget perhaps over 100 000 million USD. All this in the most opaque form, without any public scrutiny and accountability, since AMLO enacted a decree qualifying them as “national security” (an obvious pretext to avoid accountability). This in itself makes AMLO’s regime more corrupt than any previous administration (in fact, we have been witnessing in the last 5 years many other corruption scandals, even involving AMLO’s sons).

AMLO has ruled by his whims, dismissing criticism and slandering critics. In his daily morning conferences he has publicized (at the top of political power and in the eyes of millions) private information that can compromise the security of those slandered (journalists, academics and even common folks). AMLO has consistently (and to a large degree successfully) captured and weakened all autonomous institutions that the feeble Mexican democracy was slowly constructing before 2018, including the Supreme Court, the electoral institute (INE), the human rights commission, several transparency and corruption watchdogs. Not yest a dictatorship, but clearly on its way (if it quacks like a duck ..)

AMLOs administration has since 2018 significantly centralized and damaged the health sector, generating a major crisis of medication supply, canceling a major provider of health services (Seguro Popular) replacing it with an aborted non-starter, hence the number of Mexicans without health services passed from 13 million in 2028 to 50 million today. The damage to the health sector, together with AMLO’s unwillingness to face the COVID pandemic, caused 800 thousand death, of which 300 thousand could have been avoided. If the health disaster is not sufficient to evaluate AMLO, we can add the security disaster: 180 thousand murders in 5 years, organize crime controlling between 1/3 and 1/2 of the territory and probably disturbing the coming elections.

So, please do not let AMLO off the hook. It is true, Mexico is not becoming Venezuela or Cuba. In fact, AMLO’s model is the one-party PRI dictatorship that ruled Mexico during the XX century (AMLO comes from the PRI). It is not an issue of left vs right, I (and millions of Mexicans) would not have objected to a government directing a set of social policies to benefit the large poor and vulnerable population, specially in the southern states. The issue is massive incompetence and destruction of Mexican social and political life. His hand picked candidate Claudia Sheinbaum might win these very uneven elections, since AMLO violated the electoral law openly campaigning for her since 2022 (with veiled message to millions of beneficiaries of social programs to “remember who is giving you the money”). However, the elections will be much more competitive than what the polls predict. Sheinbaum might win, but she will not have the same power and authority as AMLO, though AMLO might remain too powerful and influential in her (possible) presidency. Hopefully, she will not be ruled by AMLO and will be far more competent. We will see.

Roberto Sussman
Roberto Sussman
1 month ago

I just posted a comment. It is not SPAM I hope Unheard does not censor me

Roberto Sussman
Roberto Sussman
1 month ago

I am Mexican and live in Mexico. I did not vote for AMLO in 2018, but celebrated his victory and shared expectations of millions of Mexicans. At that point he enjoyed a lot of legitimacy and trust, besides political power not seen as concentrated in one party since the 1990s. We expected a populist, but a one willing to minimally clean up the rotten political system. Millions expected also a minimal level of competence as he exhibited during his tenure as Mexico City major in the early 2000s. But then he had counterweights. In 2018 he had none.
It is hard to describe how disappointing his tenure as president has been. He has violated almost everyone of his promises and commitments under which he was elected (and endorsed by many not voting for him). He promised transparency: nobody would be above the law, to abide by the constitution, to maintain the balance between the presidency, the legislative and judicial branches, to end official corruption, to enhance security by reinforcing police without the increasing military involvement in police work. He promised a health sector as in Denmark. Nobody expected fulfillment of these promises, politicians always promise, but we expected a minimal acceptable level of consistency. He made a complete U turn on every single promise: his administration is as opaque es during the PRI dictatorship of the XX century.
The disappointment began when he ordered the cancellation of a major airport with 30% construction out of his whims (to show “who is the boss”), without a valid reason (after a shady fabricated referendum). This airport would have solved Mexico City airspace problems and would have generated a lot of jobs and tax revenues. Instead AMLO ordered the construction of a small airport in an old air force base (the AIFA). The airport is there, but it lacks communication so it under used and heavily subsidized.
Instead of restricting the military to national security tasks, AMLO has commissioned the Army and Navy to undertake many civilian tasks: management of customs, ports, airports. Most importantly, the military provide the work force for construction and administration of his massive infrastructure public works: the AIFA airport, a train surrounding the Yucatan peninsula (tren maya) and a large petroleum refinery (dos bocas). These works lack proper technical evaluation of functionally, environmental impact and affordability. Worse, they have costed much more than the projected expense, so they have sucked from the public budget perhaps over 100 000 million USD. All this in the most opaque form, without any public scrutiny and accountability, since AMLO enacted a decree qualifying them as “national security” (an obvious pretext to avoid accountability). This in itself makes AMLO’s regime more corrupt than any previous administration (in fact, we have been witnessing in the last 5 years many other corruption scandals, even involving AMLO’s sons).
AMLO has ruled by his whims, dismissing criticism and slandering critics. In his daily morning conferences he has publicized (at the top of political power and in the eyes of millions) private information that can compromise the security of those slandered (journalists, academics and even common folks). AMLO has consistently (and to a large degree successfully) captured and weakened all autonomous institutions that the feeble Mexican democracy was slowly constructing before 2018, including the Supreme Court, the electoral institute (INE), the human rights commission, several transparency and corruption watchdogs. Not yest a dictatorship, but clearly on its way (if it quacks like a duck ..)
AMLOs administration has since 2018 significantly centralized and damaged the health sector, generating a major crisis of medication supply, canceling a major provider of health services (Seguro Popular) replacing it with an aborted non-starter, hence the number of Mexicans without health services passed from 13 million in 2028 to 50 million today. The damage to the health sector, together with AMLO’s unwillingness to face the COVID pandemic, caused 800 thousand death, of which 300 thousand could have been avoided. If the health disaster is not sufficient to evaluate AMLO, we can add the security disaster: 180 thousand murders in 5 years, organize crime controlling between 1/3 and 1/2 of the territory and probably disturbing the coming elections.
So, please do not let AMLO off the hook. It is true, Mexico is not becoming Venezuela or Cuba. In fact, AMLO’s model is the one-party PRI dictatorship that ruled Mexico during the XX century (AMLO comes from the PRI). It is not an issue of left vs right, I (and millions of Mexicans) would not have objected to a government directing a set of social policies to benefit the large poor and vulnerable population, specially in the southern states. The issue is massive incompetence and destruction of Mexican social and political life. His hand picked candidate Claudia Sheinbaum might win these very uneven elections, since AMLO violated the electoral law openly campaigning for her since 2022 (with veiled message to millions of beneficiaries of social programs to “remember who is giving you the money”). However, the elections will be much more competitive than what the polls predict. Sheinbaum might win, but she will not have the same power and authority as AMLO, though AMLO might remain too powerful and influential in her (possible) presidency. Hopefully, she will not be ruled by AMLO and will be far more competent. We will see.

Roberto Sussman
Roberto Sussman
1 month ago

What’s the matter UnHeard !!!
You just censored my comment

Roberto Sussman
Roberto Sussman
1 month ago

 I did not vote for AMLO in 2018, but shared expectations of millions of fellow Mexicans. He was elected with a lot of legitimacy and trust. He had political power not seen as since the 1990s. We expected populism, but also a minimal level of competence as he exhibited during his tenure as Mexico City major in the early 2000s. But then he had counterweights. In 2018 he had none.
His tenure cannot be more disappointing. He has violated almost everyone of his promises and commitments under which he was elected (and endorsed by many not voting for him). He promised transparency: nobody would be above the law, to abide by the constitution, to maintain the balance between the presidency, the legislative and judicial branches, to end official corruption, to enhance security by reinforcing police without the increasing military involvement in police work. He promised a health sector as in Denmark. Nobody expected fulfillment of these promises, politicians always promise, but we expected a minimal acceptable level of consistency. He made a complete U turn on every single promise: his administration is as opaque es during the PRI dictatorship of the XX century. We should not let AMLO off the hook. It is true, Mexico is not becoming (yet) a full dictatorship. In fact, AMLO’s model is not Venezuela or Cuba, it is the one-party PRI dictatorship that ruled Mexico during the XX century (AMLO comes from the PRI). It is not an issue of left vs right, I (and millions of Mexicans) would not have objected to a government directing a set of social policies to benefit the large poor and vulnerable population, specially in the southern states. The issue is massive incompetence and destruction of Mexican social and political life. His hand picked candidate Claudia Sheinbaum might win these very uneven elections, since AMLO violated the electoral law openly campaigning for her since 2022 (with veiled message to millions of beneficiaries of social programs to “remember who is giving you the money”). However, the elections will be much more competitive than what the polls predict. Sheinbaum might win, but she will not have the same power and authority as AMLO, though AMLO might remain too powerful and influential in her (possible) presidency. Hopefully, she will not be ruled by AMLO and will be far more competent. We will see.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
1 month ago

“is socially conservative on some issues, being strongly nationalist and in favour of the family”
That is the real problem, and the reason why the Western media- academia-NGO complex are hostile to the lack of “democracy”. Whether real or not, doesn’t matter, because it’s just a stick to best Mexico with.
I can tell, because it’s familiar – it’s a similar story with the ongoing Indian elections, where these sane groups are “concerned” about “democracy” – because of the strongly nationalist, socially conservative Modi government.

Ironically, having stayed on the West for a long time now, these same people are the most anti -democratic, anti free speech around.