Ian Vazquez writes about the Mexican electoral campaign and the rise of populism in the country. Vazquez is the director of CATO Institute’s Center for Liberty and Prosperity. He is a member of the Mont Pelerin Society and the Council for Foreign Relations.
Currently, Mexico’s leading candidate is a left-wing populist who lost two previous presidential elections and was considered a political light-weight a few years ago. This is Andrés Manuel López Obrador, AMLO to the Mexicans.
The boom of López Obrador’s candidacy is to a large degree a punishment to the ruling party (PRI or Institutional Revolutionary Party) that held power for the better part of the last century and the National Action Party (PAN) that held office for the two previous periods. According to AMLO, they are both part of the mafias of power that are responsible for most of Mexico’s problems. Furthermore, this electoral cycle is happening during a political conjuncture in which the United States is trying to renegotiate its free trade agreement with Mexico and follows repeated signs of contempt towards Mexicans by President Trump. Trump’s populism has definitively helped the rise of AMLO’s populism.
It may be surprising to see a country that was modernized and positively transformed by decades of economic liberalization has fallen into populism. But a good part of Mexicans’ frustration with the Status Quo is justified. Like in many other countries that have seen the rise of populist politics, security, corruption and slow economic growth have played a significant role.
Current president Enrique Peña Nieto came to power promising to reverse the violence that exploded during his predecessor’s administration, that was characterized by a declaration of war against the drug cartels. Over the last few years, nevertheless, homicides and other crimes have skyrocketed. By October, murders in 2018 have already surpassed the number for the whole of 2017 and it is expected that the murder rate for this year will be a record 22 856 murders. Instead of changing the policy for dealing with drug trafficking, Peña Nieto has done more of the same.
Corruption scandals have also exploded, forcing the government to create the so-called National Anti Corruption System. However, the government has blocked the effort made by members of this anti-corruption group and others. The Odebrecht case, for example, showed evidence that Peña Nieto’s campaign has received bribes. Until now, however, there have been no advances in the investigation.
Mexico’s economic growth has been mediocre for a long time but, at a yearly average of 2,1%, it is currently at its lower in over ten years. What’s happening is that the country, like the McKinsey Global Institute, described 3 years ago, is composed by both highly productive modern enterprises connected to the world and traditional small and medium-sized enterprises whose productivity is in decline. Compared to other countries in the region, Mexico has been left behind in terms of major reforms.
Political analyst Luis Rubio describes this reality in geographic terms: “If one draws a line above Mexico City, almost everything to the north grows at 5%, with a few localities growing significantly more. This has produced a new society, increasingly optimistic and successful. At the same time, there are societies, mostly south of this imaginary line, that remain stagnant because their political and social structures continue to benefit local political and economic powers.”
Last week PRI announced its candidate, José Antonio Meade (a technocrat who is not a member of the unpopular party). I happened to be in Mexico and I could see the relief of many Mexicans to the rise of an alternative to AMLO. Mexico can avoid populism, but reaching modernity is another story altogether.
* This article was originally published at El Comercio (Peru).