López Obrador becomes Latin America’s new strongman

López Obrador becomes Latin America’s new strongman

The Mexican leader is revealing himself as an authoritarian populist

When a president demands “blind loyalty” from officials, alarm bells should ring. When he calls for a people’s vote on prosecuting his predecessors, launches a broadside at the independent electoral body and publicly shames those who criticise him, there is good reason to feel fearful.

The supreme court has become the latest institution in Mexico to bow to the will of populist president Andrés Manuel López Obrador. It ruled last Thursday that his plan to call a referendum over putting five ex-presidents on trial was constitutional, ignoring the principle that such decisions should be made by prosecutors on the basis of evidence. Its only change was to reword the question on the ballot, making it vaguer and dropping the former leaders’ names.

Mr López Obrador was elected by a landslide in 2018 with a mandate to pursue a radical “transformation”. He promised to rid his country of corruption, reduce the high murder rate and replace technocratic, market-friendly policies with actions that put the “poor and forgotten” first. Such ideas had strong voter appeal: Mexican politics had been incorrigibly venal for decades and drug violence had scarred large areas. A narrow elite dominated the country, while the economic growth spurred by Nafta had benefited the north but left the south behind.

What Mr López Obrador did not win was a mandate to dismantle institutions. Mexico’s democracy was already fragile and its public bodies weak, the legacy of years of untrammelled presidential power and the predominance of a single political party. Genuine progressive reform would have granted greater autonomy to states and municipalities, reduced presidential power and reinforced the rule of law.

Instead, the self-styled leader of Mexico’s “fourth transformation” has concentrated even greater power in his own hands. Most big decisions are his alone. Institutions which refuse to bend to his will are targeted. The independent electoral authority has been attacked by the president for having “never guaranteed free elections”, even though it certified his landslide victory. Journalists who disparage the president can expect to be named, accused of being “at the service of the authoritarian and corrupt regimes” which preceded him, and asked to apologise. Environmentalists who criticise his pet infrastructure projects, including an expensive new railway line to be driven partly through virgin Mayan forest, are described as foreign lackeys for hire.

Why is Mr López Obrador so intolerant? After nearly two years in power, positive results are meagre, apart from a modest pension reform. Economic growth halted in his first year and Mexico’s recession this year is forecast to be the worst of any major Latin American country bar Argentina. Corruption and crime remain intolerably high and an erratic response to coronavirus has led to one of the world’s highest per capita death tolls. The president’s habit of withdrawing approval for major projects which had already been agreed has crippled business investment. His interventions in the energy industry have favoured fossil fuels over renewables and the ailing state oil giant Pemex over the private sector. The golden opportunity offered by the newly-agreed US-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement to lure American companies returning from China to Mexico is being squandered.

Mexico is indeed being transformed, but not in the way Mr López Obrador had promised. Unless the president changes course quickly, Latin America’s second-biggest economy risks sliding back into a poorer, darker and more repressive past, one inhabited by the authoritarian caudillos the region hoped it had left behind.

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