What do you think of it so far? Voters rate Amlo’s Mexico ‘transformation’
Nearly three years have passed since Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected president of Mexico and, before a sea of euphoric supporters, promised: “I will not fail you. You will not be disappointed.”
“I knew he wouldn’t fail us because I felt so sure about him and because we knew that his plan for the nation was achievable,” said Teresa Sordo Vilchis, a 71-year-old obradorista who has been a dedicated follower for more than a decade – and believes her leader has been true to his word.
“He’s a person who has defects like everyone – but I’ve no doubt at all about his love for the country,” the social activist enthused this week, praising his oath to govern, rather than plunder Latin America’s No 2 economy. “He’s the best president Mexico has ever had.”
But as the country gears up for what will be the biggest vote in its history others are not so sure, and Sunday’s midterm elections are widely viewed as a referendum on López Obrador’s divisive and, some say, increasingly authoritarian administration.
Fernanda Gómez, a 28-year-old political scientist, said she had taken part in the president’s 2018 campaign and cheered his victory with thousands of others in Mexico City’s Zócalo square. But nearly three years on she was disenchanted with the man they call Amlo and planned to vote against his party, Morena.
“My vote isn’t about supporting the opposition – it’s a way of saying that I want a change of direction,” said Gómez. “It’s a vote that says: get with it, Andrés Manuel.”
The name of Mexico’s leader will not be on the ballot on Sunday when 94 million voters will decide who controls the lower house of congress and 15 state governments for the rest of Amlo’s six-year term.
But many see the contest as a plebiscite on what the 67-year-old nationalist calls his Cuarta Transformación (“Fourth Transformation”) – a supposedly epochal bid to wrest control of the country back from an entrenched and power-hungry elite that he compares to Mexico’s independence, the reform laws of Benito Juárez and the 1910 revolution.
Amlo’s efforts to portray himself as a straight-talking everyman chime with many, particularly among the poor, and polls suggests he retains significant support despite his response to one of the world’s worst Covid crises and the pounding Mexico’s economy took last year.
More than 225,000 Mexican lives have been lost to a Covid-19 outbreak many accuse Amlo of disastrously mishandling, yet he continues to boast approval ratings of above 60%.
“It was a question of someone coming along to govern and not steal,” said Sordo, the diehard supporter.
Others who supported Amlo in 2018 are far less impressed. “López Obrador no longer represents change,” said Yolotzin Jaimes, a women’s rights campaigner in the southern state of Guerrero, who had expected action on gender violence and was heartened by López Obrador’s promise to appoint prominent women to key cabinet positions.
Three years later, Jaimes has been protesting outside the presidential palace after López Obrador backed an accused rapist as the future governor of her state. “We thought he would take women’s issues seriously in the country,” Jaimes said. “But he’s shown himself to be a conservative in power.”
Amlo swept the polls in 2018 on an agenda of combating corruption and putting the poor first in a country rife with inequality and injustice. He took a staggering 53% of the vote and claimed control of both houses of congress.
Supporters hailed his victory as the final fruition of Mexico’s transition to democracy. But as his nominally leftist government approaches the midway point, Amlo’s administration has tilted rightward – both fiscally and socially – and he has derided progressives like Jaimes as conservatives.
He has imposed punishing austerity, waged a war with feminist protesters, bet big on fossil fuels and even cosied up to Donald Trump as he cracked down on Central American migrants transiting the country.
Before his election Amlo had promised to combat soaring levels of violence with hugs, not bullets. But the murder rate has plateaued at a scandalously high level, and a wave of pre-election violence has left 34 candidates dead and forced hundreds of people to flee their homes – despite Amlo’s unconvincing claim this week that the whole of Mexico was a place “of peace and tranquility”.
Critics accuse the president of militarising the country, as he tasks soldiers with everything from public security to building infrastructure projects to operating seaports. “I was moved [to vote for him] by this project of demilitarising public security, his less punitive agenda, ending the [drug] war – I thought things would change,” said Gómez, the political scientist.
“This was my greatest disappointment – this security crisis and having a president who seems not to have the slightest interest in dealing with it.”
There is also a growing sense democracy itself is being eroded as Amlo – who the Economist recently branded a power-hungry “false Messiah” – concentrates power in the presidency, picks fights with judges who rule against his initiatives and threatens to dismantle the country’s electoral overseer and transparency institute.
His constant attacks on the media and a penchant for post-truth politics only add to the unease. “I have other figures,” Amlo responds when confronted with unfavorable information.
“Expectations were for a democratic government that promoted inclusive development, leaving behind the old model, and that he would seriously tackle corruption,” said Bárbara González, a political analyst from the city of Monterrey. “Instead we have a government flirting with authoritarianism, which is trying to impose hegemony under which opposition from parties or civil society is illegitimate.”
How damaging those frustrations and fears will prove to Amlo’s party this weekend is unclear, as the economy appears to be rebounding from last year’s slump. Mexico’s president has stayed personally popular by reminding voters of the sins of past administrations, often communicating the difference through gestures of personal austerity. He wears rumpled suits, takes commercial flights and eats at roadside restaurants while touring his country’s hinterlands.
Supporters praise some achievements including increases in the minimum wage, the provision of cash payments to seniors and students and attempting to re-nationalizing the energy sector – which is popular in Mexico, even if it is bad news for the environment.
“He’s stopped some of the corruption … and shared [that money] with senior citizens,” said Miguel Estrada Rivas, 74, a bicycle mechanic in suburban Mexico City, who receives a small stipend through a program started by Amlo.
Edgar Cortez, a veteran human rights activist who was one of more than 30 million Mexicans to vote Amlo in 2018, expressed disillusionment that the president appeared to have abandoned his pledges to help the victims of forced disappearances and femicide. “Those undertakings were forgotten. Nothing happened,” complained the Mexico City-based activist. But the political alternatives were so unappetizing that he had little other choice.
“It strikes me as being really sad when, in a democracy, citizens end up limited to electing the less-bad option, rather than the best one,” Cortez said.