Looking at social issues like abortion, gender equality, LGBT rights, worker’s rights, Christy Thornton considers what we can expect from AMLO, Mexico’s new left-populist President.
This blog is published to coincide with the publication of A New Hope for Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s manifesto for a new Mexico.
Mexico’s newly elected president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, will take office in December. It is a highly anticipated transfer of power, the first time, since 2000, when Mexico’s one-party political system was cracked open, that a left-leaning leader will occupy the President’s office.
Among the 30 million Mexicans who voted for AMLO, were untold numbers fed up with the corruption and incompetence of the reigning political parties, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and the right-wing National Action Party (PAN). But AMLO secured his historic victory because millions of voters turned out because they sought real social, political, and economic change and because they continued to believe that such change was possible, in the face of persistent inequality, rampant corruption, and surging violence.
In some ways, this is the most remarkable aspect of the election. Formal democracy is relatively young in Mexico: the PRI ruled the country as a single-party state from the late 1920s until the turn of the 21st century. After the PRI was unseated in 2000, two terms of PAN power did little to improve Mexico’s economic or social outlook, and brought the dawn of the so-called ‘War on Drugs and Organized Crime,’ which dispatched the military into Mexican streets with deadly consequences. Human rights activists estimate that some 150,000 people have been killed since 2007, and conservative official statistics indicate that more than 37,000 have been forcibly disappeared.
In this context, the need for change is urgently felt. AMLO’s campaign recognised that Mexico’s surging violence was not just a security problem, but also a social and economic one. To this end, he promised to reorient government spending away from graft-ridden projects that have served only to enrich those in government and their cronies and towards social programmes, focusing particularly on education and old-age care.
During the campaign, activists raised important questions about AMLO’s social agenda, particularly because he entered into a coalition with the fringe far-right evangelical Social Encounter Party (PES). PES were strange bedfellows for the campaign, fitting uneasily into a coalition with AMLO’s Movement for National Regeneration (MORENA) and the socialist-leaning Workers’ Party (PT). PES oppose same-sex marriage and abortion and activists have criticised their involvement in the coalition, charging that it revealed AMLO’s personal social conservatism. AMLO also went on the record to state that these social issues were less important than poverty and corruption. In the end, PES received just over 2% of the popular vote—low enough to decertify them as a party for future elections—but they were awarded more than 10 percent of seats in the House of Deputies and 6 percent in the Senate. The party has become an important part of MORENA’s legislative coalition, giving social activists pause.
Despite the institutional embeddedness of these social conservatives, however, Mexican movements have already demonstrated their power in pushing back on the PES. In late September, it was announced that the PES would take over important legislative committees on health and culture. This announcement provoked immediate outcry from activists which reversed that decision and the commissions were handed over to MORENA (PES was granted commissions on sports and labor and social security, where their conservative evangelical agenda, activists say, will have less of an impact).
And it is that movement spirit, and the ability of MORENA’s base to organise and push AMLO and his party on social issues, that will be crucial going forward. In September, a widely publicised march in Mexico City called for the nation-wide legalisation of abortion. Abortion before 12 weeks is legal in Mexico City and only permitted in the rest of the country in cases of rape or risk to the mother’s life. After the closely watched fight for legal abortion was narrowly lost in Argentina in August, activists in cities around Mexico joined their counterparts throughout Latin America and took to the streets to demand the expansion of abortion rights. Since then, important MORENA legislators have begun to signal their intention of pushing for a broader legalisation of abortion, noting that clandestine abortion is the second-leading cause of material mortality in Mexico, affecting mostly poor women.
AMLO has pledged to continue to respect the rights of LGBT people, and specifically mentioned respecting all sexual preferences in his first speech after the election. During his time as Mayor of Mexico City, AMLO demurred on the topic of gay marriage, which was being pushed by activists, and it was approved only by his successor as mayor, Marcelo Ebrard (who will now serve as AMLO’s foreign secretary). Subsequently a new constitution for Mexico City has been approved that enshrines the legality of gay marriage rights in the district, and the Mexican Supreme Court has stated that gay marriages performed in Mexico City must be recognised throughout the country. Given his relative reticence on the topic, AMLO’s mention of gay rights in his first speech as President-elect sent an important signal that his critics had been heard.
And there are other positive signs for the new government. Because women fought for and won reforms with respect to gender quotas over the last few years, the Mexican legislature will now have gender parity: women now make up 49 percent of the House of Deputies and 51 percent of the Senate. Claudia Sheinbaum, the first elected female mayor of Mexico City—an important national political position—will also take office on 1st December. Women also make up half of AMLO’s incoming cabinet in stark contrast to the outgoing government. Women will head important posts as secretaries of the interior, economy, energy, and labour and social welfare, among others. In a country where violence against women has reached the level that activists qualify as feminicido—femicide—attention to gender inequality and its deadly consequences is desperately needed.
The incoming labour minister, Luisa María Alcalde Luján, will play an important role in another crucial social and economic area: labour rights. Already, the new legislature, which was seated in September and has majorities for the MORENA coalition in both houses, has begun to pass new labour legislation. New laws are intended to make it easier for workers to organise, and to make their unions more democratic and responsible to the rank-and-file. Alcalde Luján has important links to independent labour unions fighting to change the ossified structures that have long bound Mexico’s largest labour unions to the PRI and kept labour militancy in check. Radical labour unions fighting for change now have a sympathetic ear not only in the legislature, but in the president’s cabinet, as well.
In each of these areas, the continued organising of Mexican movements—both those that have aligned themselves with MORENA and those further to the left—will be crucial to securing progressive change under AMLO. The constraints are formidable: the violence of the drug war, the structure of the economy which has produced massive inequalities, and the skewed priorities of the Trump administration in the US all present significant obstacles to meaningful change in Mexico. But AMLO’s unprecedented victory opens up a new democratic horizon for Mexico, and provides a glimpse of a future worth fighting for.
A New Hope for Mexico: Saying No to Corruption, Violence, and Trump’s Wall by Andrés Manuel López Obrador is available to buy from Pluto Press.
Christy Thornton is an Assistant Professor in the Johns Hopkins University Department of Sociology and Program in Latin American Studies, and a core faculty member for the Latin America in a Globalizing World Initiative. She was formally the Executive Director of the North American Congress on Latin America.