During the recent Mexican elections, Daniel Eltringham travelled to the country as part of a delegation that would hope to oversee a just and corruption free election process. This anti-corruption, pro-democratic transparency stance is new to Mexico, a country that has seen the murder of 152 electoral candidates and high-levels of electoral fraud. Cleaner elections and the ascendancy of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the anti-corruption candidate, signals a sea-change for Mexican democracy. Daniel Eltringham explores that in this new blog.
This blog is published to coincide with the publication of A New Hope for Mexico, AMLO’s manifesto for a new Mexico.
On Sunday 1st July 2018, Mexico held its largest ever elections, which returned a landslide victory for president elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or ‘AMLO’ as he is more commonly known. His coalition party Morena won majorities across parliament, senate, mayoralties, and local authorities. AMLO took 53% of the presidential vote, on a turnout of over 60%. Morena, which is the Spanish word for ‘brown’ as well as the acronym for Movimiento Regeneración Nacional, now hold 308 of 500 congress seats, and a slightly smaller majority in the senate (69 of 128 senators). In both houses, the gender balance is close to 50-50, although none of the major parties are led by a woman.
The importance of this result for Mexican politics and society can hardly be overstated. AMLO, the perennial opposition candidate to the ruling two-party state system comprised of the PRI and the PAN, seems finally to have broken through. People refer to the PRI and the PAN with the dismissive compound ‘PRIAN’, in acknowledgement of the way elections have been sewn up one way or the other since the liberal centre-right Partido Acción National (PAN) first loosened the Partido Revolucionario Institutional (PRI)’s 80-year reign over Mexican politics and official culture in 2000. AMLO broke away from the PRI in 1988 to form the PRD (Partido de la Revolución Democrática), and in one sense this is the moment AMLO himself and the Mexican left more broadly have been working towards for decades.
I observed the electoral process as part of a delegation from the UK, organised by the Mexican pro-transparency network RUCD (Red Universitaria y Ciudadana por la Democracia) and the London-based group Justice Mexico Now. The delegation, headed by University of Sheffield academics Peter Watt and Rupert Knox, comprised representatives of trade unions, activists, academics, a journalist and a member of parliament. International delegations, of which the UK’s was the largest, monitored the elections along with thousands of Mexican nationals concerned about the endemic fraud, violence and impunity that characterised the electoral process: 152 candidates were murdered during the most violent campaign in Mexico’s recent history. Our presence in Mexico could have been seen as symbolic rather than efficacious. But the visibility of an international community concerned about human rights and democratic transparency in Mexico played, perhaps, a small but significant part in the ensuring these elections were cleaner than expected, despite the high levels of violence leading up to polling day.
Nonetheless, an estimated 31,000 boletas electorales (voting cards) had been stolen up to 30 June, and the Electoral Tribunal had ruled that the independent candidate ‘El Bronco’ should be allowed to stand, despite having forged a significant proportion of his supporting signatures. There were serious incidents in Puebla days after the vote, but it was difficult to know what was true amongst the static of Twitter. The main irregularities observed by the delegation were polling stations opening late – in some cases by up to an hour and a half – which denied people the chance to vote. There was a serious issue with the casillas especiales – polling stations for those not registered in a municipality – which were massively undersupplied with voting cards, disenfranchising more mobile sectors of the electorate. (For my diary account of the election day itself, see: ‘¡Sí se pudo!’, London Review of Books blog).
In the check-in queue at Heathrow on Wednesday 27 June, all the talk was of politics and football; the AeroMéxico staff wore green football shirts in support of the Mexican national team in the World Cup. While waiting I chatted with a dentist from Matamoros, Tamaulipas, on the Texas border. I told her why I was going to Mexico. ‘Pues por favor que observen bien, que no quiero que gane’, she replied (‘observe well then, I don’t want him to win’). ‘He’, it goes without saying, refers to AMLO. Why not? Because he is too old, she said, not tech-savvy, doesn’t speak other languages (‘when he goes to Canada they’ll make fun of him’), and too nationalistic. But AMLO’s brand of protectionist nationalism is fundamentally distinct from that which currently holds sway in ‘El Norte’, because it is articulated from a position of relative weakness. He looks to Benito Juárez, Salvador Allende and Lázaro Cárdenas for examples of socialist-internationalist nationalisms. AMLO’s robustness in his projected relations with the United States was one of the factors that garnered support for his campaign; for once, he said, Mexico wouldn’t just let US capital produce and export at will. That will be easier said than done.
Ricardo Anaya Cortés, the PAN candidate that she supported, would have continued to court international capital had he won. But he scores on the other points. He speaks French and English. As the youthful neoliberal pretender, his candidacy embodied these qualities as signifiers for an image of Mexico’s techno-hip modernity. AMLO wants to build more oil refineries and isn’t interested in wind farms, she continued, when Mexico should be going green. There are nearly no recycling bins and very little in the way of an anti-waste culture.
These are good arguments, and I certainly wasn’t going to defend the socialist-statist approach to industry and fossil fuels. But really, she continued, she could never support AMLO because ‘communism doesn’t work’, the old refrain. She returned several times to the familiar discourse of ‘hard work’ in support of her arguments in favour of private wealth, underscored by the old rhetoric of the undeserving. ‘If you’ve worked hard others shouldn’t get something for free’, and so on. ‘I didn’t go to a good school, but I applied myself’. I try to gently suggest that the ground when the starting gun was fired might not have been completely level, but don’t get very far. Time to check in.
Almost half the electorate on 1 July was millennial, and as expected the youth vote broke overwhelmingly for AMLO. As with Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, the apparent paradox of a perennial challenger from the old left receiving the youth vote might be put down to young people preferring policy over image. They are tired of violence and corruption, and see AMLO as the only option not tainted by graft. During the campaign, memes and songs played a significant role. Almudena Ortiz Monasterio’s viral hit ‘Niña Bien’, for instance, is spoken by a ‘niña bien’, a rich girl, who’s going to do the unthinkable:
Aunque sea una niña bien
Voy a votar por ya sabes quien
(‘Although I’m a rich girl,
I’m going to vote for you-know-who’)
During the campaign, #YaSabesQuien, ‘you-know-who’, became the unspeakable signifier for the seismic reconfiguration of the party system observed by the pollster Jorge Buendía. Like ‘AMLO’, #YaSabesQuien is another strategic way of not quite naming the inconceivable. It almost seems as though these nominal evasions channelled the subconscious of the political class: its disbelieving displacements found themselves expressed through the discourse that contested its hegemony by meme, hashtag, music video.
At a press conference for the networks that had brought together the delegations of observers on 2 July, the day after the vote, it was stressed that AMLO had won so decisively not only for his stance against corruption, violence and impunity, but also because he was the only candidate to talk about popular sovereignty. Unlike the fear-driven campaigns of his opponents, AMLO had proposed government for and by the people, a message which had triumphed against the entire apparatus of the Mexican state, media and official culture.
Once the new executive takes office on 1 December, however, he and they will have to work with those institutional structures. Morena’s majority across congress, senate and local authorities means it suddenly wields a great deal of power with few constitutional checks and balances. The temptations of absolute executive power need to be resisted. In order to pursue corruption as promised, the connections between political institutions and the cartels will have to be traced at the level of financial transactions. The previous two PRIAN governments preferred to beef up the state’s military presence rather than ask difficult questions liable to rebound on themselves, which only intensified the violence. But in order to be able to carry out this kind of investigation the public prosecutor’s office would have to be split from its politicised role as one of the governing party’s tools for settling scores with enemies. That is a considerable amount of power to willingly give up.
As congress was sworn in on 1 September, the chant ‘es un honor estar con Obrador’ (‘it’s an honour to be with Obrador’ rang round the parliament building. The Morena coalition is fewer than 30 congress seats shy of the ‘qualified’ majority needed for constitutional changes; in the senate they are 16 short. With the electoral landscape in flux, the prospect of further alliance-building and major constitutional reforms looks possible. AMLO has signalled that he will re-separate the Secretary of Public Security and the Ministry of the Interior, which were amalgamated by the last PRI government; make it possible to try a sitting president; and reduce salaries across the judicial and executive branches of government. The longer-term legislative agenda will include education reform, including the way teachers are evaluated.
By some accounts, AMLO has moved to the right in terms of macroeconomic policy and may take a more conciliatory approach to corporate interests than parts of his base would like. AMLO’s gestural politics so far has followed echoed José Alberto “Pepe” Mujica’s in Uruguay: he has refused to live in the presidential palace, which he has vowed to turn into a public park, and he plans to sell the presidential jet. In policy terms he is perhaps more likely to emulate Lula in Brazil, essentially maintaining fiscal discipline while ameliorating poverty and inequality.
Indeed, it is hard to see how he will be able to effect radical economic change within NAFTA’s neoliberal framework: although it is also far from clear what the trading block will look like after its recent revamp, with Canada’s involvement uncertain. The outgoing president Enrique Peña Nieto toasted the new deal announced in late August with ‘a glass of tequila’, but Morena will be responsible for the consequences. It will need to strike a delicate balance on trade policy between members of its coalition, particularly around energy and sovereignty. The future cabinet looks to be more business-orientated than the left of the coalition will be comfortable with, while still troubling foreign investors with its rhetorical commitment to socialism.
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.
Daniel Eltringham is an academic and poet.