The AMLO Presidency: Retrospectives and Looks to the Future

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The July of 2018 saw Andrés Manuel López Obrador, widely known as AMLO, succeed where he had twice failed before, winning the Mexican presidential election with an outright majority with MORENA, his political movement, and dealing a stunning defeat to Mexico’s traditional parties in the process.

López Obrador rode into the Mexican presidency on an anti-establishment landslide, earning over 54% of the counted vote. His populist rhetoric and economically nationalist platform appealed to a popular disillusionment felt by citizens across the country. Decades of PRI corruption, as well as immense distaste for incumbent president Enrique Peña Nieto (EPN), fueled his campaign’s success. Perhaps even more, steep unemployment and stunningly high levels of socioeconomic inequality motivated millions of Mexicans to mobilize for change.

The July 2021 midterm elections marked the halfway point of AMLO’s presidency. With this in mind, how has he performed thus far, in regard to his campaign promises and the COVID-19 pandemic? What are the policy priorities of the second half of AMLO’s presidency likely to be? And what should observers expect going forward, both for MORENA and for Mexico?

Governing after the campaign

Populist leaders like AMLO – and their supporters – frequently face an initial disappointment once they reach office, as high aspirations during election season must face the realities of governing. Quite simply, lofty campaign promises take a backseat to everyday infrastructural and logistical concerns, such as security, sanitation, or transportation.

As the former mayor of Mexico City, AMLO is familiar with this – and his early years as president demonstrate it. His proposed train connecting the Federal District with the Yucatan Peninsula has faced delays, while his controversial cancellation of the Texcoco airport in favor of a commercial terminal at the Santa Lucia Airport has been costly on multiple fronts. Meanwhile, crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic or the often-tense relationship with Mexico’s largest trade partner, the United States, under former President Donald Trump, have had to take precedence over initial ambitions.

However, on a general level AMLO has failed to deliver on many campaign promises. He has faced consistent criticism from women’s rights groups, owing to Mexico’s spiking femicide rate. Vows to demilitarize the sector of public security have instead seen a worsening of the problem, while the president levels accusations of treason against those who go against him.

In addition, AMLO’s promises to clean up the country’s endemic corruption problem have largely failed to materialize, including in a controversial August 2021 referendum in which AMLO sought to have his five predecessors face the possibility of prosecution. López Obrador has faced other accusations of rival persecution, such as in the case of 2018 presidential runner-up Ricardo Anaya, who currently resides in New York City amidst charges of bribery he maintains are politically-motivated.

Mexico’s response to the pandemic has been stunningly soft, instituting far fewer relief programs than other regional or OECD countries. The end result of his austerity attempts during the crisis has been a nearly 10% drop in GDP in 2020.

The Next Three Years

The 2021 midterms slightly hurt MORENA’s position, though they did not cost the party its congressional majority. AMLO emerges from July in a weaker position to pass the sweeping legislation and constitutional changes he’s proposing. Perhaps the toughest to pass shall be the president’s sweeping energy policies, in which he seeks to renationalize the oil and electricity sectors, for which he will face resistance from – among many others – business leaders, the US government, and the Mexican Supreme Court.

However, it is worth noting the cornerstone of AMLO’s mandate, which is his popular support. As of the writing of this piece, López Obrador maintains an approval rating of over 60%, far above most other regional leaders. Policies such as his massive coal bid indicate perhaps the route the dogmatic leftist will go down. But if anything has been made clear in the first half of his mandate, AMLO is nothing if not a paradox.

A Look Ahead

The PRI held absolute power – famously called the ‘perfect dictatorship’ – in Mexico for most of the 20th century. In 2020, political commentator, professor, and journalist Denise Dresser noted that AMLO appeared to be trying to pulling Mexico back to this era of single-party dominance, with his MORENA movement replacing the PRI at the upper echelons of power.

Considering that, perhaps analyses of AMLO’s policies and mistakes are suffering from too short a lens. Mexican presidents can only serve a single six-year term, before being barred from running again. AMLO may very well be choosing his priorities based not off policy recommendations or Mexican welfare, but rather in the long-term success of MORENA.

Given AMLO’s approval rating, the question of who leads the Movement in the 2024 election will likely come down to whoever secures his endorsement, at this point considered by most to either be Mayor of Mexico City Claudia Sheinbaum or Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard. In fact, it is not impossible that a post-presidential AMLO will transition into a similar role as former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, a kingmaker at the center of his respective political movement, his hand tipping the scales at each new election.

It’s still too early to tell, for both López Obrador’s future and MORENA’s fate. Regardless, it is clear that the tumult of AMLO’s first three years isn’t going anywhere.