Mexico’s Voters Should Be More Demanding

(The Bloomberg View) -- With one more national debate and about a month to go before Mexico’s July 1 election, the third time looks to be the charm for presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The veteran left-wing politician and former mayor of Mexico City holds a commanding lead in the polls.

Lopez Obrador has capitalized on public disaffection with Mexico’s political establishment. A startling 89 percent of Mexicans tell pollsters the country is on the wrong track. But his policies are uncertain, and his lack of regard for the country’s independent institutions is worrisome. Voters are right to be angry, but they’d be wise to demand more clarity of their front-runner.

Last year was the country’s deadliest ever, with almost 29,000 murders. President Enrique Pena Nieto’s time in office has been plagued by scandals and cover-ups, and his bold economic reforms have failed to yield faster growth. More than 40 percent of Mexicans live in poverty, and in the poorest regions in the south, the rates are far higher.

But Lopez Obrador’s proposed solutions are vague. He’s talked of amnesty for drug traffickers without saying what this would mean. His answer to widespread corruption is apparently to lead by example: “Only I can fight corruption,” he says. Victory in that struggle will somehow pay for ambitious social spending. His advisers have tried to tamp down talk of reversing Pena Nieto’s economic reforms, but the candidate doesn’t seem to be listening: He issues fiery blasts on the subject from the campaign trail.

His five-year stint as Mexico City’s mayor suggests he’s a moderate progressive — but he isn’t dialing back the populism as his lead solidifies. And his new powers as president would be vastly greater. Guaranteeing crop payments for farmers, freezing gasoline prices in real terms, crimping foreign participation in Mexico’s oil and gas industry, boosting pension benefits, and generally expanding the state’s economic role spell big fiscal trouble for a country with mounting debt.

Equally alarming are Lopez Obrador’s views on the Supreme Court, the national electoral institute (which he attacked during his previous runs for president), and civil society in general. For instance, better regulation in areas such as freedom of information, competition and telecommunications has been one of the most promising signs for Mexico’s future; achieving the country’s potential requires more such dispersal of power. Insulating Mexico’s newly created special prosecutor from political influence would push the same way, and help in the fight against corruption. Lopez Obrador disparages several who call for such changes.

Lopez Obrador says that if he wins office, he’ll give voters the chance to vote him out every two years. That’s no substitute for checks and balances, and orderly competent government.

The effort by Mexico’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party to restore its long-time dominance has all but collapsed in a cloud of voter disgust. Yet trading one-party rule for the one-person rule Lopez Obrador seems to intend is no way to repair trust in government. Mexico’s success depends on further reforming the economy and building strong institutions of democratic governance. Voters should demand no less.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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