López Obrador Has Few Checks on His Power

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- I last spoke with the political scientist Jennifer Piscopo, an expert in Latin American politics at Occidental College, right before the Mexican elections this summer. The president-elect, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, will take office on Saturday, so I went back to Piscopo to see how things have changed in the intervening months. 

The following has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jonathan Bernstein: What do we know now about how Andrés Manuel López Obrador intends to govern that we didn’t know when he was elected in July?

Jennifer Piscopo: We have gotten to see AMLO — as he is known — in action. He has followed through on his campaign promises to subject major decisions to popular referendum, but with troubling results.

His transition team organized a referendum to determine what should be done about the half-built international airport. The project is clearly a boondoggle: It is massively over-budget, the environmental impact is severe, and the outgoing administration likely acquired the land through some dodgy deals. Even so, polls showed that most Mexicans favored completion, until AMLO’s referendum. The vote was plagued by numerous reports of mismanagement, but AMLO received what he wanted: a mandate to halt construction.

His team recently organized a second referendum, this time on 10 projects, from constructing a tourist train through the Yucatán to increasing senior pensions. The results delivered “yes” votes across the board — like the airport, the outcomes line up with AMLO’s preferences.

Asking citizens to participate in referendums improves democratic participation. But when the referendums seem less concerned with process, and more designed to manufacture agreement on controversial policies, they look less democratic and more populist. In expressing (what seems to be) the popular will, the votes reduce Congress’s ability to block the president’s agenda. Not even inaugurated yet, AMLO is putting his administration’s legitimacy at risk. 

JB: What about the new Congress, which was seated back in September? What have we learned about it so far?

JP: Even without the referendums, Congress is not well-positioned to check AMLO’s agenda because his party holds a majority in both houses. His coalition is already making waves. For example, lawmakers are reviewing AMLO’s draft austerity plan, which includes limits on public officials’ salaries and perks, as well as the incorporation of public officials into the state-run social security system. Changes to the public administration alone cannot make up for budget shortfalls, but might restore confidence in a public employment system many Mexicans see as corrupt. And last week, AMLO’s party submitted legislation that would legalize the possession, public use, growth and sale of marijuana. This bill follows AMLO’s promise to change course in the war on drugs, signaling that the incoming government sees legalization as necessary for reducing crime and violence. The new Congress is moving quickly to enact his agenda.

JB: From the American perspective, the big new issue since the election is the migrant caravans moving through Mexico on their way to the U.S. How should we expect AMLO to handle them — and to handle Donald Trump on border questions?

JP: The situation on the U.S.-Mexico border is a humanitarian disaster, and AMLO has few good options. Mexico long has insisted that the U.S. respect migrants’ rights and offer migrants fair treatment, as this stance protects Mexican and Mexican-American immigrants as well as refugee seekers from Central America. Despite the impression given by the Trump administration, arriving to the U.S. border as a migrant and claiming asylum is not illegal under U.S. law — and Mexico has interest in allowing these migrants to pass, else they remain “stuck” within Mexico’s own borders. AMLO, as a champion of the poor, will likely continue insisting on humanitarian approaches, but what can he offer the U.S. in return? The Trump administration’s tough approach puts AMLO in a bind: to maintain cordial relations with the U.S., he cannot take a hard stand against the U.S. mistreatment of asylum seekers — but he cannot back down from his insistence on humanitarian approaches to migration without sacrificing much of his ideological commitments. His team has floated the possibility of offering Central American migrants visas and support to remain in Mexico, but much remains unclear, such as whether this policy has support and how many migrants the country could realistically absorb. Surely, Mexico cannot take all the migrants, and so begins AMLO’s tightrope walk: attempting to protect his own citizens’ interests while a bullish Trump administration stirs anti-immigrant sentiment throughout the region.

JB: It’s still not clear whether the new trade treaty will clear the U.S. Congress as negotiated, but how will the new Mexican government deal with it, and with trade issues more broadly?

JP: The G-20 is meeting right now, and outgoing Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reportedly will sign the agreement while in Argentina (with no word on whether or not Trump will participate). AMLO would view this signing as good news: The new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement contains many elements that he dislikes, but the costs of opposing the treaty are too high. Having the agreement handed to him as a “done deal” is his best-case scenario. He will not tamper with the agreement once signed.

Another advantage of having the North America trade treaty settled is that AMLO can turn his attention to other matters — his ambitious domestic policy agenda, but also other international priorities, such as Mexico’s trade deficit with China, and better relationships with other European and Asian countries. Insofar as AMLO has an international agenda (his focus is mainly domestic), he will look to attract more foreign investment from Asia, especially China. This investment could provide critical boosts for Mexican infrastructure. AMLO’s intention to court foreign investors outside the United States should further caution the Trump administration about alienating Mexico; the administration’s bluster at the border could come at the price of an increased Chinese presence in the U.S.’s closest neighbor. 

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Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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