Mexicans Vote for Change

(The Bloomberg View) -- Mexico has again passed the acid test of democracy: For the third time since 2000, voters were able to throw the bums out. Drawing on widespread anger over corruption and crime, Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his Morena party delivered a thumping not just to the incumbent PRI’s candidate, but to the National Action Party, which governed from 2000 to 2012.

Now the Mexican people will find out whether López Obrador can be the one to meet their long-frustrated expectations. Long on messianic populism, he offered voters few concrete solutions, opting instead for vagueness to help build a broad coalition that encompassed social conservatives and die-hard leftists. The open question is whether he will now move past his campaign rhetoric and govern as a pragmatist, as he did when he was mayor of Mexico City.

López Obrador has five months before taking his oath on December 1 to lay out detailed plans to address his signature issues of corruption and crime, and to reassure businesses and foreign investors that his economic initiatives won’t lead to the kind of fiscal disasters that have blighted the country’s recent past.

Start with crime. More than 130 politicians were killed by gangs during this year’s election campaign — a harrowing reminder of the homicide surge that has occurred during President Enrique Peña Nieto’s time in office. It’s hard to quibble with López Obrador’s campaign arguments that reducing poverty could curb crime or that hugs are preferable to gunfire. But his gauzy calls for amnesties and forums involving Pope Francis and the UN secretary general are no substitute for a blueprint detailing how to reduce the body count, reform the police and strengthen the judiciary.    

López Obrador has been equally ambiguous on corruption, pledging to lead by personal example and to maintain “zero tolerance,” while disparaging civil society’s efforts to expose and uproot corruption and railing against the Supreme Court. He should demonstrate his resolve to end impunity by pursuing crooked governors, strongly supporting the National Anti-Corruption System, and pushing for the speedy appointment of an exemplary special prosecutor for corruption.

The peso’s fall in the aftermath of López Obrador’s victory Sunday reflects investor skepticism over his pledges not to roll back economic reforms or bust the budget to pay for social programs. Yet inflation would most hurt the poor he has promised to help. The president-elect’s initial budget recommendations this fall will need to rebut predictions that his policies will widen Mexico’s deficit to 4 percent of gross domestic product.

López Obrador has grand historical ambitions and stands to face little legislative pushback — his coalition seems likely to have achieved a majority in both chambers. That could be a dangerous combination. Mexicans had good reason to want to check the power of the Peña Nieto administration. López Obrador should make sure that, this time, they don’t come to regret their vote.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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