Mexico’s Likely President Won’t Govern as a Populist

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Mexico isn’t only dealing with significant domestic issues; it’s also under near-constant attack from President Donald Trump. Voters go to the polls on July 1 to select a new president and legislature. The unpopular current president, Enrique Peña Nieto,  is term-limited, and his governing PRI party is trailing badly in the polls. So change is coming.

For some insight, I spoke with Jennifer Piscopo of Occidental College, an expert in Latin American politics, about the likely effects of the election.

The following has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jonathan Bernstein: What’s the most important thing people in the U.S. and the rest of the world should know?

Jennifer Piscopo: The election is not about the rise of populism in Mexico. The leftist Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador has double-digit leads in the polls and is almost sure to win — but portrayals of AMLO (as he is known) as another Hugo Chávez are fairly misleading. Yes, he’s a Bernie Sanders-style firebrand who enjoys an enormous grassroots following. He laces his speeches with a nationalist rhetoric that stokes fear among Mexico’s business elites. Yet during his tenure as mayor of Mexico City, he governed pragmatically, investing in social programs but also in infrastructure. His likely cabinet picks are technocrats and businesspeople, not radicals. AMLO’s likely win is more a story about Mexican voters’ dissatisfaction with the incumbent government than a preference for leftist demagoguery. His election raises questions about Mexico’s future, but fears about a Venezuelan-style dictatorship on the U.S.’s southern border are overblown.

JB: Assuming AMLO wins, how will his government change Mexico’s posture in the Nafta negotiations and on international trade in general?

JP: AMLO would not take office until Dec. 1, but has indicated that he would want his representatives to begin accompanying Mexico’s negotiating team immediately. President Enrique Peña Nieto appears receptive to this possibility. AMLO supports a trilateral agreement, but also said that “No Nafta is a better than a bad Nafta.” He believes Mexico’s internal markets would compensate for trade losses, should the agreement collapse. AMLO’s statements follow reports that the United States could be negotiating in bad faith, suspicions that sharpened after Trump imposed tariffs and hinted that the U.S. would seek bilateral deals with Mexico and Canada. Trump’s maneuvers put Mexico (and Canada) in a bad position: Will they accept a weakened Nafta to preserve trilateral cooperation? I would expect AMLO to balk at any proposal that would further weaken Mexico’s agricultural sector, so the rural economy may well be the sticking point.

Beyond Nafta, AMLO’s insistence on internal markets suggests a general shift inward. He won’t cut Mexico off from external markets, but he won't pursue international trade too aggressively. 

JB: What changes should we expect to see in domestic economic policy?

JP: A major rallying cry for AMLO — and an issue of great importance to his grassroots supporters — is revitalizing agriculture. Many view the 1994 Nafta agreement as a deadly blow to Mexico’s agricultural sector: Despite its vast land wealth, Mexico now imports most of its food supply. AMLO has championed food independence, and will likely pursue various financing and subsidy schemes to bolster food production. (Though these policies may run afoul of WTO rules and trigger litigation.) At the same time, AMLO will likely not reverse course on foreign investment in oil and energy. He may slow the pace, but existing investment is backed by the Mexican Constitution. His party won’t win a two-thirds majority in Congress, which is the threshold for any constitutional reforms. In fact, his party may not even win a majority, and that would stymie his ability for reforms overall. The very real possibility of divided government should assuage fears that AMLO will throw Mexico’s economy dramatically off course.

JB: How big an issue has internal violence been in the campaign?

JP: Violence has shaped Mexico’s elections in two ways. First, voters are exhausted by decades of an ineffective war against organized crime, which has militarized Mexico’s security forces with no results. Last year was the most violent in Mexico’s history. Security concerns definitely factor into voters’ dissatisfaction with the current administration and turn toward AMLO.

Second, the down-ballot races have been dramatically affected by organized crime, especially in the states of México, Michoacán, Morelos and Guerrero. Over 100 politicians have been killed during the election season, mainly candidates for state congresses, municipal councils or mayor. The victims are men and women, from all political parties — whoever threatens criminal operations in that region. Life in Mexico City proceeds as normal, with all eyes turned to the presidential race, but violence at the local level is undermining democracy.

JB: What has AMLO proposed to do about the security crisis?

JP: AMLO has proposed a dramatic overhaul of Mexico’s security bureaucracy. He also has proposed amnesty for low-level lawbreakers and to make rehabilitation more central to prison terms. Neither politicians nor the public would accept amnesty, but both proposals distance AMLO from a militarized response to organized crime. They show his willingness to consider new, more humane alternatives.

At the same time, none of these proposals is sweeping enough to tackle the breadth and depth of the problem. Take amnesty, for instance. Even if AMLO could get the policy through, it does nothing, because impunity is widespread. No one pays for their crimes in Mexico: Only 1 percent of crimes are ever prosecuted. Amnesty is an empty offer when the state cannot enforce the rule of law.

JB: Could you talk about the gender parity law requiring parties to nominate women as half of their candidates?

JP: Achieving gender equality in women’s political representation is one of Mexico’s success stories. Over 75 countries across the globe have some form of gender quota law for political offices. Supporters’ argument is simple: You cannot have democracy unless women are present. Mexico adopted its mandatory quota in 2003 (first it was 30 percent, then 40 percent). The 2014 constitutional reforms made 50 percent mandatory for elections to the federal and state congresses. After the 2015 elections, women won 42.4 percent of seats in the lower house. This election cycle, voters are choosing representatives and senators, and I expect women to win about half the seats in each chamber.  

JB: What kind of effects has parity had so far, and what should we expect going forward?

JP: Gender parity matters because it breaks up the old boys’ clubs that run the political parties. Many women spent decades in the trenches as party activists. They were qualified, but, until the quotas, they never got a chance to lead. My research shows that women in the Mexican Congress, including women on the right, support social programs and progressive policies more than men. Having women present matters as Mexico looks to tackle corruption, violence and insecurity. There are other spillover effects. For example, quotas prepare women for executive office. The next mayor of Mexico City is surely a woman: The two front-runners are women, and they have pretty long political resumes. When it comes to electing women, Mexico leaves other Latin American countries, not to mention the United States, way behind.

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