An impending revolution in Mexico

The incoming president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, promises a radical approach to ending corruption, one based on a view of people as moral. Yet he also assumes people only need to see a leader who sets a good example.

Mexico's next president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, addresses supporters in Mexico City July 2.

In many democracies, a new leader who wins an election with an anti-corruption platform might lean toward one of two choices: Overhaul corrupt institutions or change public attitudes that accept and perhaps even expect corruption.

Fix the system or fix the culture? To put it another way, does the problem lie mainly in societal attitudes or in how attitudes are altered and abused by corrupt practices from on high?

Much in such a decision depends on a leader’s basic view of people.

Now, after the election July 1 of Andrés Manuel López Obrador as Mexico’s next president, the world will have the opportunity to see how one leader will implement such a choice.

In a victory speech, Mr. López Obrador clearly blamed a corrupt ruling elite, or what he called “the mafia of power,” while emphasizing what he sees as the innate goodness of everyday citizens.

Many observers, he stated, claim corruption is part of Mexican culture. “That is a falsehood. A big lie,” he counters. “In our people, there is a great reserve of values, cultural, moral, spiritual, in the families, in the pueblos, in the communities.”

“The problem is above,” he said, pointing upward. “The rulers always set a bad example.”

To make his point, he promises to set himself up as a moral icon upon taking office Dec. 1. He will start by converting the presidential palace into a public park and forgo the perks of office. He said his first request of Congress would be to change the Constitution and allow a sitting president to be tried for corruption. He also promises not to spare colleagues, friends, or family members in rooting out corruption. He cites a common saying, “A good judge begins at home.”

López Obrador, commonly known by his initials, AMLO, believes so much in the power of leading by example that he did not even offer a plan to change government structures to prevent corruption or ensure that rule of law prevails among Mexican police, prosecutors, and judges. He dismissed the role of civil society groups that have long offered ideas for government reform.

A corrupt system will end, he believes, “because the president won’t be corrupt.” He sees in his election a “revolution of consciences,” or the public expression of the “love, morality and love of neighbor” that lies within the people. His core message to Mexicans: Don’t be corrupt, and if you see it, report it. He also seeks to implement a vague “reconciliation” plan that would offer some kind of mercy to corrupt leaders and to many of those involved in organized crime.

AMLO’s views will challenge a common notion in Mexico that people are born with evil hearts. He says that by setting an example and selecting good appointees he can cut crime in half and achieve “complete eradication of political corruption.” And he won’t need to raise taxes to fulfill his leftist anti-poverty goals because, without corruption, government will have more money and be more efficient. Indeed, the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness estimates corruption eats away 2 to 10 percent of gross national product and reduces foreign investment by 5 percent a year.

During his campaign, AMLO tapped into a deep public cynicism toward the ruling parties that have governed Mexico since the end of one-party rule in 2000. Last year, according to pollster Latinobarómetro, only 18 percent of Mexicans said they were satisfied with democracy. The country has also experienced record levels of violence. Yet as real democracy has taken hold, and Mexican youths learn to use social media for civic activism, voters appear ready for radical change.

Is Mexico’s incoming president being too naive? Is he wrong to assume that individuals are sovereign in their thinking and only yield some of that sovereignty to the rulers of their choosing? Can the corrupt in government, business, and organized crime be made whole by someone setting good examples for them and by offering them ways to reform?

Most corruption fighters around the world rely on a belief that people naturally want openness, integrity, and accountability in both their private and civic lives. Yet such activists often go beyond setting examples or a code of ethics. They want governing structures with strict rules and stiff penalties. When AMLO was mayor of Mexico City, he opposed such measures, such as a “freedom of information” law.

Mexico is currently one of the world’s most corrupt countries. Yet one leading expert on corruption, Romanian political scientist Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, provides this advice: “It would be wrong to believe that a country is entirely doomed by poor history.” Many historical figures, such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., have put a strong emphasis on a “revolution of conscience” to achieve change.

If AMLO really means what he says and attempts to implement his plans for ending corruption, Mexico may be about to experience another revolution. At the least, he could shift the needle on the age-old question about the origins of corruption toward an ideal of civic life based on the good to be found in others.

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