With new president's inauguration, leftist leadership comes back to Mexico

Why We Wrote This

Leftist leaders have been common in Latin America – except in Mexico, which hasn’t had one since 1940. That will change Saturday with Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s inauguration. But why has it taken so long?

Daniel Becerril/Reuters
Mexico's President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador thanks supporters in Monterrey, Mexico, for his victory in the July 1 election.

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When Andrés Manuel López Obrador is sworn into office this weekend, he will end a nearly 80-year absence of left-wing politicians from Mexico’s highest office. Even as communists and leftists thrived across Latin America over the decades, including during the “Pink Tide” since the turn of the millennium, they found no footing in Mexico. That stems in large part from the reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for 71 years and was defined more by its authoritarian grip than coherent party platforms. But US influence played a role too. In the late 1980s, the PRI prevented leftist Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas from winning the presidency. And the United States did not react. “The US looked the other way” from the allegations of voting fraud, says John Ackerman, a law professor. “Mexico would have been the first country in the Pink Tide if it weren’t for electoral fraud.” Now as Latin America’s second-largest economy turns left, the regional trend is shifting the other direction, with conservative and right-wing leadership taking power from Brazil to Argentina. “There’s a lot at stake,” says Professor Ackerman. “Mexico is going left when others are going right, which turns Mexico into a focal point” for other nations to watch.

Mexico has a long history of ties with the global political and intellectual left, from taking in exiled leftist politicians like Leon Trotsky to cozying up to Cuba during the cold war, or even dating back to its famous 1910 Revolution that overthrew dictator Porfirio Díaz.

Yet, despite these instances that suggest Mexico as a bastion for leftist, revolutionary ideals in the region, it hasn’t had a leftist leader of its own for nearly eight decades.

This weekend, surrounded by world leaders including Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro, that’s poised to change. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, popularly known as AMLO, will be inaugurated as Mexico’s 58th president and its first leftist leader since 1940. He campaigned on promises to end corruption and stamp out inequality, and has pledged that his sexenio, or six-year term, will go down in history as the newest Mexican revolution, creating an entirely new political and social landscape here.

Latin America rode a wave of leftist leadership, focused on broad social-welfare spending and policies that emphasized equality and opportunities for minorities, for most of the 21st century so far. Yet, this so-called “Pink Tide” never reached Mexican shores. Now, the regional trend is shifting to the right, with conservative and right-wing leadership taking power from Brazil to Peru to Argentina.

As Latin America’s second-largest economy turns to the left this weekend, many question whether AMLO can deliver on his vast promises. But perhaps more pressing on Mexico’s left is the concern that a failure to deliver could mean another return to the wilderness, excluded from power and out of the political game.

Left on the outside

Mexico’s lack of leftist leadership stems in large part from the reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for 71 years. The PRI was defined more by its authoritarian grip on election boxes than coherent party platforms and policy approaches shared from one leader to the next.

“The PRI was a multi-class, multi-region monster of a party. It was very inclusive,” says Joy Langston, a professor of political science at Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) in Mexico City, who studies Mexican political parties. In fact, AMLO launched his political involvement as a member of the PRI, splitting off in 1988 and joining an early leftist opposition party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution. “Part of the reason the left was unable to win elections [for so long] was basically this enormous authoritarian party and regime took away its voters.”

Even today, the PRI has a strong base in poor enclaves of the country, where for decades there’s been an understanding that a vote for the party’s candidate would translate to vital handouts, whether food, land, or financial support from the state. “That took away part of the left’s obvious voting base – the poorest of the poor,” Dr. Langston says.

As Mexico opened up and modernized, many expected to see parties and organizations outside the PRI emerge and become more powerful. That happened, but for the left it took longer than many hoped or expected, with a handful of small, radical movements and parties bursting onto the scene following electoral reforms in the late 1970s, only to fizzle out.

In the late 1980s, the left looked poised to win the presidency under a charismatic candidate, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas.

“Mexico would have been the first country in the Pink Tide if it weren’t for electoral fraud in 1988,” says John Ackerman, a law professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, whose wife Irma Sandoval will be part of AMLO’s cabinet.

It was one of the final efforts by the PRI to hold on to power as the electoral system opened up to broader competition. By 2000, it was ousted by the National Action Party – whose ticket had the most appealing candidate profile, though not necessarily the most attractive platform, Langston says.

But Mr. Cárdenas’ loss highlighted another key factor that may have impeded the left’s progress in Mexico: US influence. “Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas implied a change in economic policy that would have been radically different from previous takes and the interests of the US,” says Mr. Ackerman. “The US looked the other way” from the allegations of voting fraud.

Mexico’s proximity to the US has influenced its relationship with the global left – and the left at home, experts say.

Part of the “reason Mexico had relations with Cuba and the Soviets was about balancing power against the US,” says Aaron Navarro, associate professor of Mexican history at Texas Christian University. Allying with the left allowed Mexico to create a diplomatic space between it and its much more powerful northern neighbor. “They kept relations with these communist countries not because Mexico has these inherent leftist tendencies, but because it was trying to demonstrate to the US that they were independent of US policy in a way no other Latin American country did.”

‘There’s a lot at stake’

This summer’s election was AMLO’s third attempt at the presidency, but unlike previous campaigns, this time he created his own political party, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA). His party coalition won control of the Senate and Congress in the July 1 elections, giving him broad power to push through his proposed agenda, which includes expanding pension programs for the elderly and creating vast scholarship opportunities for the poor.

MORENA’s victory completely shook up Mexico’s historic party system. The election results were seen as a sign of widespread rejection of the status quo in Mexican politics.

But with a five-month transition period, AMLO has had plenty of time to raise concerns over his ability to govern within the constraints of democracy. A poorly managed referendum in October resulted in the cancellation of a $13 billion airport project – a major campaign talking point, but a move that created widespread panic in financial markets. According to a poll in daily newspaper El Universal, his approval ratings have fallen 9 percent since August – even though he has yet to take office.

“There’s a lot at stake,” says Ackerman. “Mexico is going left when others are going right, which turns Mexico into a focal point” for other nations to watch, he says.

Some say it’s not just the reputation of a governing left in Mexico that’s at stake, but democracy as a whole. Even before his victory, many academics and opposition politicians sounded alarm bells here that an AMLO victory could mean an erosion of democracy in Mexico, based in part on his reaction to losing the presidency in 2006. He lost that vote by less than a percentage point – which he protested by holding a parallel inauguration and declaring himself the nation’s “legitimate president.”

“There’s an enormous amount riding on AMLO’s ability to govern,” says Langston. “If he really blows it, it will be worse than just ‘bad for the left.’ ”

Given the strong link between AMLO and the party he created, some experts see any potential failure reflecting poorly on the new leader – not necessarily leftist movements as a whole. “If his government fails to a greater or lesser degree, it would probably be on him,” says Dr. Navarro. “It would be on his plate.”

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