How Trump is helping López Obrador pave his way to the Mexican Presidency

posted by Isidro Morales Moreno on June 25, 2018 - 6:20pm

Mr Andrés López Obrador, better known as AMLO, is the nationalist, center-left National Regeneration Movement (MORENA, left) candidate, the political party favored to win the coming presidential elections taking place on July 1st. This will be AMLO’s third attempt to reach this goal, and according to polls, this time he will succeed.  Originally a member of the nationalist faction of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI, right), the political party which ruled Mexico for the majority of the 20th century and returned to power in 2012, AMLO represents a return to the nationalist and “dirigisme” politics of the pre-NAFTA years.  His popular appeal can be explained by the demise of a political entente established during the Presidency of Carlos Salinas (1988-1994), when Salinas struck a deal with the center-right National Action Party (PAN) to create NAFTA and transform state-market relations--the trade deal which Trump is currently attacking. NAFTA became a pact that aligned with the interests of both the PRI technocrats and business elites, as well as the middle class consumers supportive of PAN’s growing political presence in the country.  The decline of economic and physical security in Mexico over the past twenty years has demonstrated to Mexican voters that neither the PRI nor the PAN represent their interests.  The resulting disdain ordinary Mexicans feel for the political establishment, coupled with the anti-Mexican rhetoric espoused by Trump, has all but ensured AMLO’s victory.

The golden years of the PRI-PAN entente occurred under the Vicente Fox Presidency (2000-2006), during which the architecture of the “old regime” remained intact.  During these years, Jorge G. Castañeda, then Minister of Foreign Affairs (and current campaign chairman of Ricardo Anaya, the PAN presidential candidate), attempted to negotiate a “whole enchilada” with the George W. Bush administration, an ambitious deal encompassing, among other things,  the legalization of all undocumented Mexicans residing in the US and the inception of a new seasonal guest workers program. Trade among the three NAFTA partners was burgeoning, and the official discourse coming from both sides of the Rio Grande praised the North American partnership as a pivot to strengthen the competitiveness of the region in the world.

Twenty years after NAFTA went into effect, however, the premise of the agreement has been severely challenged by US President Trump. While NAFTA was previously understood as a “marriage of convenience” between the US, Mexico, and Canada in order to better compete in a globalized world, under Trump, the US has increasingly viewed itself as competing against the world, including its core partners.  Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric has intensified during the latest renegotiation of NAFTA, in which he has denounced the unfairness of the agreement due to the trade deficit with Mexico while promising to build a new wall in order to stem the flow of illegal aliens and drugs over the border.  While Trump continues to criticize NAFTA and Mexico alike, the out of touch and ineffectual technocrats of the PRI and PAN, both in government and on the campaign trail, continue speaking of a “modernization” of NAFTA.

With the advantage of not having held a government position since he left the governorship of Mexico City, in 2005, AMLO has easily exploited the binational crisis unleashed by President Trump to strengthen his presidential campaign. He is not identified with the technocratic clique in both the PRI and PAN, and the more the country becomes a target of “Trumpism”, the more he promises to defend Mexico’s interests and to stem radical changes for the country. Being a nationalist, some analysts have compared AMLO with Trump and even Hugo Chávez. The comparison is wrong. The popular support for AMLO should be explained by the frustration of a major part of the population to the outcomes of past technocratic reforms, from NAFTA to the most recent energy reform in 2013. They have not been able to create the amount and quality of jobs in order to abate the poverty rate of the country and stop illegal migration to the US. Instead, public insecurity has permeated the country, and the corruption of public officials, regardless of the political party to which they belong, has become normalized. The demise of the three major political parties that have held electoral positions along the country in the past 30 years, explains the empowerment of AMLO as well. If he becomes elected president, the Mexican electorate would still need to know how he is going to transform the country according to his promises. One thing is sure, Donald Trump will remain his most foreign ally. As long as he continues his Mexico bashing, he will continue fueling the demand for nationalistic and state-centered policies advocated by AMLO’s supporters.