The Rise to Power of a Populist President in Mexico

AMLO won the presidential elections of 2018 after trying three times as a presidential candidate running with different political parties.

On July 1,2018, the new President of Mexico was elected, the winner being the leftist AMLO, who achieved the largest voting percentage in his favor for the last 35 years when Mexico was beginning its slow transition to democracy. With 53.19% of the votes, the emerging party MOKENA won in its first participation in a presidential election.

The MOKENA also achieved the victory in both chambers of the Congress. In the Chamber of Deputies achieved 38.2% that added to its allies reached 61.6% of the integration of the lower House. In the same way, in the Senate, Morena alone reached 42% that, added to its allies, reached 54% of the upper House. That is, his victory allows him to control the legislative agenda in Congress in addition to winning five State governments and 21 of 32 subnational congresses (17 are required to sanction any constitutional reform).

The comprehensive victory by a political party (Morena) founded just four years before the election was surprising. The distrust in politics, the negligence of previous governments, the growing violence in the country and the corruption scandals were the driving forces of a massive wave of voting against the parties of the status quo. However, that same victory that has granted wide margins of power has represented a threat to the opposition, to the autonomous constitutional bodies and in general to any organization or person who thinks differently from him or his party.

On May 17,2019, Mexican President AMLO visited his home town and in a public meeting said “we must seize the time these six years because I will not be reelected, I will not govern more time ... I do not want to become in dictator.” It was very good that he clarified it—that he does not want to be a dictator. It was very regrettable, though, that he must do it.

Why was it necessary to clarify that his intentions are not to become a dictator? Because there have been contradictory signals, discordant messages from one morning to another, doubts and certainties in the same statement to the press, encouraging speeches, and discouraging actions. The contradiction has become a daily message. The populist rhetoric acquires authoritarian overtones when the president accuses media of becoming a mafia or accuses intellectual elites of having perverse and corrupt motivations. This type of populist speech resembles that of those outsiders who promote a discourse of polarization between those who are against him or in favor of him, without nuances. For the Mexican President, everything is black or white, and those who do not think like him are considered enemies of the “transformation.”

AMLO became President after a long opposition career; he led a broad movement that accompanied democratization and was democratically elected with the most significant advantage over its competitors in the last 30 years. Once in power, many worry that AMLO seems to exercise power with more and more growing similarities to the authoritarianism of the single-party regime that he fought from the opposition.

Mexico not only has a formal presidential institutional design but has also perpetuated a presidential political culture wherein there is a centralization of politics around the charisma of a national leader and informal rules are even more decisive than legal formalism. The informal rules of the Mexican presidential system allow him to control the political careers of legislators (even opposition members). The appointment of his national executive committee party is not a capacity formally granted to the President, but it is a power that presidents use to discipline the party. In terms of Helmke and Levitski, informal political institutions in Mexico tend to be of the substitute type that “get routed and end up supplanting formal institutions where the latter are unable to achieve the objectives for which they were designed.”1

An example of the President’s control over the internal life of political parties and their “internal democracy” is that any party member recognizes that despite what is written in the parties’ statutes, the informal rules prevail over the formal rules. All the parties have internal rules that promote internal democracy, but in reality, it is a small elite that controls the candidacies, and this guarantees high legislative discipline toward the leadership of the party because the continuity in the future of their political careers depends on them.

In the years of the hegemonic party (PRI) regime that ruled Mexico for 72 consecutive years, the presidents exercised a type of hyper presidential-ism that allowed him to control the most important political processes in the country. This regime was based on four pillars: a presidential regime, the presidential leadership (control) of the party, a legislative majority in both chambers of Congress, and a high discipline of this legislative majority. These factors allowed that a single person could exercise power without institutional checks and balances since 1929 when the hegemonic party was founded until 1997 when the first divided government rose. It ended in 2012 when the PRI returned to government and achieved a legislative coalition that gave it a majority simple in both chambers of the Congress.

The new President found himself with a legislature weakened institutionally and with little capacity to exercise a counterbalancing function.This was because although for some years it was a powerful Congress, in the last decade, it has suffered a process of institutional dismantling that has weakened it and makes it practically impossible for it to restrain the President, block his bills, or even hold him accountable.

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