The Overwhelming Importance of the Leadership of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador

The evolution of the Mexican Left during the past years could not be explained without the charismatic presence of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The undeniable leader and main motivator of the movement began his political life in the PRI, and is among those who left when it embraced neoliberalism. He rapidly excelled in the newly formed PRD in his role as candidate for the government of the state of Tabasco and his struggle against the frauds committed against him in 1989 and 1994. This prestige led him to occupy the presidency of the PRD between 1996 and 1999. His leadership was important but not undisputed, as it became obvious in his 2000 candidacy for head of government of Mexico City. His candidacy was ferociously contested by other candidates from his own party, and he won the elections by the small margin of 1 % in relation to the PAN candidate, Santiago Creel.

From this moment on, and by virtue of his efficiency and integrity in the Mexico City administration, Lopez Obrador turned into a historical charismatic leader with high levels of approval. The meteoric rise of Lopez Obrador can also be measured electorally: While in the 1994 elections the left-wing alliance had obtained just over 6 million votes and almost 17 % of the votes, in 2006, according to the disputable figures, Lopez Obrador obtained 15 million votes and 35 % of the votes. This difference of 18 % demonstrated that a new historical leader had appeared in the country’s political scene. The key to the meteoric rise of Lopez Obrador was probably related to four elements: the relation between ethics and politics that projected him as someone who could not be corrupted; his commitment to social justice became obvious through the social programs promoted by his government (2000-2005); his rescue of revolutionary nationalism, which gave him the image of a patriot and a nationalist; and finally, his commitment to the democratic cause; this included a long list of struggles against electoral fraud that finally consolidated during the conflict following the 2006 elections (Aceves and Figueroa 2008: 48-56).

However, the leadership of Lopez Obrador has arguably an even deeper substratum. Four decades ago, in his defense of the uninterrupted character of the Mexican revolution, Adolfo Gilly wrote that the revolution remained alive in the consciousness of the Mexican people, and that no revolutionary organization or politics could be constructed at the margins of that revolution (Gilly 1974: II, XV). Lorenzo Mayer, in a moving letter written to Lazaro Cardenas years later, also said “these lands should be revisited by the spirit and deeds of his project” (Meyer 1992: 274). These insights turned out to be premonitory, considering the events that took place during the following decades. The other charismatic leadership of the second half of the twentieth century, that of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, became incorporated in the Cardenist imaginary of millions of Mexicans.[1] It was as if Lazaro Cardenas, the man who distributed 18 million hectares to the peasants and rescued Mexico’s oil from the hands of the English and US companies, had been resuscitated. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional, EZLN) evoked the image of Emiliano Zapata and many of the heroic deeds of the 1910-1920 revolution, sparking extraordinary enthusiasm. Mutatis mutandis, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is today the embodiment of the revolutionary nationalism that neoliberalism destroyed in a few years. Just as it happened in the past with Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, he is today the personification of the national-popular as a social subjectivity of unsuspected potential. To such an extent, that the political and social movement observed from 2004 until today, the very existence of Morena, would probably not have been possible without his charismatic presence.

The powerful, charismatic leadership of Lopez Obrador is the great strength of the movement, but also its great weakness. The strength of Morena still depends on this charisma. This became obvious when the leader had to be hospitalized in December 2013 after suffering a heart attack: the intensity of the protests against oil privatization decreased, and his son became the spokesman for the protest (Villamil 2013; Garcia 2013). With regard to the internal practice of Morena, there are elements of enormous strategic value in the practice of participative democracy. According to its statutes, those occupying executive positions (Executive Committees) can only be re-elected once and following a three-year interval. Only 30 % of the members of the national and state councils can be re-elected in consecutive terms (Arts. 10, 11). Two thirds of the candidates to members of parliament by proportional representation are chosen by lot amongst the 3000 pre-candidates elected in the district assemblies (Art. 44). The last two regulations prevent the constitution of party oligarchies (Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy). The heart of its internal democracy is constituted by the district congresses in each one of the 300 electoral districts, from where the approximately 3000 district coordinators and delegates of the state and national congresses emerge (Arts. 24, 25). The delegates can only vote for two candidates in the elections for district representatives, in order to avoid the creation of groups backed by overwhelming majorities (Art. 26) (Morena 2014c).

However, it is undeniable that the magnetism of Lopez Obrador creates centralism and verticalism in Morena. His opinion on political decisions, the election of candidacies, and other issues is enormously important within the party. Another factor that must be considered is the assault of the neoliberal order against Morena. This leads to centralized decision-making, and the intermediate bodies (the state executive committees, for example) run the risk of becoming simple drive belts for the urgent tasks imposed by each conjuncture. To set an example: the appointment by relative majority of the candidates to members of parliament in the June 2015 elections, the first race in which Morena participated as a party. While the statute states they were to be chosen amongst various options by the district electoral assemblies, in fact the assemblies chose individual candidates. These individual candidacies emerged from an accumulation of image and power performed by the candidates in their quality of “Promoters of National Sovereignty,” a figure that was not approved by the party’s statute.

This has been a brief review of the historical roots, the characteristics, and contradictions of the struggle of Morena for representative and participative democracy in Mexico. In historical terms, Morena is still very young and it is therefore premature to make assertions on its final course. The challenge it faces is not to repeat the history of bureaucratization, trans-party opportunism, and corruption of the left-wing parties that came before it. There is still a long way to go before we can know if it will succeed.

  • [1] The Cardenist imaginary that Cuauhtemoc Cardenas inherited from his father is similarto the Bonapartist myth that Marx analyzed in the pages of the Eighteenth Brumaire of LouisBonaparte (Marx 1994). In that conjuncture, the uncle’s nephew capitalized the legacy ofNapoleon Bonaparte among the mass of peasants owning plots of land and used it to establish a regime that the political and sociological literature has qualified as “Bonapartist”. Ofcourse, all similarities end there. The ethical and political standing of Cuauhtemoc Cardenasand the progressive role he played create an abysmal distance between him and LuisBonaparte.
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