Friday, November 29, 2019

Troubling New Era in Mexico

At World Policy Review, "It’s a New and Troubling Era in Mexico Under AMLO":

MEXICO CITY—Some welcomed the return of the left to the height of political power in Mexico nearly a year ago as a promising new chapter in the country’s history. Yet 12 months into Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s presidency, drug violence and attacks on freedom of speech have spiraled and the economy has stagnated, adding to the sense that Mexico is floundering. While all these challenges existed before AMLO—as he is better known in Mexico—took office, the bigger concern now is the way his government is seeking to address them.

There is no mistaking that this is a new era for Mexican politics. Gone are the globally minded, centrist administrations that swapped power in the years following Mexico’s transition from one-party rule to free elections in the 1990s. In their place is a self-styled champion of the people whose inward-looking economic vision harkens back to the country’s statist past. AMLO openly dismisses a role for experts and civil society in policymaking, calling them “neoliberal nostalgics,” while lacing his public rhetoric with an almost religious call of devotion to his presidency—all with the passionate approval of his unwavering political base.

“There is much about AMLO that is reminiscent of the populists that came through the Institutional Revolutionary Party in the latter half of the 20th century,” says Alberto Fernandez, a political analyst and columnist for the magazine Letras Libres in Mexico City, referring to Mexico’s former ruling party, the PRI. “But he’s also more individualistic than they were—he expects the public to believe in his personal moral vision rather than in the democratic institutions Mexico has been trying to build over the past two decades.”

Amid widespread dissatisfaction among voters heading into last year’s presidential election, AMLO won a landslide victory, vowing to reduce inequality, fight corruption and put an end to years of deadly drug violence. Like many Latin American populists, he put neoliberalism and corrupt, privileged elites at the center of his critique of the policy path Mexico has followed over the past two decades. He promised nothing less than the country’s “fourth transformation”—a brash reference to the seminal events in Mexican history, from its independence from Spain in 1810, to the War of Reform that led to separation of church and state in the mid-19th century, to the revolution of 1910 that ended decades of dictatorship and established a constitutional republic.

Yet his actual policy positions were always vague. Corruption would be “eradicated,” AMLO insisted, but he has left the previous administration’s plans for an independent anticorruption commission in limbo. Next year, he will slash the budgets for the attorney general’s office, the National Electoral Institute and the Supreme Court, institutions that, while flawed, have been key building blocks in Mexico’s democracy. The drug cartels would be fought with “hugs, not bullets,” AMLO declared, yet they continue to wreak havoc, with the recent massacre of a Mormon family of nine, including six children, in the state of Sonora drawing international headlines. With nearly 26,000 homicides documented by federal authorities as of October, 2019 looks likely to end as Mexico’s most violent year in recent memory.

In March, AMLO announced that the era of neoliberalism, the great scourge of the Latin American left, was over. Yet his budgeting plans have been far from progressive. He has drastically reduced spending on health and education, among other areas, in favor of costly infrastructure projects, including a new international airport and what many economists view as a dubious attempt to revive Mexico’s debt-ridden and unproductive state energy giant, Pemex. A number of international organizations have subsequently downgraded their forecasts for Mexico’s growth this year to as low as 0.2 percent amid a decline in oil output and slumping construction and service sectors—its worst year since the global financial crisis.

“There are three major issues with AMLO’s diagnosis of the economic challenges Mexico faces,” says Macario Schettino, an economist at the Technological Institute of Monterrey in Mexico City. “The idea of regaining energy sovereignty is misplaced and has paralyzed the country’s landmark energy reform of 2013. Secondly, redirecting public funds to Pemex and poorly designed direct cash transfer programs has seen government ministries lose up to 30 percent of their budgets. Thirdly, the business community is losing confidence, and we are seeing a significant reduction in private investment.”

AMLO has attempted to compensate for the economic slump and spiraling crime rates with token gestures to his base: frequent popular referendums on everything from infrastructure projects to indigenous rights bills, the reduction of salaries for bureaucrats, and the controversial offer of political asylum to ousted Bolivian President Evo Morales. With a current approval rating at 58 percent, he clearly maintains a close bond to many of his supporters, a phenomenon Fernandez attributes to dissatisfaction with prior governments, notably the scandal-ridden term of AMLO’s predecessor, Enrique Pena Nieto.

Pena Nieto and his party, the PRI, successfully pushed through a series of long-hoped-for institutional reforms early in his presidency, yet they ended up flailing because of political foot-dragging and poor implementation. His administration then became mired in a series of corruption and human rights scandals, which at least partly contributed to the desire for change that led AMLO to power.

“For many citizens, Pena Nieto’s term really destroyed any notion that the current political system was working for them,” Fernandez says. “AMLO came along with a very simplistic diagnosis of what was wrong with the country, and it appealed to many.”

Two decades after the formal end of one-party rule, Mexico’s democracy remains fragile, hamstrung by the weak rule of law. Slow but steady progress was being made in the form of increasingly competitive elections, newly independent institutions and a growing role for civil society in public policymaking. Perhaps the most concerning element of AMLO’s presidency so far is his disregard for these gains—and for democratic institutions as a whole.

AMLO says he plans to hold a popular referendum in 2022 to determine if he should continue as president through 2024, the official end of his term under the constitution. Yet his budget cuts to the National Electoral Institute, known as the INE, could also strip the body, which was founded in 1996, of its independence. The INE is responsible for both organizing and financing elections at all three levels of government, along with setting campaign funding limits and allocating public resources to political parties...
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