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Exploring the Twilight Zone: An account of Mexican politics after the election

A couple of weeks ago at the University of Oxford, when asked for his opinion on the recently elected Mexican government, Luis Almagro, Secretary General to the Organization of American States, said that assessing an administration that has yet to take office would be irresponsible. Since I am not the head of a key international and regional organization, in my second entry to the Presidential Power blog —my first as a regular contributor— I will risk offering an irresponsible but yet informed account of the events that have shaped the Mexican political landscape over the past few months.

For those who have not followed the Mexican scene closely —and even for those who have— it might come as a surprise that even after more than three months of election day, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is still president-elect. With five more weeks until he is sworn in, many in Mexico can closely relate to Vladimir and Estragon from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. An overview of Mexican media outlets reveals that public sentiment is split: On the one hand, there are those who say that throughout this waiting period nothing of significance has happened and those who would argue that there have been substantial changes. On the other hand, there is also no consensus on how best to assess either of the two previously described scenarios.

To help you explore the Mexican twilight zone, in what follows I will first address the most salient issues across 5 different arenas: economy, security, domestic politics, international relations and social policy. In the second section, I succinctly explore the upcoming challenges for AMLO and list a few things to look out for in the next couple of months. Lastly, I briefly conclude by reflecting on Enrique Peña Nieto’s (EPN) epilogue.

A Quick Recap by Arena

  1. The Economy — AMLO and his team have placed three key topics on the economic agenda: a) Mexico City’s airport, b) the Tren Maya project and c) Revenue and Wages. Interestingly enough, the two big-scale infrastructure projects will be decided by two separate (semi-formal) referenda. Income-wise, on the one hand, the new government announced that taxes will not be raised, and on the other hand, AMLO agreed to increase to the minimum wage with COPARMEX and CCE—the two largest patronal organizations. That is, come December 1st , the government’s budget is unlikely to significantly increase and Mexican workers are now expecting a long overdue pay raise.
  2. Security — As with the previous arena, López Obrador along with the next Secretary of the Interior, Olga Sánchez Cordero, have outlined at least three items for the security agenda: a) Legalizing marihuana, b) the Foros de Pacificación and the c) continued militarization of police forces. While the MORENA plurality in Congress awaits the results of the Foros in order to take further steps in terms of public safety, most surprisingly, after meeting with military officials, AMLO announced that for now, the armed forces will continue to police key areas of the country and that ultimately, Mexico needs a Guardia Civil.
  3. Domestic Politics — This is perhaps the most complex arena given the sheer amount of relevant matters raised by MORENA’s victorious candidate. While he tours the country in order to thank voters, AMLO has a) continued to announce the appointment of (future) cabinet members, b) met with several governors who, appalled by the president’s popular support, have quickly found their (lost since 2000) political discipline. The president-elect has also announced c) austerity measures, d) the reallocation of ministries, and has said that he will e) cancel EPN’s education reform while f) leaving the one regulating the energy sector
  4. International Relations — Two issues stand out regarding the international sphere. The first one being the fact that after the elections, a) members of AMLO’s team were included in the negotiation rounds of the free trade agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico. With support from the new administration, it is highly unlikely then that Mexico will ask for further/significant changes to the agreement. Divergence, however, characterized the second more recent and salient issue, in which, b) on the one hand, EPN used state forces in an attempt to block the Caravana Migrante and on the other hand, López Obrador declared that once he is sworn in, there will be employment for citizens and migrants alike.
  5. Social Policy — In the face of restricted public resources and the promise not to raise taxes, AMLO has announced a redesign and a restructured budget for social programs. While transfers for young and elderly people have been repeatedly advertised, it is still unclear what the incoming government will do, for example, in terms of health (IMSS, ISSSTE and Seguro Popular) and pensions. The expectation is that progressively redistributive policies along with the increase in wages allow Mexico to overcome its alarming levels of poverty and inequality.

What now? Challenges and Expectations

For Andres Manuel, the most excruciating challenge comes exactly from the expectations he has generated. In a recent poll, AMLO’s approval rating reached an outstanding 71%. The survey also revealed, as Figure 1 shows, that around 74% of Mexicans believe that once he is in office, complex topics such as corruption, security, health and poverty will improve. It seems that anything but exceptional is bound to disappoint. The Tabasqueño’s leadership and charisma will surely be put to the test.I have elsewhere talked about the challenge of transforming MORENA into a somewhat disciplined and coherent party. Recent quarrels between fellow Congressmen and the disagreements between MORENA’s leadership and some of the party’s governors, show that achieving internal cohesion is definitely one pending task of the organization.

A lot has been said at rallies and public plazas, but in the midst of le passage à l’acte, there are two vital pieces of legislation to look out for: 1) The (probably) new Ley Orgánica de la Administración Pública Federal (LOAPF) and 2) the Presupuesto de Egresos de la Federación (PEF). The former will define the architecture of the federal administration and shape the responsibilities of the bureaucracy, the latter will set the ‘production possibility frontier’ for the incoming administration. Together, these documents will reveal the true priorities of AMLO’s government and are highly likely to be heavily discussed in the first few months of 2019.

Concluding Remarks…

I hope that a) I have not been so irresponsible in presenting this brief account of the Mexican political scenario, b) that I have not left out key topics or issues and c) that you find that the points that were raised are actually well documented. As a close to my second entry, I would like to highlight that for the past several months —some would say even a year— current president Peña Nieto has been missing in action.

In spite of presenting his last annual Informe and talking at the United Nations, EPN has been unable to set the agenda. When he does manage to make headlines is because he either took a selfie with a phone covered with an AMLO-supporting case or even more damming, when he’s criticized for being Trump’s attack dog in the southern border. Now a lame duck, I can imagine that EPN, as many Mexicans, can’t wait for his show to be over.