Category Archives: Mexico

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.

Navigating the Electoral Tsunami: The aftermath of Mexico’s Presidential Election

This is a guest post from Javier Pérez Sandoval at the University of Oxford.

Among many other things, democracies are systems in which parties lose elections. Early this month, Mexican voters elected a new president and come December, for the third time in a row in the post-transition era, Mexico will have had a relatively peaceful party alternation in government. That is, while observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) have highlighted multiple instances in which cartel related violence threatened electoral integrity at the local level, their preliminary report also commends Mexico for successfully celebrating the largest and most complex elections in its contemporary history.

I have outlined the good, the bad and the ugly about the Mexican 2018 campaigns elsewhere. Here I intend to do three things: First, I will offer a brief account of the Election Day. Second, I will break down the results, aiming not only to summarize them but also to offer highlights and alternative explanations to what is now called the MORENA tsunami. In the third and last section, I present two political challenges faced by Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) as well as one key task for Mexico’s political regime. My conclusions ponder what this electoral result could mean for Mexican democracy.

Election Day

There are multiple detailed accounts of the contenders and their coalitions and the National Electoral Institute (INE) has a fine-grained description of the Mexican electoral process. Here, however, I focus on three aspects of Election day that are worth emphasizing:

  1. Citizens’ involvement – This has been perhaps the most transparent and the most effectively watched election. Throughout the day, over 1.4 million citizens in charge of polling stations, along with 2.6 million party representatives and 33 thousand national and international observers shielded voting as a mechanism for decision making. In addition, not only did the vote-from-abroad tripled, but also, and most importantly, 63% of registered citizens voted. It is worth highlighting that the 2018 electoral race had roughly the same turnout that gave Mexico its first alternancia at the turn of the century.
  2. (Relatively) Peaceful Process – Three incidents marked election day: A) Five politically motivated murders were registered, b) Citizens in Mexico City protested ballot insufficiency at “special” (in-transit) polling stations and c) tension through the day culminated in contention in the results in the state of Puebla. Weighing up Mexico’s overall context and considering that roughly 97% of polling stations reported either minor or no incidents at all, it is safe to say that the vast majority of the population voted freely.
  3. Acknowledging the results – Not even 2 hours had passed after polling stations closed and all other candidates —Ricardo Anaya, Jose Antonio Meade and Jaime Rodríguez Calderón — had publicly recognized AMLO’s victory. While only two out of the three vote-counting stages are over, the presidential election had a clear and certain result before midnight. Mexico’s electoral authority will finish up counting the votes and come month’s end, INE will make the results official.

The Results: Re-Shaping Mexico’s Political Arena

Elsewhere I suggested that the 2018 election had the potential to completely redefine Mexico’s political landscape and looking at the electoral outcomes, it appears that they did. Considering that over 3,400 public officials were elected, a full overview of the results is beyond the scope of this paper. Consequently, I first broadly summarize the main results in Table 1 and then I move on to present three highlights and three alternative explanations for the outcome.

Table 1.- Mexico’s 2018 Results

Not only did López Obrador win by a considerable margin, but the Juntos Haremos Historia coalition (MORENA-PES-PT) also won the majority of congressional seats —at the federal and local level— along with a significant number of Governorships and Mayoralties (not displayed here).  Before presenting the highlights, it is worth noting that for the first time in Mexico’s history a) women will obtain equal participation both in Cabinet and in Congress and that b) unfortunately, the first truly independent candidates at all government levels lost their respective races. Along with these factors, the electoral outcomes have three further implications:

  1. Strong Mandate – Not only is the election an interesting case for exploring coattail effects, but also, it has been almost 4 decades since a Mexican President obtained such an ample electoral support —and it is the first time this happens under competitive elections. This fact should prove fundamental in the implementation of the coalition’s policy platform.
  2. Renewed Legitimacy – The high turnout rate, a clear mandate and the fact that Mexico will have its first left-of-centre government in 80 years, help strengthen democratic legitimacy in two ways: First, contrary to previous experiences (i.e. Mexico in 2006), there is no doubt on the social legitimacy of the newly elected government. Second, and most importantly, the 2018 process boosts the legitimacy of the electoral mechanism itself. It shows that votes —and not guns— are an effective tool for securing and redistributing political power.
  3. Political Geography– Beyond showing that democracy is now the only game in town, this outcome also tackles its uneven spread. Along with the national change, this electoral process opens up a new era of subnational politics. For the first time in Mexico’s contemporary history the majority of Governors will face divided governments, buttressing representation as well as local checks and balances. Moreover, as Map 1 shows, alternancias at the local level should reshape political bargaining across and between governmental levels.

Map 1.- Mexico’s Political 2018 Geography

To explain the results, 3 alternative hypotheses have been offered: First, some analysts suggest that angry and disenchanted voters punished Enrique Peña Nieto’s government for the multiple corruption scandals and for its poor economic performance. A second hypothesis suggests looking at AMLO’s effective campaigning, his distinct policy agenda along with his populist appeal. Closely related, the last alternative that has been offered emphasizes AMLO’s broad social and political coalition. Suffice it to say that there is enough material for social and political scientists to disentangle.

Looking Past Election Day: Upcoming Challenges

In addition to the social, international and economic challenges, in the upcoming months, the newly elected government will face two specifically political dilemmas. At the same time, the flexibility of Mexico’s presidential democratic regime will also be tested. I briefly address each of these issues below:

  1. The Delivery Paradox – It has been suggested that AMLO’s new administration is in a bind. Using his majority in Congress to implement his policy platform will allow his opponents to accuse him of brining Mexican hyper-presidentialism back; if he doesn’t, and consequently fails to comply, he risks losing popular support. Past the honeymoon period, carefully navigating this paradoxical situation will require bargaining and political innovation.
  2. Taming the beast – To secure his victory, AMLO articulated a socio-political movement in which many groups and sectors coalesced for electoral purposes. Successfully dealing with the previous challenge will require, among other things, managing to transform that movement into a somewhat disciplined and coherent party organization.
  3. Checks & Balances – Given the overwhelming support for AMLO’s government, at the regime level, in order to guarantee the survival and consolidation of democracy, finding political counterweights is key. Actors coming from three distinct arenas will play a crucial role in balancing Mexican politics: 1) Civil Society and Media, 2) International and national Markets and 3) Opposition parties. Members of these last group have a difficult task ahead, as they first need to regroup and redefine themselves. Here scholars of Mexican parties will need to be creative in exploring and explaining upcoming changes to the party system.

The night after the election citizens paraded the streets across the country, their message was one of hope and illusion. Latin America and the world also expectantly observe the Mexican political scenario. Ironically, Langston’s book on PRI’s survival was published the year in which the party obtained its worst electoral result. In their new book, Michael Albertus and Victor Menaldo, argue that flawed democracies successfully overhaul their elite-biased institutions once the old authoritarian guard passes away. Can the electoral catastrophe of the PRI be interpreted as its (political) death? And if so, will Mexican democracy consolidate? Or will it be fatally injured by this pyrrhic victory? The cards are now on the table, and as the authors clearly suggest, only time will tell.


Javier Pérez Sandoval (javier.perezsandoval@politics.ox.ac.uk) is a DPhil in Politics candidate at the University of Oxford based at Wolfson College. He hold a BA in Politics and an MPhil in Comparative Government. He is passionate about regime change, subnational politics, presidentialism and socio-economic development. He teaches the Latin American Politics tutorial to undergrads at the University of Oxford and has worked as an Associate Lecturer at Brookes University for a similar course. Beyond his keen interest in Argentinian, Brazilian and Mexican political dynamics, he is also a sci-fi and cinema aficionado.

Manuel Alcantara, Jean Blondel and Jean-Louis Thiébault – The influence of the presidential system on the character of Latin American democracy

This is a guest post by Manuel Alcantara, Jean Blondel and Jean-Louis Thiébault. It is based on their recent book, Presidents and Democracy in Latin America, London and New York: Routledge, 2017.

The aim of this book is to study the effect of the presidential form of government on democracy in Latin America. The adoption of the presidential system, specifically the personality type of those who have occupied the presidential office, the leadership style of those presidents, and the type of government they have led, helps to explain the consolidation of democracy there.

In this study, six countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru) were chosen. They were chosen because they have successfully completed the process of democratic consolidation. Within each of the six countries, two presidents were chosen, reflecting broad trends in the political and electoral life of these countries. The goal was to select presidents belonging to one of the key political ‘families’ of the country, grouped under the banner of a political party, or who were representative of two particular approaches to the same problem in the same political family. These presidents were in office in the 1990s or the first decade of the 21st century. Some were liberal or conservative, left-wing or right-wing populists, socialists or social democrats, leaders of a political party or ‘outsiders,’ members of parliament or technocrats. They are:

  • Carlos Menem (July 1989-December 1999) and Nestor Kirchner (May 2003-December 2007) for Argentina.
  • Fernando Henrique Cardoso (January 1995-December 2002) and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (January 2003-December 2010) for Brazil.
  • Patricio Aylwin (March 1990-March 1994) and Ricardo Lagos (March 2000-March 2006) for Chile.
  • Cesar Gaviria (September 1994-September 2004) and Alvaro Uribe (August 2002-August 2010) for Colombia.
  • Ernesto Zedillo (December 1994-November 2000) and Felipe Calderon (December 2006-December 2012) for Mexico.
  • Alan García (July 1985-July 1990 and July 2006 to July 2011) and Alberto Fujimori (July 1990-November 2000) for Peru.

In practice, these presidents were all center-right or center-left leaders. They were not members of the military, dictators, or revolutionaries. Right-wing populist presidents (Menem, Fujimori and Uribe) were chosen based on the idea that populists can be either on the right or on the left. However, García and Kirchner were chosen as moderate populists, claiming to be an Aprist and a Peronist respectively; both represent different periods. These choices make it possible to analyze processes in a consolidated democracy, but not in military regimes or in dominant party systems.

From the 1930s to the 1980s, these Latin American countries had a long period of instability. Argentina wavered between three types of political regimes: military dictatorship, a populist-corporatist regime, and restrictive democracy. From 1930 to the reestablishment of liberal democracy in 1983, there were six major military coups (1930, 1943, 1955, 1962, 1966 and 1976). There were eighteen presidents, and all those elected were overthrown except one, Peron, who died less than a year after his election. Governments in Peru have been more unstable than in any other South American country. Between 1945 and 1992, Peru’s government was civilian and constitutional almost 60 percent of the time, and a military regime 40 percent of the time. There were nearly two decades of military rule in Brazil and Chile. A military coup overthrew President Goulart in 1964 and began the longest period of authoritarian rule in Brazil’s history. With the collapse of democracy in September 1973, Chile was abruptly transformed from an open and participatory political system into a repressive and authoritarian one. General Pinochet was selected as the junta’s president by virtue of his position as leader of the oldest military branch. Unlike many of its continental neighbors, Colombia has avoided military rule, but there was intense violence between members of the two major parties in the late 1940s and 1950s, known as « la violenca » (the violence). A coalition government resulted from party negotiations. From 1958 to 1974, all governments in Colombia consisted of a bipartisan coalition. The main factors commonly associated with good prospects for democracy have long persisted in Mexico without producing full democracy.

Presidential regimes in Latin America are now a success, despite the pessimistic comments directed at this form of government. There are indeed manifest reasons why the Latin American presidential government should be considered a success. Latin American countries have overcome the fundamental dangers to which they were exposed. Although difficulties continue in a number of countries, presidential government in the region is no longer interrupted as it so frequently was in the past. Democratic development also mean that the number of countries regularly holding free and fair elections has increased. Executive governments are often elected by voters mobilized by clientelistic ties or by a candidate’s personality, rather than programmatic, appeal, all in the context of weak parties that are, moreover, rejected by citizens. The presidential elections of Zedillo in 1994 and Calderon in 2006 were intricate and controversial. Both involved critical moments of acute social tension and political instability that produced distinctive results.

Latin American governments have been influenced by the adoption of the presidential system. They set up institutions drawn largely from the US constitutional model. But Latin American presidents represent another type of executive. In the United States, there is a president, but there is no government. Latin America has a large number of presidential regimes characterised by a high degree of consistency and similarity. They constitute a type of intermediary regime, comprising many elements of presidential regimes, but with some of the features of parliamentary systems with coalition governments so as to ensure a majority in congress. For almost twenty years, Brazil has been considered an extraordinary case of « coalition presidentialism ». This explains why the president’s leadership is important and has an impact on the nature of government. The Brazilian party system is highly fragmented. Dealing with loosely disciplined parties is thus a major problem for presidents because it makes the formation of stable congressional majorities much harder to achieve due to the excessive number of party factions. But there were also the broad multi-party coalition governments seen in Chile. Presidents of these countries have demonstrated leadership skills, arising from a good political performance and cohesive majority coalitions that support them: Aylwin and Lagos in Chile, Cardoso in Brazil. It is impossible to explain the stability of these coalitions without referring to the various mechanisms of coalition management and to presidential leadership. Most importantly, these three presidents facilitated the transition to democracy following the failure of authoritarian regimes in Chile and Brazil. They did not have the same authority as Lula, but they showed great skills of conciliation and moderation during the difficult transition period, namely the restoration and the consolidation of the democratic regime in Chile and Brazil.

This explains why the presidential leadership is important and has an impact on the nature of government. The key feature of the popular election of the president has been the inherent tendency of Latin American countries to emphasize the role of personalities in political life. Latin American political regimes have been markedly affected by patronage and clientelism; with the extension of the right to vote, elections were deeply influenced by these practices. The impact of personalities on the political life of Latin American countries has continued to this day, but it is less substantial. There is a decline in the extent to which Latin American presidentialism is personalized compared to the extent it had been previously. In the past personalization undoubtedly rendered presidential rule more chaotic and less rule-based. The fact that, on the whole, presidencies have tended to follow previously adopted rules during the last decades of the twentieth century and the first decades of the twenty-first century has surely resulted in the personalization of presidents being been less marked than in the past. Whereas presidents often enjoy high levels of popularity, these levels vary from president to president as well as over time in the case of each president. One president exhibited exceptional leadership boosted by his personal dominance: Lula. His performance was strengthened by the fact that he had an interesting experience as founder and president of the Workers’ Party. He is often regarded as one of the most popular politicians in the history of Brazil, boasting approval ratings over 80 percent and, at the time of his mandate, one of the most popular in the world.

A new type of personalised populism emerged with the appearance of formulas promoting demobilization and anti-political behavior. Fujimori in Peru, Menem in Argentina, and Uribe in Colombia. These three presidents have adopted a more or less authoritarian manner, being hostile to or even repressing the opposition. They used exceptional means, such as a state of emergency or government by decree, to implement their economic and social policies, as well as the fight against armed rebellions and drug trafficking. However, these exceptional means did not enable them to achieve the expected results. Their presidency was characterized by an authoritarianism and corruption. The populism of Carlos S. Menem in Argentina was strengthened by the political machine of the historic Justicialita Party. Carlos Menem governed within the framework of « peronism » and enjoyed remarkable popular support. Menem’s economic policy involved profound structural reforms, including the privatisation of public enterprises, economic deregulation and the opening up of the economy to foreign trade and investment. This policy created the conditions for monetary stability and remained in force after Menem left office in 1999 and until the crisis of December 2001. However, the policies of the Menem era led to a deepening of social inequality and a rise in unemployment. However he was considered a true peronist. He was the main player in the political regime, with a negative view of parliament and the judiciary. Menem’s leadership has been labelled neopopulist and delegative due to the continuous use of unilateral measures and emergency legislation. It was of a different nature to the populism of Fujimori in Peru. Fujimori sought to distance his government from politics, disdaining the social and/or political mobilization that could have been mounted through some movement or party. Fujimori outlined a strategy in which criticism of the traditional parties was a part of his discourse. He decided to confront the political class instead of building bridges with it. Instead, he expressly renounced such mobilizations, and depoliticized all the other political bodies. Uribe presented himself as the saviour of a Colombia that seemed to be on the brink of destruction. He portrayed himself as a messiah who would redeem Colombia of all its evils and built a strategy around certain core components. He adopted a radical discourse against armed groups and proposed resolving the internal conflict through war and the subjugation of guerrillas. He withdrew from the Liberal Party, to which he had belonged throughout his political life. He spoke out against the parties and the political class despite having belonged to both and adhering to their norms and rules throughout his political career.

Some presidents demonstrated weaker leadership skills (Kirchner in Argentine, Gaviria in Colombia, Zedillo and Calderon in Mexico). They came to power without holding important positions in the governments headed by their predecessors. They have become second-rate candidates, indirectly because of events that have upset or disrupted the appointment of the first office holder. They have never been able to exercise strong authority, muddling through in the face of significant obstacles and divisions.

The fact that the presidential system had become ‘established’ in Latin America by the second half of the 20th century does not mean that these countries have not suffered serious problems. In the 1990s, democracy spread across the region, even if Colombia, Brazil and Mexico experienced marked political violence, the state being unable to maintain order and public security. What is clear is that, in the context of Colombia, Mexico and Brazil in particular, one very serious problem was identified: violence, and this problem affected the regular development of the presidential system in these three countries. The amount of violence that has affected Colombia has been huge, to the extent that it is surprising that the regular conduct of the electoral process has not been prevented from taking place. The policies of the two Colombian presidents, Gaviria and Uribe, were fundamentally different, the first having pursued the ‘war effort’ against the rebels, whereas the second attempted (unsuccessfully) to find a peaceful solution: his successor was able to make substantial progress in that direction, however. In Colombia it has thus been possible, rather surprisingly, to maintain the main electoral rules of the liberal democratic process, although, at least in a substantial part of the country, confrontation has taken in effect the form of a civil war.

In recent decades, presidential elections have taken place regularly in Latin America. Certainly, some presidents have been more popular than others. Some have been unable to conclude their terms. Others have gradually learned to adjust to the particularities of the institutional system. Overall, though, the presidential form of government has gradually begun to function smoothly. The fact that presidents have tended to follow democratic rules has resulted from the presence of patterns of parliamentary presidentialism. In spite of serious problems (political violence, corruption), the emergence of these tools (coalitional presidentialism, the (de-) institutionalization of party systems, the internal organization of the executive branch) must be seen as having constituted the key institutional development of democracy in Latin America.