SANTIAGO – With the outcome of Mexico’s presidential election on July 1 virtually assured, financial market analysts are now asking how bad Andrés Manuel López Obrador (popularly known as AMLO) will be for the economy. The honest answer is that it’s anybody’s guess.
But markets like few things more than concluding that a populist is not that bad after all. As they did with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil and Ollanta Humala in Peru, among many others, pundits are rushing to identify reasons for optimism.
One cause for hope is that AMLO has moderated his incendiary rhetoric and is no longer threatening to do away with the North American Free Trade Agreement. Another is that Latin American populists can also be fiscal hawks, as Evo Morales has shown in Bolivia. AMLO’s tenure as mayor of Mexico City was fiscally sound, and Carlos Urzúa, his likely finance minister, played a part in that. Moreover, Mexico has a capable central bank with a strong tradition of independence. AMLO’s campaign manager has spent much time attempting to reassure investors, and markets may have already priced in whatever AMLO will do. The list goes on.
This is all probably right. But it is also of secondary importance. Financial market gurus are not asking the right question. The key issue is not what AMLO may do to the economy, but what he may do to Mexican democracy. And here the news is not good.
Yes, populism is an approach to economic policy that refuses to acknowledge the existence of budget constraints. As a result, when in power, populists tend to undertax, overspend, overborrow, and allow inflation to rise.
But populism is also – and above all – a style of politics that weakens checks and balances, runs roughshod over institutions, and replaces pluralistic deliberation with the allegedly infallible leadership of a single charismatic leader. For all these reasons, as writers from Princeton’s Jan-Werner Muller to Harvard’s Yascha Mounk have stressed, political populism is a growing threat to liberal democracy.
The United States and Europe may just be discovering (or rediscovering) this, but Latin Americans know well from history that populism harbors a dangerous authoritarian streak. From Getúlio Vargas in Brazil and Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina decades ago to Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela today, populists have abused democratic rules and, in some cases, become outright dictators. AMLO has spent most of his long political career playing by the rules of the democratic game. One does not have to believe that he is a chavista or a castrista – he is not – to conclude that his presidency could further weaken the already vulnerable institutions of Mexican democracy.AMLO’s behavior after losing the 2006 presidential election by just 0.5% of the vote suggests what may lie in store. Without producing a shred of evidence, he declared the election had been stolen from him and camped out in Mexico City’s main square in a fruitless attempt to prevent the victor from taking power. Mexico had actually made a great deal of progress on democratic reform, strengthening the independent Federal Elections Institute (IFE) to oversee an election that the journalist and writer Héctor Aguilar Camín has called “the most competitive and best counted” in Mexican history. But this did not prevent AMLO from calling IFE directors “thieves,” the election process a “pigsty,” and the winner, Felipe Calderón, an “illegitimate president.”
No one should be surprised that AMLO has made fighting corruption the centerpiece of his campaign. In doing so, he has connected with a voting population that is not only tired of politicians’ shenanigans but also frightened by what seems at times like a breakdown of the rule of law under pressure from growing (if localized) drug-related violence.
But no one should expect AMLO to produce a ten-point plan to fight corruption and lawlessness. One problem is that some of AMLO’s associates in the motley coalition that is trying to propel him to the presidency – more than a few of them former PRI members – are not exactly paragons of transparency. More fundamentally, AMLO’s approach to corruption is textbook populism: social problems that seem complex have simple solutions, and they have not been solved only because traditional elites do not want them solved. Elect a strong leader with sufficient willpower, and those problems will conveniently melt away.
That leader, of course, can only be AMLO. In the words of political scientist Jesus Silva-Herzog Márquez, “the medicine offered by AMLO to combat corruption is AMLO.” Remember Trump’s boast in the Republican National Convention that “I alone can fix it”? The parallel would be amusing if it were not so frightening.
Populism is a kind of identity politics. It thrives on division. It is always us against them. The kind of divisive speech that blames all of society’s ills on someone else – bankers and businesspeople, foreigners and immigrants, Muslims or Jews, pious folk or atheists – is the common thread that binds together right-wing populists like Trump or Hungary’s Viktor Orbán with left-wingers like Hugo Chávez or Ecuador’s Rafael Correa.
AMLO is a faithful member of that brotherhood. His political insults are legendary. He probably lost the 2006 election for calling president Vicente Fox “chachalaca” (a small bird with an annoying chirp). He recently has referred to Mexico’s business community as a “rapacious minority” that opposes him because “it does not want to stop stealing.” For him, politics is the continuation of war by other means.
Mexico is already a deeply polarized country. It does not need a president who preaches a politics of division, even if he turns out to be fiscally prudent. But that is what it will get once it elects AMLO.
Andrés Velasco, a former finance minister of Chile, is the author of numerous books and papers on international economics and development. He has served on the faculty at Harvard, Columbia, and New York Universities.