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Gustavo Tarre: Mexico and the Risk of Authoritarian Populism

The twentieth century ended amid well-founded optimism that Latin America had taken firm steps toward democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. But in the last 20 years, things have changed. Generally speaking, the political principles of democracy are not firmly established. To cite but one measure, in Freedom House’s annual report for 2017, only three Latin American countries—Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay—qualify as electoral democracies that accord their citizens full liberties and respect for human rights. By and large, the hemisphere has taken a distinct turn toward an authoritarian populism that denies the essential values of democracy and prevents any advances in the rule of law.

However, there are some positive trends. The overwhelming failure of Chavismo in Venezuela has clearly been an example of what not to do. In Ecuador, the new government of Lenín Moreno is leaving behind the authoritarian tendencies of Rafael Correa. And the Kirchner dynasty has ended in Argentina. These developments are good news.

However, this year, there is the possibility of authoritarian populism winning out in both Mexico and Colombia.

Mexico may be the closest to this scenario. In all polls to date, populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador appears as the most likely winner. He is followed by Ricardo Anaya, from the National Action Party (PAN) and, in third place, José Antonio Meade from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) of the current president, Enrique Peña Nieto. There are also two other candidates with less force: Margarita Zavala, PAN dissident and wife of former president Felipe Calderón, and Jaime Rodríguez Calderón, known as “El Bronco,” the independent governor of the state of Nuevo León.

What is there to be afraid of? Known by his initials AMLO, Andrés Manuel López Obrador is making his third run for the presidency. He presents himself as an antiestablishment candidate, with clear leftist tendencies, yet some of his past positions are troubling.

In their recent and much discussed book, How Democracies Die (Crown, 2018), Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt present four tests to identify potential authoritarian leaders. AMLO’s career demonstrates that he passes most of these tests:

  1. Weak commitment to democratic rules of the game,
  2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents,
  3. Does not rule out the use of violence,
  4. Open to curtailing civil liberties.

Is AMLO going to win? It’s too early to say. With just under five months to go, the other main candidates, Anaya and Meade, are still unknown to many voters. Meanwhile, López Obrador, thanks to his two previous presidential campaigns, is a household name. The debates among the candidates will be crucial, as well as the campaign strategies.

López Obrador’s lead has much to do with a feeling of PRI and PAN fatigue. The two great parties that have dominated the Mexican political scene have been unable to solve three major problems: Violence linked to drug trafficking, corruption, and inequality. These failures have fed the antiestablishment tendencies of the electorate.

Working against AMLO is the fear among Mexicans of the extreme left. This has been exacerbated by hemispheric failures and by memories of the failed populist policies of Luis Echeverría in the 1970s. Additionally, AMLO’s stewardship as Alcalde of Mexico City was not as good as he wants everyone to believe and exhibited some of his authoritarian tendencies.

The voter’s absolute rejection of Enrique Peña Nieto’s presidency (his support hovers just over 10 percent), along with his lack of charisma, are the main obstacles that José Antonio Meade needs to overcome. Meade, a technocrat of recognized ability and experience, was chosen to mitigate the loss of prestige of professional politicians but has failed to inspire the voters of the party that nominated him. Ricardo Anaya of the PAN faces similar challenges. At only 37 years of age, his lack of experience elicits strong criticism but also may appeal to Mexico’s young electorate.

What happens if AMLO becomes the next president of Mexico?

There is a risk that he will try to take control of the judiciary, change the electoral laws and the authorities that rule the election processes, and put an end to freedom of the press. Although he has not said it, he could propose a change of the Constitution through a Constituent Assembly. This would not be a novelty in Latin America, as it is the path followed by Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. And he could end up politicizing the police and the armed forces.

Another factor could be Russian meddling in the election. It has already happened in Brexit, in the United States, in France, in Catalonia, in Germany, and in Honduras. An AMLO victory may suit Vladimir Putin’s world strategy, and the hackers and fake news “made in Russia” can be very effective. Already National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have raised the alarm.

The democratic system in Mexico is at risk. The country lacks the strong institutions that are needed to contain any authoritarian deviation. Worse, south of the Rio Grande there are weak informal rules governing political behavior. There is not, in the words of Levitsky and Ziblatt, “Mutual tolerance between political rivals and forbearance, to avoid actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit. Where norms of forbearance are strong, politicians no not use their institutional prerogatives to the hilt, even if it is technically legal to do so, for such action could imperil the existing system.”

Gustavo Tarre is a senior associate of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2018 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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