Mexico midterms: Why AMLO still has voters’ hopes on his side

Mexico midterms: Why AMLO still has voters’ hopes on his side

Eduardo Verdugo/AP

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his wife, Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller, attend a ceremony marking the 700th anniversary of the founding of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, at the Templo Mayor archeological site in Mexico City, May 13, 2021.

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June 3, 2021

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Political analysts in Mexico say President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is “made of Teflon.” Since taking office in 2018, the populist has weathered multiple setbacks – not to mention that Mexico has one of the world’s highest death tolls from COVID-19. Yet more than a year into the pandemic, he maintains hearty approval ratings, and many observers expect his party to have strong showings in midterm elections this weekend.

When his government is evaluated on specific issues, like security or the economy, it garners substantially lower marks than the president himself. So what’s his superpower? Analysts say his popularity comes down to a handful of populist traits, like prioritizing poor people (at least in his rhetoric), and a lack of opposition. But perhaps above all, what Mr. López Obrador has going for him is his ability to instill hope, despite scant concrete progress.

Mr. López Obrador has become “the incarnation of hope that things could be different,” says Carlos Bravo Regidor, of Mexico’s Center for Economic Research and Teaching. The president stokes public anger – pinning problems on the elite and the corrupt and politicians who came before him – while buoying hope that only he has the answers to decades of Mexican woes.

Why We Wrote This

Populists worldwide have been criticized for their handling of the pandemic. But some, like Mexico’s AMLO, keep strong support nonetheless. What does he symbolize for his fans?

Mexico City

Estefanía Veloz, a lawyer and feminist in Mexico City, halted her longtime support for Mexico’s ruling Morena party earlier this year, after it backed a candidate accused of rape.

But she never stopped supporting its founder, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Though he disappointed her with his treatment of feminist concerns and management of the pandemic, Ms. Veloz counts herself among the roughly 60% of Mexicans who approve of his leadership.

Why We Wrote This

Populists worldwide have been criticized for their handling of the pandemic. But some, like Mexico’s AMLO, keep strong support nonetheless. What does he symbolize for his fans?

“He’s not listening [to feminists] but that’s not surprising: He’s 67. It’s like trying to get your dad to understand this complicated movement,” she says. What gives her hope is that he still has another three years to come around, a track record of fighting for the “underdog,” and a cabinet brimming with women – plus a chance to gain more power in the lower house of Congress in Sunday’s midterm elections, which would allow him to push ahead with his vision for a transformed Mexico.

While populist leaders around the globe have suffered political blows from mismanaging the pandemicMexico lost more than 320,000 lives, one of the highest death tolls worldwide – Mr. López Obrador maintains hearty approval ratings. Political analysts say he’s “made of Teflon.” He’s survived multiple setbacks over the past 2 1/2 years, from gasoline shortages and the pandemic to burning bridges with former allies. When his government is evaluated on specific issues, like security or the economy, it garners substantially lower marks (28% and 25% approval, respectively).

Rebecca Blackwell/AP/File

A masked feminist protester holds up an image of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, marked with the Spanish phrase “Indifferent president” outside Mexico’s Human Rights Commission, which activists had occupied, in Mexico City, Sept. 9, 2020. The activists say the government has been slow to protect or support women who have suffered abuse.

Analysts say his popularity comes down to a handful of populist traits – like playing into historic polarization, prioritizing poor people (at least in his rhetoric), and controlling the media narrative through daily press conferences ­– and a lack of opposition. But perhaps above all, what Mr. López Obrador has going for him is his ability to instill hope, despite scant concrete progress.

When Mr. López Obrador was elected in 2018, “he became the incarnation of public anger [with established politicians and parties], and the incarnation of hope that things could be different,” says Carlos Bravo Regidor, an associate professor at Mexico’s Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE), who produced a podcast episode digging into why the president maintains such high public support.

“We tend to think of hope and anger as opposite political feelings, but the truth is they came hand-in-hand in Mexico,” he says. And Mr. López Obrador continues to stoke public anger – pinning the nation’s problems on the elite and the corrupt and politicians who came before him – while buoying hope that only he has the answers to decades of Mexican woes.


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Dropping the ball

When COVID-19 hit, Latin American populists from Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro to Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega to Mr. López Obrador mostly looked the other way – with the exception of El Salvador, where President Nayib Bukele took a more hard-line approach.

Will Grant, author of “Populista: The Rise of Latin America’s 21st
Century Strongmen,” says he was initially surprised by how many populist leaders essentially didn’t react to COVID-19. “I would have thought we’d see more of a cover thrown over the most vulnerable,” Mr. Grant says. Instead, many leaders “sold this idea that it was no big deal. They had it, they got over it, and it fed into the narrative that they aren’t weak, it’s not something to be scared of, and there’s no need to close down the economy.”

But it’s not just Mr. López Obrador who’s been forgiven for a laissez-faire response. Many politicians in Latin America likely benefited from the global nature of the pandemic, says Amy Erica Smith, an associate professor at Iowa State University who studies how citizens engage with authoritarian and democratic governments. Leaders have “framed the pandemic as ‘Well, I didn’t cause this,’” she says. “They’ve had a lot of leeway in framing the pandemic in ways that reduce the blame attached to them.”

There is frustration with leaders, no doubt. “But people don’t know where to really place the anger. [COVID-19] is an act of God. It wasn’t created by one person or political party,” says Nicolás Saldías, an analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit.

There’s also a socioeconomic element to the lack of public backlash. “Part of the reason incumbents aren’t being held more accountable is that the working and lower classes are used to not being well served by their political system,” Professor Smith says. Support such as unconditional cash transfers for poor people in Mexico and pandemic-relief cash transfers in Brazil have helped some populists weather the crisis as well.

“Alone at the top”

Polls project Mr. Lopez Obrador’s party, Morena, will have a strong showing in this weekend’s midterms, when some 20,000 municipal, state, and national positions are up for grabs. In the lower house of Congress, Morena’s coalition is expected to fall just short of the supermajority needed to make numerous constitutional changes. These are reforms that have critics fearful the president will try to further erode democratic checks and balances in the name of “transformation.”

“The Mexican electorate is more strategic and smarter than anyone ever gives it credit for,” says Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University. “They know how to exact punishment and dole out rewards and how to make political corrections,” he says. “I have the suspicion that the electorate is fixing to use the ballot box to exact a cost for the lack of the government’s COVID-19 strategy.”

However, this may manifest itself more at the local level, Mr. Bravo says.

Ms. Veloz doesn’t think she’s alone in being unhappy with Morena, yet she’s still planning on casting her vote for them. For her, it’s largely a desire to keep Mr. López Obrador working for a better Mexico. “The president is constantly talking about how we need a majority in Congress to keep the transformation going,” she says of his plans to root out corruption, hold people who are rich and powerful to account, and create more opportunities for poor people.

But it’s also a lack of alternatives. She describes a recent meme that tells people not to vote for Morena because it is just like the PRI, a party that ruled Mexico for more than 70 years and is often associated with corruption and cronyism. The meme goes on to say “Who should I vote for, then?” The answer: “The PRI.”

Since the president’s election three years ago, “there hasn’t been an effort by opposition parties to really come to terms with the decision of Mexican voters [to reject the establishment] and for parties to reinvent themselves to become viable or attractive again,” says Mr. Bravo. “There’s an inertia driving López Obrador’s approval ratings. He seems to be alone at the top, with no real leadership alternative disputing his narrative or politicizing his failures or bringing him to task.”

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Juan Miguel, a bricklayer in Mexico City who asked not to use his last name, says it’s been a “terrible year” for his family: Two uncles and a cousin died from COVID-19. His wife lost her job and his kids are still out of school. He doesn’t blame the president, who has “tried very hard,” he says. And although he hasn’t been impressed with Morena legislators, he plans to support the party.

“It’s what’s good for the president, and that’s what’s good for the country,” he says.

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