It would be difficult to overstate the magnitude of the earthquake that just shook Mexican politics. Andrés Manuel López Obrador — often referred to by his initials, "AMLO" — did not just win the presidency. He shattered an entire electoral system.
The last time a candidate for the Mexican presidency won an outright majority was 30 years ago, when Carlos Salinas de Gortari won the first competitive presidential election in that country since the Mexican Revolution. Except that we still don't know whether Salinas truly won. The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) announced that they had won before the ballots were even counted, and then, in collusion with the right-wing National Action Party (PAN), ordered the ballots burned, so no one would ever know the true result. All subsequent Mexican presidents have won with a plurality — and in the case of right-wing PAN governments, their pluralities must be set against majorities for parties to their left. It's likely that AMLO is the first candidate to win a democratic mandate in modern Mexican history.
But what will he use that mandate for? After the earthquake, what will the new configuration of Mexican politics be?
AMLO's signature issues were political corruption, endemic violence (much of it associated with the drug trade), and entrenched, widespread poverty. The issues are closely intertwined. Political corruption has stifled economic development in impoverished regions of the country and perpetuated an entrenched divide between rich and poor. Gang violence and the drug trade thrive in conditions of limited opportunity for legitimate advancement, but the rise of Mexican drug cartels and the increasingly militarized war against them have also provided lucrative new opportunities for corruption by local officials and officers of the law.
But AMLO's proposed solutions have frequently been sketchy. He has proposed substantial increases in public spending, but with no clear indication of how they will be paid for other than by reducing corruption. To fight corruption itself, he has emphasized his own personal rectitude, which he claims will filter down through the government apparatus until the system is changed top to bottom. And from opposing transparency laws to supporting Mexico's teachers unions against reformers looking to reduce nepotism. he has sided with forces within Mexico that, from the perspective of institutional corruption, are arguably part of the problem.
In these and other ways, AMLO's campaign has participated in the kind of rhetoric that, in other contexts, has been common to the populist right. His economic orientation is also both populist and nationalist, critical of how Mexico has been disadvantaged by foreign trade — he wants to renegotiate NAFTA — and foreign investment, particularly in the energy sector. And his proposed solutions have been personalist here as well — promising, for example, to personally evaluate every energy contract to see how clean it is, and abrogate the ones that don't pass muster.
It's easy to see how that kind of approach could actually facilitate corruption. If the president's personal approval is what is needed to get a contract approved, perhaps the best thing to do is to cut the president in on the deal? But it's an approach that has proved not only effective but politically popular in a variety of other countries, from Russia, where Vladimir Putin cemented his popularity in part by bringing the oligarchs to heel (enriching himself in the process), to China, where Xi Jinping made the anti-corruption fight a central rationale for strengthening the Communist Party's role in government, and his role in the party, and finally for making himself president for life.
These illiberal tendencies have led some to worry that AMLO's election portends something like Hugo Chavez's disastrous rule in Venezuela. To allay that fear, AMLO has made a number of gestures to reassure observers within and outside Mexico that has he no such radical designs, including a number of business-friendly proposals. And he can point to a pragmatic and highly successful tenure as mayor of Mexico City to demonstrate his essential moderation.
But if AMLO doesn't seek a state takeover of the economy, he does propose to substantially strengthen the state, and increase the state's leverage over the economy. Whether this will benefit the mass of people who voted for him remains to be seen. The way it will disadvantage those who have most benefited from liberalization is much clearer.
That negative emphasis reflects the essential dynamics of populism, whether of the right or the left. Neoliberal reforms that have opened Mexico up to foreign investment and trade have made Mexico as a whole richer and nurtured the growth of a middle class, particularly in the north of the country. But they have also provided opportunities for the elite to separate itself culturally and economically from the mass of the country, while threatening the stable livelihoods of many others — small farmers and public school teachers, for example — for whom reform means more competition and less security but no greater opportunity. For those voters, how much stake do they have in a future where there is more winning if they never get to be among the winners?
Meanwhile, a glance further south may go a long way to explaining why AMLO might see a stronger state and weaker civic accountability as less an unfortunate side effect of the medicine he proposes for the Mexican economy than a part of the cure. Fifteen years ago, Brazil elected as president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — universally known as "Lula" — who called for sweeping changes to address Brazil's endemic poverty and systemic corruption. In keeping with the tenor of the times, Lula's reforms were relatively friendly to a liberal paradigm that courted foreign trade and investment. He expanded and restructured social spending, but he also expanded Brazil's trade and deepened its process of democratization. On most metrics, Brazil thrived under Lula's tenure.
Now, though he once ran against the endemic corruption of Brazilian politics and economy, Lula is himself in prison on corruption charges, charges many of his supporters view as politically motivated. He remains by far the most popular politician in Brazil, and would easily win re-election from prison were he allowed to run. Since he isn't, the leader in the polls is right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro, who has been called "Brazil's Donald Trump."
AMLO's most important goal of the single term the Mexican constitution permits him may well be to minimize the chances that, after his presidency is over, he winds up like Lula.