With Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s election as president of Mexico, the Mexican political system atoned for a blatant and ham-handed electoral fraud in 1988 that denied the presidency to the leftist candidate, Cuauhtémoc Cardenas.
Mr. Cardenas, the son of one of Mexico’s iconic presidents, spoke in measured tones and was a Mexican version of a courtly, pedigreed European socialist who wanted to reform the system from within.
His collaborator at the time and subsequent two-time candidate for the upstart PRD political party that Mr. Cardenas founded was Mr. Lopez Obrador, or AMLO as he is called.
The political establishment may have been forced to relent, but it could not control the measure of its penitence. AMLO speaks extemporaneously in public and would shun the label of reformer. He talks about revolutionizing the system. He rumbles in the streets and takes names.
This feels like a permanent sea change in the alignment of Mexican politics. In addition to winning the presidency, AMLO’s Morena party won both houses of Congress, five of the nine gubernatorial seats and the mayoralty (by a woman for the first time) of Mexico City.
The change could be long-lasting if he fulfils his primary pledges to: wipe out corruption and impunity, invent new and more effective ways to combat crime and drug violence, create more robust growth and well-paying jobs, among other top-line issues.
How long-lasting may also depend on how the PRI party behemoth reacts. It has more levers and buttons in its closet than the Wizard of Oz. But the curtain has been pulled back to reveal that Oz may be just an illusion now. It may tap its shoes together and repeat, “there’s no place like home,” but at this point its home is flooded to the top floor.
At a minimum, AMLO’s victory is a pronounced market correction.
Given the size of his vote total (53 per cent) and margin of victory (31 percentage points more than the closest challenger), it would be inaccurate to classify AMLO’s win as simply a “voto de castigo” (vote to punish) the traditional PRI and PAN parties. Pre-election polls showed that he drew support equally from both sexes and that his support rose with voters’ education levels.
The motivation to vote to punish is constrained when the choices are so radically different. In a pre-election poll published in Mexico’s Reforma newspaper, Mexicans preferred by wide margins AMLO’s position on all seven key issues tested. His was the largest raw and percentage vote tally in Mexico’s history of open presidential elections, including that of President Carlos Salinas de Gotari, who won the fraudulent election of 1988.
Two of the most intriguing and long-term implications of this election should be a source of optimism for beleaguered democrats everywhere, and an opportunity for AMLO.
When asked “how satisfied are you with the functioning of Mexico’s democracy,” 36 per cent of Mexicans said a lot or some while 62 per cent said a little bit or not at all.
Yet Toronto-based RIWI Corp.’s survey of 4,000 randomly engaged Mexicans conducted last week revealed that 92 per cent of millennials (ages 18-34) who support AMLO thought it worth their time to vote. Those that support other candidates are only slightly less engaged. It would appear that at least millennials still hold out hope for Mexican democracy and real change.
Comparable RIWI data across Japan, the United Kingdom, France (for last year’s French presidential election) and the pivotal Brexit vote showed significantly lower levels of engagement among millennial voters.
This belief among Mexican millennials in the value of the ballot may offer a potential counternarrative to the trend in Latin America, and indeed the rest of the world that confidence in democracy is declining.
Millennials comprise approximately 50 per cent of Mexico’s electorate with 14 million eligible to vote for the first time out of 89 million Mexicans eligible to vote.
According to the RIWI survey, 50 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds supported AMLO and 60 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds support AMLO.
Given his group of energized millennial supporters, AMLO has an opportunity to develop deep brand loyalty for several generations.
Skeptics warn that AMLO is selling Mexico a road to perdition.
If AMLO shows measurable success in fulfilling his primary pledges within constitutional parameters, as he promised Sunday night in his victory speech, Mexico will be transformed for the better and Mexico’s belief in its institutional democracy will be solidified. Democrats worldwide praying for positive signs should be reverential about that.
*President of the Canadian Council for the Americas. Article first published in the Globe & Mail.