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Mexico: López Obrador’s First Year

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A dominant start

The first of December marks the first anniversary of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s government, the first leftist administration in Mexico since the period of hegemonic rule by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) ended in 2000. López Obrador comfortably won the national elections of 1 July 2018 with 53% of the vote and a high turnout of 62.5% of registered voters. Similarly exceptional was the victory of his Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (Morena) party in the federal congress and in state and local elections across the country. Founded in 2014, Morena obtained 44% of the legislative vote, providing it with majorities in both legislative chambers.

These votes translated into 191 seats for Morena out of the total of 500 in the chamber of deputies (lower chamber of congress). However, by late August, when congress was formally inaugurated, several legislators migrated from other parties giving the ruling party a total of 248 seats. With the votes from allies – the Partido del Trabajo (PT), the Partido Encuentro Social (PES) and the Partido Verde Ecologista de México (PVEM) – López Obrador’s party thus secured a simple majority. Morena currently has 259 seats, equivalent to a share of 51.8%, while its allies hold 72, a share of 14.4% of the chamber, providing them with a qualified majority of two-thirds, which is necessary to pass constitutional reforms. In the senate (upper chamber), López Obrador’s party also increased its share of seats out of the total of 128, from 55 after the election to 60 at present (46.9%). Its allies hold 17 seats (13.3%), which means they also hold a simple majority, but they are short of a qualified majority.

The first year of López Obrador’s government has seen the launch of what he calls the “Fourth Transformation”, which entails changes so profound that they would be comparable to the country’s independence from colonial rule in the early 19th century, the defeat of monarchical conservatives in the late 19th century, and the revolution of 1910, out of which the current political system developed.

The way in which the current regime seeks to achieve this change is found in the National Development Plan (PND) that was unveiled on 1 May. This document, which is a constitutional requirement for every administration, is meant to guide the policies that will be implemented during their six-year term of office. López Obrador’s PND was different to those of his predecessors in that it was the first time a government considered citizens’ concerns and aspirations by obtaining the public’s suggestions through open consultations and fora across the country – though there was little debate in the legislature as the chamber of deputies on 21 June approved the PND without any significant changes.

One of the key features of the documents is its polarising rhetoric, as it repeatedly condemns the previous “36 years of neoliberal and oligarchic governments”, and it points out that, unlike its predecessors, the current government will deliver progress, something that López Obrador and other high-profile Morena officials state often. And just as López Obrador has often issued contradictory statements, the PND is similarly incoherent because it comprises two distinct parts, each one with different objectives. This in fact reflects the tensions within his administration, which is made up by a group of moderates that tend to value technical expertise, led by the finance ministry, and López Obrador’s most radical and ideological associates who were clearly the dominant party in drafting the document (this divide was largely the reason for the resignation of López Obrador’s first finance minister, Carlos Urzua, on 9 July). Indeed, the PND reads more like a list of good intentions that emphasises that the administration is committed to honesty and fighting corruption, as well as to respecting the rule of law, division of powers, and the autonomy of the central bank and the electoral authorities. The problem is that it lacks indicators and measurable steps to ascertain whether the administration has achieved its objectives.

In his first state of the nation address on 1 September, López Obrador boasted that he had already delivered 78 out of the 100 promises he made upon taking office on 1 December 2018. Much of this was possible because the Morena-dominated congress started sessions three months earlier, on 1 September 2018. During its first two ordinary periods from September to December and January to April, in addition to several extraordinary sessions, the legislature approved 42 reforms that included several constitutional amendments. As a result of these reforms, López Obrador was able to deliver on many of his campaign promises, at least on paper.

Indeed, with only 168 seats, equivalent to 33.6% of votes in the lower chamber, the opposition has little clout in the legislature, where 94% of the bills submitted by Morena legislators were approved. Although the conservative Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) is the main political opposition in the new administration, with only 78 seats it lacks the numbers to be an effective counterweight to Morena in the chamber of deputies. The former ruling PRI has only 47 seats, while the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD), which used to be the main leftist party that ran López Obrador as presidential candidate in the elections of 2012 and 2006, has the second-smallest bench with only 11 representatives. In the senate, the opposition holds 51 seats. While these are equivalent to 39.8%, it is enough to limit Morena’s ability to legislate, as it cannot pass constitutional reforms which require a qualified majority of two-thirds, unless it secures the support of individual senators – which it has done already on several occasions.