Bret Stephens/NYT: Will Mexico get its Donald?
Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press
Presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador waves to supporters at his closing campaign rally in Mexico City on Wednesday.
As Mexicans cast their ballots, I hope they'll remember that the wages
of popular resentment are too often returned in the coin of political ruin.
Mexicans go to the polls on Sunday, politically united on just one thing: total contempt for Donald Trump. So why do they seem intent on electing their own left-wing version of him?
That's the larger question hovering over the expected victory of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, a populist firebrand making his third bid for the presidency. The former Mexico City mayor came within a hair of being elected in 2006, only to be routed at the next ballot in 2012. Now he's coasting to victory, with Bloomberg's polling average showing him winning more than 50 percent of the vote in this year's four-way race .
What's different this time? Mexicans are mad as hell at a system they see as self-dealing, under-performing and corrupt. That should sound familiar to Americans — not to mention Italians, Britons, and those in every other nation swamped by the populist tide. In Mexico's case, they're largely right.
Enrique Peña Nieto, the outgoing incumbent, came to office promising to cut the crime rate in half. Instead, Mexico suffered more than 25,000 murders last year, a modern record . He promised an end to corruption. His administration is suspected of spying on anti-graft investigators , and his wife was caught buying a $7 million mansion from a government contractor. He promised economic growth of 6 percent a year. It hardly ever got above 3 percent. The average wage fell by about $1,000 during the Great Recession and hasn't recovered since.
All this, while Mexicans have been vilified as rapists and murderers and freeloaders by the American president, who is also on record saying he couldn't care less whether his policies hurt them. If AMLO wins, Trump will deserve him.
For Mexicans, however, not so much. AMLO's popularity rests on the belief that he will end corruption, bring down crime, and redistribute ill-gotten gains to the people. How, exactly? Just as Trump declared at the 2016 Republican convention that he “alone” could fix a broken system , AMLO seems to have convinced his base that he can just make things happen. “Everything I am saying will be done” is how he punctuates his pledge to make government fair and honest.
Down with politics and the art of the possible; up with pronouncements and the allure of the prophetic: It's the way of demagogues everywhere.
Trump promises to build border walls, win trade wars, keep us safe from terrorism, and end Obamacare, all at the snap of a finger (or an executive order). His ardent supporters believe it'll happen, either because they are depressingly ignorant of checks and balances or secretly committed to doing away with them.
Similarly, AMLO promises to fix social inequities that date back 500 years in a single six-year term. In an interview with The New Yorker's Jon Lee Anderson, he compares himself to Benito Juárez, Mexico's answer to Abraham Lincoln. The idea of steady improvement and gradual amelioration isn't for him. In Mexico's current anger he seems at last to have found his moment.
Some of AMLO's skeptics take solace in the fact that in this campaign he has moderated his policies, modulated his tone, reached out to the business community, and promised to work pragmatically with the United States.
But it isn't clear whether the softer rhetoric is anything more than an attempt to allay the fear (which factored heavily in his previous defeats) that he's a Mexican Hugo Chávez. If he wins the presidency with big legislative majorities, there won't be an institutional check on his ambitions. That rarely works out well in fragile democracies, especially when the ambitions run in the direction of economic statism and political populism.
It especially doesn't work out well when populist policies collapse (as they generally do) on contact with reality. What typically follows isn't a course correction by the leader or disillusionment among his followers. It's an increasingly aggressive hunt for scapegoats: greedy speculators, the deep state, foreign interlopers, dishonest journalists, saboteurs, fifth columnists, and so on. That's been the pattern in one populist government after another, from Viktor Orban's Hungary to Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Turkey to, well, Trump's America. Now Mexico risks being next.
I grew up in Mexico City at a time when the country was a repressive one-party dictatorship almost wholly dependent on oil revenues. Over nearly 40 years I've watched it become a multiparty state with a thriving manufacturing base, a growing middle class , and at least a belief in political accountability . That's progress, and a reminder that Mexico's myriad discontents, though serious, are also evidence of rising expectations.
I'd hate to think all that will now be thrown away. As Mexicans cast their ballots, I hope they'll remember that the wages of popular resentment are too often returned in the coin of political ruin. The last thing they need now is a Donald Trump of their own.
Bret Stephens is an American journalist, editor, and political commentator. Stephens began working as a contributing columnist at The New York Times in late April 2017 and as a senior political contributor for NBC News in June 2017. Petroleumworld does not necessarily share these views.
Editor's Note: This commentary was originally published by The NYT on June 29 , 2018. Petroleumworld reprint this article in the interest of our readers and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Petroleumworld and its owners.
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