He Alone Can Fix It?

Mexico’s newly elected leader, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, will have an unprecedented amount of power. Now the question is how he will use it.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador cheers his supporters at the Zócalo square, after winning general elections, in Mexico City on Sunday. Pedro Pardo/Getty Images

On Sunday, the Mexican people elected a leftist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO), the former mayor of Mexico City. AMLO ran on a populist, anti-corruption platform, and easily defeated the candidate of the incumbent party, the PRI, which has ruled Mexico for most of its post-revolution existence. But even some critics of the status quo (and the presidency of the PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto) worry that López Obrador has insufficient respect for many of Mexico’s democratic institutions. There is also concern about how an American president already hostile to Mexico (and Mexicans) will react to the results. Trump tweeted the following last night, but we shall see:

To discuss the election, I spoke by phone with León Krauze, a journalist and a Univision anchor in Los Angeles who moderated one of the recent Mexican presidential debates. He is also the host of Slate’s El Gabfest en Español. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed López Obrador’s complicated personality, how he might try to work with Donald Trump, and why immigration is such a contested issue within Mexico.

Isaac Chotiner: Why specifically are many Mexican writers and journalists concerned about AMLO’s election, especially considering the myriad failures—corruption, illegal surveillance, a possible cover-up of the 43 students who disappeared—of the current administration?

León Krauze: I think this is a story of a man proven right by the abuses of the current government, and by the gross incompetence of his political adversaries. He has been running for almost 20 years on one theme and one theme only, and that theme is corruption. For as long as I can remember, since at least the early 1990s, he has held that the main problem with Mexico was corruption, and if you solve corruption, all the other problems will be solved. He said as much during the presidential debates. I asked him about opioids and how he would fight opioid production and trafficking to the United States, and his answer was, “First we have to end corruption.”

Six years ago, he was on the verge of political extinction. He had lost his second presidential election in a row by quite a wide margin, but then the current president of Mexico proceeded to govern in the most irresponsible way imaginable. Not only were his own inner circle, his wife, his closest and dearest collaborators involved in conflicts of interest, but the governors from his party, which he himself deemed to be the future of the party, men of his administration, turned out to be incredibly corrupt and behaved like banana republic–like dictators. Add to that the violence, including the students you brought up. And the result was the perfect setting for this election in which AMLO could run on a message of “I told you so.” And that message just gave him the most potent victory I could imagine. He has really won in the most spectacular fashion. He has won Congress, the presidency, Mexico City, five other states, you name it. This is a man who will now have unprecedented power not seen in the brief history of Mexican democracy, since the year 2000.

You have covered AMLO for a long time. Now that he has so much power, what is your concern?

Just in principle, I would be concerned with any man who is elected to the presidency of any country with this much power. In Mexico, I think there are a couple things we should mention. First is the opposition. He has won the presidency and Congress while leaving beside a completely fractured opposition. The PRI finds itself in the worst defeat in its history with no clear leader. The president ends his term in absolute disgrace. The PRI is broken and the future will be fought between three different factions. Who knows if it will exist in the near future? Then you have the center-right party, the PAN, where the runner-up comes from. No one knows who will lead the PAN, or how strong a force it will be.

One of the two parties has a tendency to be what some would call pragmatic. I would say cynical. Many PRI politicians in Congress and outside Congress will magically find themselves to be pro-AMLO, and will flock to him. The only thing they care about is power. That is their allegiance. So that worries me.

And I think AMLO has shown in the past to have certain authoritarian tendencies that he has to rein in. Now more than ever. Those worry me a lot.

How would you define those tendencies?

He doesn’t like to be criticized. In his Twitter feed alone, even fairly recently, you can find tweets à la Trump in which he adjectivizes—I think that’s a word, right?—freely against the press whenever they report on things he deems untrue or uncomfortable or you name it. We are talking about things that we—because I live in the United States—are very familiar with. He has that same tendency to react negatively to criticism. He has fostered a following that reacts furiously to criticism. His followers are increasingly aggressive on social media and can function as a quasi-censorship machine. They are aggressive and like to quiet the opposition.

Before this election, AMLO surrounded himself only with his faithful. He had a small team of allies and has built his political life with them. The big exception was during this election he realized astutely that no one can win by himself. He has built a large coalition that includes a far-right party completely opposed to progressive politics. He has done so because he needed them to win. How will he behave toward those members of his very odd coalition is anyone’s guess.

How did he do as mayor of Mexico City? Did he display these tendencies?

He was a fairly good mayor. He used his term as mayor many times during the campaign [to show] how he was more pragmatic rather than authoritarian. And in that he is correct. He was also fairly popular as mayor and ended his term with a very respectable approval rating. If he governs as he governed Mexico City, I think things will go well. That’s certainly a possibility.

What worries me here is the magnitude of his promises. What he has promised is an idea of Mexico. He has promised to end corruption, to end poverty, immigration to the United States, and even domestic immigration of people moving inside Mexico. He has promised to reforest the whole of Mexico’s territory, to grow [the economy by] 6 percent. He has said, This is what I will accomplish. And how will be accomplish it? Well, mostly through the magic of his own presence. That’s his recipe for solving corruption, for example. He says the most important step, the only step, is not institution building and all that, but rather myself. An honest president. And if an honest president arrives, then corruption will end in Mexico. Since I don’t believe in magic, Isaac, that worries me.

Can you explain a little bit about the politics of immigration within Mexico?

He has been very careful about this topic, and he has been very careful when it comes to Trump. He says he will convince President Trump that it isn’t in his best interest to keep on adding to this nativist rhetoric.

Good luck with that.

Yeah, not only the nativist rhetoric, but he would persuade Trump to stop treating Mexican immigrants and Mexicans [the way] he has. How will he do it? Again, the answer is, I will convince him. As you say, “Good luck with it.”

He has promised to end immigration—and domestic migration too, which is also a big issue—because he will end poverty and hunger, so no one will want to leave their birthplace. It sounds fantastic and I hope he does it, but it sounds far-fetched. And the other thing is, The woman who will be his interior minister, Olga Sánchez Cordero, has said that Mexico will become a place of sanctuary for refugees, which will be certainly a turnaround from the brutal, horrendous politics that we see in how Mexico handles Central American migrants. We complain about the way Donald Trump has been handling that humanitarian crisis, but in many ways, Mexico has done worse. If one takes her at her word, then one might believe that Mexico would become a destination for migrants, which will be music to the ears of Donald Trump. So I think that particular policy might actually suit Donald Trump quite well.

What’s the state of Mexican democracy right now, and how would you compare it to how it was at beginning of the Nieto government’s term?

Mexican democracy is far from perfect, but the idea that Mexican presidential elections can be hacked is a myth, and has been a myth for a long, long time. And the truth is that I hope we can finally say this now that AMLO will be in power, and by we I mean every Mexican, including his followers, who have been saying he had two elections stolen from him. The truth is that he lost by a very narrow margin in 2006, by a quite-significant margin in 2012, and has now won by an incredibly large margin, and that’s the truth. I hope we can move on and finally shelve the unfair ghost of fraud that has affected not only Mexican democracy but the trust Mexicans have placed in Mexican institutions, or the lack thereof. And we can put it in our past. It has really hurt Mexico and it has been an absolute shame. Mexican democracy can be perfected, but it really works and has worked for a long time. I just hope that, on top of that, AMLO respects the independence of the judiciary, respects full freedom of the press, and contains himself when he thinks he should tweet against a journalist.

What is he like with the press in person?

I personally had a good experience with him. I interviewed him at length twice. The first time, I asked him, “How should I explain to my 4-year-old son your role in Mexican history?” He said, “Tell him I have fought for social justice.” I saw him really touched and emotional. I believe he loves his country and has the best intentions in mind. I found him to be personable and he has a good sense of humor, but he is the sort of politician that when faced with adversity doesn’t react well. It is very easy to be charming and joyous and have a great sense of humor when things are going well. When things are not going well and you face scrutiny and criticism, it is not that simple. And he has proven that when he faces adversity and criticism, he turns into a different person. And Mexico does not need that person.