The World

AMLO’s Rough Start

Mexico’s new leader is undermining his presidency before it even begins.

Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador
Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks during a press conference in Mexico City on Monday.
Ulises Ruiz/AFP/Getty Images

It’s been a strange few months for Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Mexico’s president-elect has made a number of controversial decisions during the country’s lengthy transition, which will have him in power by Dec. 1, a full five months after he was elected in a landslide. López Obrador ran on an anti-corruption message against the lingering cronyism of the ruling PRI, led by embattled President Enrique Peña Nieto. He vowed to lead an austere government, banning excesses, cutting ties with the country’s old political establishment and its dishonest mores, and setting a personal example of almost religious soberness. He would begin, he repeatedly said during the campaign, Mexico’s “fourth transformation,” a far-reaching “moral renovation.”

If the transition period is any indication, though, the road to national redemption will be a long and tricky one.

López Obrador has already made a number of uncharacteristically ham-fisted choices. Three weeks after the July 1 election, he named Manuel Bartlett, an old PRI hand once accused of concocting an elaborate fraud during a presidential election, to head Mexico’s powerful, state-controlled electric utility. That same day, he named Octavio Romero, an agricultural engineer and his close personal friend, to run Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned energy behemoth. A few weeks later, César Yáñez, one of Lopez Obrador’s most influential associates, held a lavish wedding that ended up on the cover of Hola, the kind of celebrity magazine that the president-elect and his team would have shunned before.

The president-elect also revealed the appointment of several so-called state coordinators to represent the federal government in Mexico’s 32 states, an unprecedented decision that, for some, could lead to the weakening of Mexico’s hard-won federalism. (Some of them, for example, are former candidates for governor from Lopez Obrador’s party who were defeated at the polls and will now have considerable political sway.) López Obrador’s first proposal for solving Mexico’s 12-year drug war through a hurried attempt at transitional justice hasn’t been entirely well received either.

Through it all, he has continued to attack the media, personally panning journalists who have criticized him and announcing, without any hint of contention, that he will continue to do so once in office. “I like to unmask them,” he has said, in an unsettling echo of his counterpart north of the border.

Still, the oddest call in López Obrador’s grueling transition has been his decision to cancel the construction of Mexico City’s proposed new airport, which would have replaced the old and dysfunctional one currently operating beyond its capacity in the eastern side of the Mexican capital. The $13 billion Norman Foster–designed project, begun under Peña Nieto, became a prickly topic during the campaign, with then-candidate López Obrador denouncing it as an example of corruption. López Obrador promised to replace the ambitious new airport, on which about 30 percent of construction has already been completed, with new landing strips at the Santa Lucía military base, a reconditioning of Toluca Airport, frequently used by private aircraft, and yet another round of repair to the city’s old airport, a convoluted combination that has faced technical criticism. And yet, after his astounding victory, López Obrador could have made the decision to cancel the airport himself. Instead, he chose to put the project to a public referendum. That decision has now threatened to undermine his administration before it even begins.

The problem is not the referendum itself. Many major public policy decisions around the world are indeed put up for a vote among the community affected. The problem, in Mexico’s case, has been the shocking untidiness of the procedure. For a man who has been historically obsessed with the importance of rigor in the democratic process (López Obrador maintains he was a victim of not one but two nationwide frauds in previous presidential elections), Mexico’s president-elect showed an absolute disregard for even the most basic democratic procedures and principles during the weekend’s airport survey.

López Obrador’s team came up with the poll’s questions while Morena, his political party, organized and paid for the survey. It was done outside Mexico’s legal standards for such a procedure, in which only the country’s electoral authority can conduct a referendum. This would be less of an issue if it were merely an informal opinion survey, but this has now played out as a binding decision of major consequence for Mexico’s economy.

Just over 1,000 polling places were set up for the vote in about 20 percent of the country’s municipalities, less that 1 percent of the number usually installed for a federal election in Mexico. District selection seemed to favor places that had clearly supported López Obrador just a few months prior. Voter-security measures were so laughably scarce that people recorded videos of themselves voting numerous times. The poll lasted four days, during which organizers offered few guarantees as to the safeguarding of the process’s ballot boxes. In the end, just over 1 million people went to the polls, just below 2 percent of the country’s eligible voters. All in all, not a good day for Mexican democracy or the country’s much-touted “moral renovation.”

The final tally, announced late Sunday afternoon, came after a counting process that also lacked transparency. To no one’s surprise, by a 40 percentage point margin, voters chose to suspend the ongoing airport project in Texcoco and develop Santa Lucia, López Obrador’s preferred option. During a news conference on Monday, Mexico’s president-elect praised what he called a “democratic” and exemplary process through which citizens had reached a “wise and smart” decision. Markets didn’t react so kindly. The Mexican peso tumbled against the dollar and forecasts on Mexico dimmed.

The question now is whether Lopez Obrador will continue to turn to direct democracy on matters of increasing relevance in the coming years. He has already hinted that these procedures will indeed become the norm. If that is the case, Mexico’s president-elect should, at the very least, adhere to his previous democratic principles and procedures. “This is not direct democracy, this is directed democracy,” Claudio López-Guerra, a political scientist, tweeted during the airport survey. López Obrador, of all people, should know the difference.