Mexico’s opposition is looking for a winning message
Can someone beat the Lopezobradorista juggernaut? With almost three years in his non-renewable six-year term of office, Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) holds Mexican politics in a stranglehold. The economy is simmering, murder rates remain at their highest level ever – but the approval of the president has remained constant at just over 60%. The opposition is now in disarray.
What do AMLO’s rivals need to pull themselves together?
One obstacle is the fact that the president’s open stance against the establishment continues to be a winner among large sections of the Mexican public. The 67-year-old has a keen sense of which characters should be ridiculed as self-serving elites. The most recent targets are professors at UNAM, Mexico’s elite public university (and the president’s alma mater). Others are newspaper columnists, business people and most importantly the parties that ruled Mexico until 2018 and now form the opposition coalition: PRI, PAN and PRD.
That strategy still works. While the ruling coalition of AMLO lost its supremacy in Congress in the June midterm elections, it retained a majority of 277 seats in the House of Commons with 500 seats, and MORENA, AMLO’s party, won 11 of the 15 governor posts available. The PRI, traditionally the dominant party in the center, lost all eight governorships it was defending.
The opposition can boast of a few high-profile personalities who are able to convey a succinct anti-government message to a large audience. One of the few who can do this is Ricardo Anaya, the party’s candidate in 2018. Anaya enjoys high national profile and can attack the government on certain issues and reach a wide audience. On social media, he criticized government policies such as a planned reform of the energy sector that would give the state energy supplier a 54% share of the electricity market. In a video, Anaya compares AMLO’s desire for a “monopoly” on the energy market with “communist countries” like Cuba and North Korea.
Nevertheless, Anaya has significant weaknesses as a spokeswoman, especially when it comes to energy. He lost to AMLO by a wide margin in 2018 and only won the state of Guanajuato in the traditional heartland of the PAN. But what’s worse is that he left Mexico for New York City as he is being charged by the Mexican attorney general for taking pesos 6.8 million in bribes. The alleged bribery, according to the disgraced Pemex manager Emilio Lozoya, was Anaya’s vote for an earlier energy reform under Peña Nieto that opened the market for private investment. There are other potential opposition leaders with less baggage – like Jalisco Governor Enrique Alfaro Ramírez, of the new center-left civic movement – but none with Anaya’s national stature.
Prosecutors attempt to jail Anaya before going on trial while pleading innocence and telling the Wall Street Journal that AMLO “is vengeful and wants to destroy me”. On November 8, his virtual hearing was again postponed to January if he had to appear in person in Mexico City. Whether he goes to jail or refutes the charges, Anaya has a chance of becoming a collectible figure for the opposition, but only if he can convincingly demonstrate to voters that he is innocent, analysts told AQ. For the opposition, reputation can take precedence over everything else. “You need a credible messenger,” says Carlos Bravo Regidor, professor at the Center for Economic Research and Education in Mexico City. “It doesn’t matter what your message is if you can’t regain the trust of the Mexican people.”
Ricardo Anaya, at a campaign event in Guanajuato in 2018. Mauricio Palos / Bloomberg via Getty Images
Anaya’s approach to criticism of the energy reform – defending the free market and denigrating statism as “communism” – also raises some questions for the opposition. Should you criticize AMLO for spending too much or too little? The president and his balance sheet offer opportunities for both. Mexico’s fiscal response to the pandemic was among the lowest in the region, standing at just 1.1% of GDP in 2020 after AMLO kept its promise to rule with “Republican austerity” (while calling its opponents “neoliberals “Designated). But the expansion of the state’s energy presence and the government’s lavish spending on national oil company Pemex, which continues to record heavy losses, are easy targets for criticism from budget hawks.
The pressing issue of security seems to offer an easier opportunity for criticism, but the opposition has so far failed to take advantage of this issue either. AMLO campaigned for a gentler attitude towards crime, which is summarized by the slogan Abrazos, no Balazos (“hugs, no bullets”). Since he took office, the crime rate has stopped gradually rising, but it has stabilized at its highest level ever: 29 homicides per 100,000. So far the government has not paid much for it, but if the situation in states like Sinaloa, a drug trafficking center that has just elected a MORENA-affiliated governor, does not improve, voters might be taken note of. Still, “the opposition has not been able to send a clear message on how to do better,” said Cecilia Farfán, security expert at UC San Diego’s Center for US-Mexico Studies.
In addition to specific questions, there are far-reaching tactical questions that the opposition must answer. Should it try to emulate AMLO’s policy of denunciation or seek victory through a more peaceful approach? A recent clean-up highlighted the contours of the election in which Claudio X. González, the founder of the non-profit Mexicans Against Corruption and the most prominent opposition figure outside the ranks of traditional parties, was involved. Together with another businessman named Gustavo de Hoyos, González plans to lead a joint campaign for the presidency in 2024. The Sí por Mexico coalition proposes to join the PAN, PRI and PRD with the Movimiento Ciudadano, a newer center-left party.
González wrote on Twitter that it is important under the AMLO government to “take note of those who, by acts or omissions, support the actions and deeds of those who have harmed Mexico.” Fairly mild on the “us versus them” rhetoric – but government affiliates were quick to fight fire. “Put me on the list” is the trending Twitter hashtag. The mayor of Mexico City and close AMLO ally Claudia Sheinbaum called the position of the tweet “fascist”.
Some observers critical of the government interpreted González’s tweet as an indication of a wrong political path. “A better opposition should be inclusive and not scourge,” wrote Viridiana Rios.
An alternative path for the opposition in 2024 could be to emulate Biden’s run in 2020 and embark on a calmer, more consensus-oriented course. A familiar face with low rejection rates, promising competent government and an exemption from denunciation policy, could serve the purpose.
Which groups should the opposition focus on most? It will be hard to shake off MORENA from the poor in Mexico. Although AMLO has replaced the national health service with an alternative that covers 18 million fewer people, it also has a handful of bi-monthly grants of around 2,500 pesos each (roughly its “slogan (para el bienestar). Receiving these checks from programs, who are closely associated with the president has increased support for AMLO from many poor Mexicans, particularly in the countryside and in the south.
More urban populations in the center and north of the country are more easily courted. The opposition recently dealt a blow to AMLO’s dominance in the capital, its long-standing stronghold, by voting nine out of 16 districts in the 2021 local elections. It will be crucial to attract voters beyond the base of traditional parties, which together can only count about 20% of the electorate.
The opposition’s election prospects will soon become clearer. A vote on AMLO’s electric reform, now postponed to April, will put the united opposition front to the test. It will take a super majority to pass the bill, which means it will require significant support from opposition parties. The PAN has committed to vote against, while the PRI will not yet announce how it will vote. Even if the bill fails, a separate opposition vote would send a signal that Lopezobradorismo can divide and defeat its opponents.
There are six governorships to choose from in 2022, all of which are currently held by opposition parties that won the seats before the MORENA flood in 2018. If MORENA can get most of them carried away, things will continue to look bleak for the opposition. But if the old parties can hold more than a few governorships, a stronger performance in 2024 could become more likely.
Burns is editor and production manager at AQ.
Keywords: AMLO, Mexican Politics, Mexican Security, PAN Do you like what you read? Subscribe to AQ for more.
All of the opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.