To un­der­stand Mex­ico’s new Pres­i­dent, look at what he did with the cap­i­tal

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - NEWS - DOUG SAUN­DERS

To un­der­stand Lopez Obrador, just look at what he did with the coun­try’s cap­i­tal

You will be see­ing a lot of Mex­ico’s new left-wing Pres­i­dent in the next years. An­dres Manuel Lopez Obrador likes to get no­ticed, usu­ally with big ges­tures that tend to defy ex­pec­ta­tions.

In­deed, in the week since his in­au­gu­ra­tion in Mex­ico City’s Zocalo, Mr. Lopez Obrador has man­aged to con­found both his ul­traloyal fol­low­ers and his fear­ful crit­ics.

Mex­ico, un­like any other Latin Amer­i­can coun­try, has never had a so­cial­ist gov­ern­ment – a fact that has cre­ated a huge pop­u­lar ap­petite for Mr. Lopez Obrador’s ap­peals to dra­matic change and eco­nomic jus­tice, but also fears that he could col­lapse Mex­ico’s hope­ful econ­omy if he fol­lows through on speeches (mostly made early in the cam­paign) suggest­ing he’d end NAFTA, re­na­tion­al­ize the oil in­dus­try and shift to an iso­lated econ­omy such as Cuba’s or Venezuela’s.

He showed his pop­ulist side this week by dis­miss­ing the frip­peries of pres­i­den­tial of­fice in­clud­ing man­sions, lim­ou­sines and im­mu­nity from pros­e­cu­tion, by giv­ing a fiery anti-cap­i­tal­ist speech and by wel­com­ing a se­ries of ref­er­en­dums. But he has also re­as­sured Justin Trudeau and Don­ald Trump that he will stick with NAFTA, he has promised cen­tral-bank in­de­pen­dence and a pri­vate-sec­tor role in en­ergy, he has pledged a free-trade zone with low cor­po­rate taxes along the border.

To un­der­stand Mr. Lopez Obrador, it’s worth look­ing at his only other govern­ing ex­pe­ri­ence – his event­ful five-year term as mayor of the 20 mil­lion cit­i­zens of Mex­ico City and its sur­round­ing re­gion.

The ex­traor­di­nar­ily hard­work­ing Mr. Lopez Obrador trans­formed both the ap­pear­ance and the in­ner work­ings of North Amer­ica’s largest city, chang­ing its his­toric cen­tre from a hodge­podge of pri­vate build­ings into an at­trac­tive mu­seum dis­trict, driv­ing new tran­sit lines and smog-spew­ing dou­ble-deck- er free­ways through the city, fill­ing for­mer slums with cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions and univer­si­ties and hand­ing out a lot of cash to a lot of poor and el­derly peo­ple, for which they re­cip­ro­cated with votes.

His Mex­ico City po­lit­i­cal ma­chine, of­ten likened to New York’s 19th-cen­tury Tam­many Hall Democrats, be­came the key al­ter­na­tive to Mex­ico’s other po­lit­i­cal be­he­moth.

For 77 of the past 89 years, Mex­ico has been gov­erned by the all-pow­er­ful In­sti­tu­tional Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Party (PRI) – a pa­ter­nal­is­tic, cor­rup­tion-rid­dled party that has been far more in­sti­tu­tional than rev­o­lu­tion­ary, most of­ten as a de facto dic­ta­tor­ship. From 2000 to 2012, a con­ser­va­tive op­po­si­tion party gov­erned, and then the PRI re­turned un­der En­rique Pena Ni­eto, whose florid cor­rup­tion, bum­bling mis­man­age­ment of crime and poverty crises and bizarre kow­tow­ing to Don­ald Trump vir­tu­ally guar­an­teed Mr. Lopez Obrador the pres­i­dency.

It was in Mex­ico City that Mr. Lopez Obrador turned his decades of ex­pe­ri­ence within the PRI into a new kind of big-party pol­i­tics. And it is from that Mex­ico City ex­pe­ri­ence that we can learn four im­por­tant lessons about his ap­proach to gov­ern­ment.

First, he is not es­pe­cially at­tached to demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions. He of­ten by­passed Mex­ico City’s leg­is­la­ture and gov­erned by de­cree; he some­times ig­nored courts and over­sight bod­ies. As Pres­i­dent, he has bor­rowed his favourite tool – the rub­ber­stamp ref­er­en­dum, in which cit­i­zens are asked to ap­prove his favoured poli­cies in op­ti­misti­cally crafted lan­guage (they al­ways vote Yes), thus sidestep­ping demo­cratic process. His party plans to hold more.

Sec­ond, he is ex­traor­di­nar­ily ef­fec­tive at get­ting re­sources to the poor – though with their votes in mind. He turned Mex­ico City into a mu­nic­i­pal wel­fare state, to the great ben­e­fit of many. But it was his po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tives who over­saw it. “Cit­i­zens are at­tracted to the party by the ‘good­ies’ its mem­bers hand out,” Con­cor­dia Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Tina Hil­gers wrote in a 2005 study. “So­cial hous­ing, sub­si­dies for se­nior cit­i­zens, school sup­plies for chil­dren, com­put­ers for schools, schol­ar­ships, food pack­ages, and Tshirts are among the re­sources used by [Mr. Obrador’s] politic- ians and caudil­los [op­er­a­tives] to bring in votes.”

Third, he is not a paci­fist. The city’s poor and marginal­ized res­i­dents told Mr. Lopez Obrador they wanted him to be tough on crime, and he de­liv­ered. He brought for­mer New York mayor Rudolph Gi­u­liani (not yet a Trump acolyte, but al­ready a no­to­ri­ous right-winger) to his city to set up a bru­tal zero-tol­er­ance polic­ing pro­gram, which he com­bined with neigh­bour­hood polic­ing. As Pres­i­dent, he has said he’ll con­tinue to use the mil­i­tary to crack down on crime and drugs, in de­fi­ance of supre­me­court or­ders.

Fourth, his far-left rhetoric dis­guises an en­thu­si­asm for work­ing with the pri­vate sec­tor. His re­build­ing of cen­tral Mex­ico City, his big hous­ing and tran­sit projects were done with the en­thu­si­as­tic en­cour­age­ment of busi­ness lead­ers, in­clud­ing bil­lion­aire Car­los Slim, to en­ter lu­cra­tive pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships – be­cause, it seems, they got things done in ways the pub­lic sec­tor didn’t.

In other words, Mex­ico will be gov­erned by a unique fig­ure, a left-wing politi­cian who deeply dis­trusts the Mex­i­can state. It’s worth watch­ing closely.

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