Why Mex­ico’s new pres­i­dent is mak­ing vot­ers ner­vous

Hawke's Bay Today - - World Feature - Kevin Si­eff in Mex­ico City

"Since he took of­fice on Sun­day, some of his most un­usual ideas have al­ready been en­acted.

An­dres Manuel Lopez Obrador won over Mex­i­can vot­ers by promis­ing a dif­fer­ent kind of pres­i­dency, mak­ing some­times the­atri­cal pledges that many won­dered how he would ful­fil.

Less than a week into his pres­i­dency, he’s hold­ing daily news con­fer­ences to re­port on the sta­tus of his agenda, mak­ing up­dates that some Mex­i­cans find hope­ful and oth­ers wor­ry­ing. His daily brief­ings mark a rad­i­cal change from the pre­vi­ous, more tight-lipped Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Since he took of­fice on Sun­day, some of his most un­usual ideas have al­ready been en­acted. The for­mer pres­i­den­tial man­sion is now open to the pub­lic (and the new Al­fonso Cuaron film will soon be pro­jected on its walls). The pres­i­den­tial plane has been taken to Cal­i­for­nia, where the Mex­i­can Gov­ern­ment will try to sell it in a show of aus­ter­ity. Lopez Obrador is get­ting around in an old Volk­swa­gen, rather than a glitzy mo­tor­cade.

Now, be­yond the sym­bolic ges­tures, Lopez Obrador is pre­par­ing to tackle some of Mex­ico’s big­gest pol­icy chal­lenges. Next week, he said, he will an­nounce a pro­posal to undo pre­de­ces­sor En­rique Pena Ni­eto’s ed­u­ca­tion over­haul, though he has re­leased few de­tails, aside from claim­ing that it was de­vel­oped “with the con­sen­sus of teach­ers”. In the com­ing days, Lopez Obrador said, he will speak to United States Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump about mi­gra­tion.

On Tues­day, Lopez Obrador or­dered a “truth com­mis­sion” to in­ves­ti­gate the dis­ap­pear­ance of 43 stu­dents in Ay­otz­i­napa in 2014. Se­cu­rity forces have been im­pli­cated in the in­ci­dent, and Lopez Obrador’s ef­fort to shed light on what hap­pened has given hope to some of the par­ents of the dis­ap­peared, even as it has raised ques­tions about what a new in­ves­ti­ga­tion might yield.

On Wed­nes­day, he strug­gled to con­vince in­vestors that de­spite his re­cent at­tacks on ne­olib­er­al­ism — and par­tic­u­larly on Mex­ico’s newly lib­er­alised en­ergy in­dus­try — he won’t stand in the way of a free mar­ket. He pointed out on Tues­day, at his first news con­fer­ence as Pres­i­dent, that the mar­kets had gone up dur­ing the first day of his term.

“You can­not reg­u­late the mar- ket by de­cree,” he said. “I am in favour of a free mar­ket.”

Also on Wed­nes­day, Lopez Obrador re­turned to his stated pol­icy of cap­ping the salaries of pub­lic of­fi­cials, say­ing at a news con­fer­ence, “It is dis­hon­est when an of­fi­cial re­ceives up to 600 thou­sand pe­sos a month [$42,400]. That is cor­rup­tion.”

Lopez Obrador seemed to recog­nise that some high-level of­fi­cials are qui­etly seething at his pro­posal. Ap­par­ently ad­dress­ing those who might be dis­pleased, he said, “Then there is the pri­vate sec­tor.”

The news­pa­per El Uni­ver­sal re­ported on Wed­nes­day that al­most 3000 pub­lic em­ploy­ees have filed class-ac­tion law­suits against the Gov­ern­ment over a law man­dat­ing that no bureau­crat can earn more than the Pres­i­dent. Be­cause Lopez Obrador set his salary at 108 thou­sand pe­sos per month, less than half of his pre­de­ces­sor’s salary, the pay of other pub­lic ser­vants also has plum­meted. Ac­cord­ing to El Uni­ver­sal, the penalty for gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees caught re­ceiv­ing a higher salary than the Pres­i­dent is 14 years in prison.

On Tues­day, Lopez Obrador’s nom­i­nee for for­eign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, met with US Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary Kirst­jen Nielsen in Wash­ing­ton.

They had been ex­pected to dis­cuss a plan that would force asy­lum seek­ers to re­main in Mex­ico while their claims are pro­cessed in the US. But Ebrard called the meet­ing a “cour­tesy visit”, and no deal was an­nounced or al­luded to.

On Thurs­day, at his daily news con­fer­ence, Lopez Obrador an­nounced that he will push for new oil drilling sites in the south­ern state of Cam­peche.

“We need to ex­tract oil. Pro­duc­tion is fall­ing. In a few days, we will start drilling new oil wells,” he said.

But at the same news con­fer­ence, he also put pri­vate com­pa­nies that had re­ceived re­cent oil con­tracts on no­tice, say­ing he would be watch­ing their per­for­mance closely be­fore de­cid­ing whether to con­tinue the con­tracts, in­ject­ing un­cer­tainty into his en­ergy pol­icy, which has al­ready un­nerved many in the in­dus­try.

“From their re­sults, we will make the de­ci­sion. Our com­mit­ment is to give a pe­riod of three years for re­sults,” Lopez Obrador said.

PHOTO / BLOOMBERG

An­dres Manuel Lopez Obrador promised vot­ers a dif­fer­ent kind of pres­i­dency.

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