When does populism become authoritarianism?

Except for the gasoline crisis a couple of months ago, I must confess that I have not followed the performance of Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (popularly known as AMLO) since he took office earlier this year.

The avalanche of political news from the U.S. pretty much eclipses what goes on here—at least from an American’s perspective—plus I hesitate to add Mexican newspapers and magazines to my pile of to-be-read stuff.

So my knowledge about AMLO comes primarily from totally unscientific surveying I did shortly after the election, and which showed a clear split of opinion along economic and professional lines.

Briefly, lawyers, dentists and other better-heeled Mexicans predicted an economic apocalypse under AMLO, while gas station attendants, cashiers at the grocery store and other representatives of the lower economic classes generally reacted a discreet smile and a thumbs up.

In that regard, AMLO seems to keep company with Trump, and other populists around the world, who profess concern for the forgotten working man, who has been exploited by the economic elites for the past umpteen years.

Transformation man. 

Yet the latest internet edition of Foreign Affairs magazine argues that despite AMLO’s man-of-the-people rhetoric and histrionics, he may be leading Mexico back to the dark days of one-party rule under the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that ruled the country for 71 years, as a “perfect dictatorship” as Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa once described it.

AMLO’s anti-corruption campaign, according to Foreign Affairs, has metastasized into a “political weapon  to wield against his enemies, a tool to undermine resistance to his policies, and a shield to defend decisions that would otherwise elicit more scrutiny.”

Trump’s narcissistic rhetoric—particularly his “I alone can fix it” claim at the Republican Convention and since his he took office—and his frequent impatience with cumbersome legislative processes, public debate, compromise and laws and regulations in general, betray an authoritarian streak.

One Mexican newspaper columnist described AMLO as a president without “intermediaries” such as NGO’s and business organizations, who goes directly to the people, sometimes to decide complex issues of government through quick referendums.

But the U.S. and Mexican government are quite different beasts. The American model is one that restrains the executive through a long-established system of checks and balances, as much as Trump might bristle and tweet against it.

The Mexican government doesn’t have such controls, and the rank-and-file Mexicans who put AMLO in office may be far more amenable to a take-charge caudillo, if that’s what it takes to root out the endemic corruption and insecurity that grip the country.

Finally, two years into the Trump presidency, his popularity is stuck around the mid-forties, and Trump’s reelection in 2020 is by no means a done deal.

López Obrador, on the other hand, continues to ride an enormous wave of popularity, that would make Trump green with envy—a 78 percent approval rating in one poll.

Moreover, the Mexican president’s term is six years, and López Obrador doesn’t have to face the voters for several more years, during which he can work on his “fourth transformation” of Mexico pretty much unimpeded.

Mexico’s First Transformation was the War of Independence from Spain (1810-1821); the second was the period of reforms that drastically curtailed the power of the Catholic Church (1857-1872); the third was the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917).

If AMLO’s campaign to eliminate corruption succeeds, it may be the most significant transformation yet, or, and some critics fear, it may push Mexico back to era of an “imperial presidency” of 30 or 40 years ago. 

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