On Monday, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador will officially cross the 100-day mark in office. He has been a powerful figure since he won the election on July 2.
In fact, it can be said that Mexico was governed by two presidents from July through December: Enrique Peña Nieto, who was largely a lame duck during the five-month transition period and López Obrador, a then president-elect who behaved as the de facto leader of the country, making decisions that were not yet his to make.
For example, despite yet lacking executive authority, López Obrador announced the cancelation of the past administration’s landmark project: a new, $13 billion international airport.
He justified this decision through an ersatz public consultation conducted by the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), López Obrador’s party.
This was a harbinger of the decision-making and governing style since, and it does not bode well for an improved U.S.-Mexico relationship in the next couple of years.
Despite certain controversial decisions, most Mexicans have so far been willing to give López Obrador the benefit of the doubt. According to a poll by Mexican newspaper El Financiero, he started with 77 percent approval.
His approval ratings have remained at around 70 percent, even after he has:
- launched an error-laden strategy against fuel theft that caused a weeks-long fuel shortage in 10 states;
- canceled a popular daycare program for poor and middle-class families;
- slash funding for battered women’s shelters;
- advocated for visas for notorious drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s family to visit him in New York, where he was convicted of serious crimes; and
- launched rhetorical assaults against key institutions, including the country's supreme court and independent regulatory agencies.
Large crowds still welcome him in every town and line up to get a selfie with him. This may yet be a testimony to the distinction between public policy and politics. While his public policies are widely questioned in expert circles, his political instinct remains impressive, and he is always aware of the power of symbols.
López Obrador’s political power momentum
MORENA’s political momentum will be tested this year. Last year, it won five governorships, including Mexico City. It gained majorities in most state legislatures — 19 out of 32 — and hundreds of mayoral races. MORENA also controls both chambers of congress.
These are astonishing accomplishments for a political party founded only in 2014. But on June 2, there will be odd-year elections in six states, including two governorships. This will be the first test for López Obrador and MORENA in the polls since he was elected.
Interestingly, Mexicans have shown on multiple occasions that they are a sophisticated electorate that can push for change when the government is not fulfilling expectations or rebalance political power when needed.
But will they do so again, or will López Obrador's party continue its march to absolute power? This will have important implications for the future of governance in Mexico.
López Obrador's legislative agenda
The new leftist majority in the Mexican Congress began its legislative session three months before López Obrador came to power. During that time, the congress passed legislation to cap the salaries of top officials and to reform the structure of the public administration with the creation of a Public Security Ministry.
Both reforms were initiatives that he, not Peña, sent to congress even before taking office. They have since shown willingness to behave supinely with the president.
Since López Obrador took office, the Congress has also passed a public security plan including the creation of a National Guard. The constitutional change behind the bill needed the approval of 17 state legislatures, which was easily achieved given that most state legislatures are controlled by MORENA.
The debate over the bill was tense between MORENA and the opposition parties because López Obrador wanted military control of the National Guard and the opposition, with the support of civil society, preferred civilian control.
In the end, a deal was reached: Mexico will have a civilian-led National Guard. But the opposition remains largely fragmented and weak. López Obrador will continue to enjoy large majorities that will help him push most of his agenda through.
Even so, he has promised measures meant to battle corruption, inequality and insecurity, but effective action will likely be more difficult than he thinks.
Quo vadis, PEMEX?
Of note to the U.S. and international energy industry, López Obrador has appointed an agronomist without any oil-sector background as CEO of PEMEX and tasked him with revitalizing the world’s most indebted oil company; something he is not likely to accomplish.
Moreover, López Obrador’s administration proposed measures to prevent the continued deterioration of the company’s credit quality, but investors were unconvinced. Credit rating agencies deemed these measures insufficient and reduced the country’s outlook to negative.
Recent political events show the smooth relationship that existed between President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits Biden: Those who defy Jan. 6 subpoenas should be prosecuted Hillicon Valley — Presented by LookingGlass — Hackers are making big money MORE’s and President López Obrador’s administrations may be coming to an end.
Mexico´s neutral position on the Venezuelan humanitarian crisis upset Washington. On Feb. 25, Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceBennie Thompson not ruling out subpoenaing Trump Heritage Foundation names new president Fewer than 4 in 10 say US is on right track: poll MORE called on Mexico to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the president of Venezuela. The next day, López Obrador declined to take sides in the Venezuelan crisis.
This shows that both countries’ views on Latin America are fundamentally different.
Moreover, for more than 10 months, the position of U.S. ambassador to Mexico has been vacant. This may indicate the U.S.-Mexico relationship is not one of Trump’s political priorities.
As he launches his campaign for reelection, he will push harder for building a border wall and is likely to make Mexico a centerpiece of his campaign again.
Yet, when the media ask López Obrador about this, he answers that the wall is a U.S. domestic issue. But it is hard to see how a wall and renewed rhetorical attacks on Mexico would fail to irritate relations between the two countries.
Finally, the U.S.-Mexico relationship will be tested again by the need to approve the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA) and the development of an effective strategy to control migration from Central America.
Mexico is eyeing sanctions on U.S. imports to press Washington to approve the USMCA trade deal soon. And the U.S. is likely to press Mexico to stop Central American migration altogether or retain those migrants in Mexico — an unpopular request for most Mexicans.
In all, the relationship looks complicated, and there is no easy path within sight for the next two years, maybe longer. It may have to wait for new leadership in both countries to move forward.
Rodrigo Montes de Oca is a research scholar at Rice University's Baker Institute Mexico Center.