It is a never-ending story. Is populism finished? I don’t think so. I even believe it is very dangerous to think this political tendency is dead. Twenty years ago, together with Álvaro Vargas Llosa and Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, we published the Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot, with a magnificent prologue by Mario Vargas Llosa, but later, when Chávez emerged, we wrote The Return of the Idiot. A new batch of populists always emerges. Admittedly, they are immortal, like cockroaches.
This Sunday, June 17, Iván Duque and Marta Lucía Ramírez, the candidates of the Democratic Center founded by former president Álvaro Uribe, should easily win the Colombian elections against Gustavo Petro, the superpopulist ex-guerrilla. But on July 1, AMLO will probably win in Mexico. AMLO is the acronym of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the partial equivalent of Petro, although his credentials are less terrifying.
AMLO started in the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI). He turned to the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution, PRD), where today he has his worst enemies. He was mayor of Mexico City and ended up founding his own party, Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (National Regeneration Movement, MORENA). In this third attempt, he has many chances of winning the presidency at the head of a coalition that includes MORENA, in the center, flanked by a small leftist group, called the Partido del Trabajo (Labor Party), and another center-right group, the Partido Encuentro Social (Social Encounter Party). AMLO is benefitted by the fact that in Mexico there is no second election round and he can win with just 35% of the votes.
In fact, AMLO has some populist aspects and others that are not. He is a fan of public spending, as an instrument to overcome poverty, but I don’t believe, given his biography, that he is perceived as an outsider. He is the quintessential conventional politician, apt at maneuvering, willing to forge an alliance with anyone to enter Los Pinos presidential residence. Except for the Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party, PAN), he has visited all the major political formations of the country.
Nor do I think he will try to modify the Constitution to stay in office, as Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa, Evo Morales or Daniel Ortega did. He knows that if there is something rooted in the political DNA of Mexicans, it is the slogan of Francisco Madero’s campaign in 1910: “effective suffrage, not reelection.” The ghost of Porfirio Diaz still exists and reverberates.
When he was Mexico City’s mayor, he managed to reduce the number of violent deaths and kidnappings, but not extortions. He even hired Rudy Giuliani (today one of Donald Trump’s advisors) and paid him four million dollars to study the situation of the Federal District and give relevant recommendations. Giuliani and his group made more than 140 suggestions, but they did not give the desired results.
Do most Mexicans want the regeneration of Mexico? I don’t know. The mafias are increasingly powerful thanks to drug trafficking, but the most serious thing is that a significant percentage of the society prefers not to fight them, and that is why they condemn former president Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), who belonged to the PAN, for having unleashed the “war against the narco”. They think it was a nonsense mayhem.
I suspect that there is a similar attitude towards corruption. Those who are not politicians and high officials want the huge embezzlement to end, but a substantial part of society is not willing to stop giving and receiving bribes to speed up procedures, evade sanctions, achieve some benefit or obtain certain privileges. In Mexico, I have heard corruption cynically defined as “a way to distribute income and keep people happy.”
When Peña Nieto began his six-year presidential term in 2012, the percentage of public debt in relation to GDP was 37.7%. It will end up close to 50%. And in the midst of this financial weakness, AMLO proposes the mad idea of increasing subsidies to the unemployed, single mothers and the 2.5 million young people who neither work nor study, which would create commitments of billions of dollars that the state can only pay by imposing more taxes or an inflationary devaluation of the Mexican peso.
At the same time, AMLO promises to raise the maquila workers’ salaries to match those of the United States, without taking into account the productivity of the employees or the will of the entrepreneurs, who would take away their investments to more hospitable destinations.
Can an election be won with this program so far from reality? Of course it can be won. AMLO is favored by the immense weariness of the nation with the PRI and its disappointment with the PAN. And we already know that populism, like matter, is neither created nor destroyed. It only transforms itself.
Published in Spanish by El Blog de Montaner on Sunday June 17th, 2018