The crushing election victory of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico’s presidential election on Sunday was a memorable event in Mexican political history, with the idiosyncratic left-populist overcoming the country’s deeply entrenched three-party establishment for the first time in 30 years, under the banner of a party he founded just four years ago. When it comes time for the new Mexican president to deal with his American counterpart Donald Trump, it may prove an inflection point in U.S.-Mexico relations as well.
López Obrador, known by his initials AMLO, seems at first glance to fit the international trend of political upstarts tipping the scales of power in societies weary of being governed by elites whom they no longer see as truly representing them. These anti-establishment types may be socialists like Greece’s Syriza party, centrists like French President Emmanuel Macron, right-wing nationalists like Trump or the German AfD, or ideologically hard-to-categorize like Italy’s Five Star Movement.
López Obrador is nominally a socialist: His party acronym, MORENA, stands for National Regeneration Movement but also alludes to the poorer, darker-skinned people, mainly in southern Mexico, whose interests he has promised to champion. Yet his politics are also hard to define. He lacks the socialist’s admiration for bureaucratic order, for one thing, and one of his coalition partners, the Social Encounter Party, is a conservative evangelical party opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage.
He’s also by no means a political newbie. López Obrador has been active in politics for more than 40 years, first as a member of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and later in the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) before forming MORENA and striking out on his own. He served as mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005, a job at which he was by all accounts successful. AMLO ran for president as the PRD candidate in 2006, losing by a hair to Felipe Calderón in a vote he and many Mexicans believe was rigged, and again in 2012, when he lost by a wider margin to Enrique Peña Nieto.
In the days following the election, many U.S. media outlets and pundits have compared AMLO to Trump, pointing to his abrasive and pugilistic style, his political grudges, and his disdain for the Mexican media, bureaucracy, and supreme court. Some see him as a caudillo in the making: a strongman who will rule through the politics of personality and demolish institutions instead of reforming them. Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, worries that he “sees both laws and institutions as instruments of the power of the corrupt establishment” and that “an individualistic governing style that disregards institutions bodes badly for Mexico.”
Yet the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson, who spent some time with the president-elect on the campaign trail for a magazine piece, paints a gentler picture of López Obrador and objects to the caricature of him as a Trump-like figure. He lacks Trump’s impulse, Anderson argues, for sowing and exploiting divisions: “López Obrador’s populism is built not on a hatred of ‘the other,’ or on a need to prevail at the expense of others, but rather on an intuitive faith that Mexicans can overcome their current reality with a redeployment of their most outstanding national traits — hard work, resourcefulness, pride, modesty, and bravery.” He has also gotten better at controlling his temper and keeping his thoughts to himself — something Trump has never expressed interest in doing.
One thing he and Trump do have in common is that they are both harsh critics of NAFTA, which López Obrador has called for scrapping in the past. As with many of his most radical populist and nationalist proposals, however, he has toned down the rhetoric recently, saying he would work with Trump to preserve NAFTA. For all his oratorical bluster, López Obrador is really more pragmatic than ideological, writes Migration Policy Institute president Andrew Selee in Foreign Policy. When it comes to NAFTA, he may not be as willing as Peña Nieto’s outgoing government to make concessions to the U.S. for the sake of saving it, but he (unlike Trump) listened when his advisers told him that junking it would be an economic disaster. He will negotiate with an eye to preserving the agreement.
López Obrador’s relationship with Trump will be shaped rapidly by difficult conversations and negotiations over the free-trade agreement, border security, and the control of migration from Central America. While he is by no means keen to do Washington’s bidding, he has been pointedly reluctant to go after the soft target of Trump on the campaign trail and has continually expressed openness to working with the Trump administration to resolve these issues. His post-election call with Trump was cordial, with both leaders expressing the standard hope for fruitful cooperation.
So if anyone on the American left hopes for AMLO to serve as Trump’s foil and stand up to him at every turn, they may be disappointed. But the Mexican left-populist isn’t about to waste his political capital on a fight with the U.S. when there’s so much to do at home. If the López Obrador administration oversees some untangling of Mexico’s relationship with the U.S., Selee adds, it won’t be out of anti-Americanism, but rather out of the president-elect’s desire to focus on his ambitious domestic agenda.
That agenda is massive: ending corruption, rebuilding and upgrading infrastructure, and strengthening the social safety net for Mexico’s poor youth and senior citizens, among other noble goals. While AMLO has had a testy relationship with Mexico’s business barons in the past, he also has a record of working with private industry to get things done during his tenure as mayor of Mexico City, and the private sector is willing to play with him, as long as he doesn’t step on Mexico’s impressive (albeit highly unequal) economic growth to pay for his populist programs. The real challenge will be in putting a check on corruption and addressing Mexico’s scourge of drug-related gang violence, for which the presedent-elect’s plans are less specific.
Some of López Obrador’s domestic policy ideas touch on the U.S. border — literally: He has proposed establishing a free-trade zone along the entire length of the border, where American companies would get hefty tax breaks to set up shop. He also envisions creating hundreds of thousands of jobs through his infrastructure plans and a massive tree-planting project that would mitigate the need for Mexicans to seek economic opportunity in the U.S.
While illegal immigration was never the real driver of Trumpist right-wing nativism, the perception that López Obrador is helping to reduce it would be a boon to Trump’s willingness to work with him. If the new Mexican president can figure out how to manage his American counterpart’s ego and whims, he might actually be able to pull off a productive partnership here.
Given what we know about Trump’s approach to foreign relations, however, there’s no reason to hold our breath. The Mexican presidential transition period is lengthy; López Obrador won’t actually take office until December, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to Mexico next week to meet with him and get the ball rolling on those difficult conversations. First impressions count for a lot, though, so we may find out soon whether the Trump administration will match the incoming Mexican government’s pragmatic approach or fall back on its more standard posture of unreasonable antagonism.