The Dilemma in 2019

Luis Rubio

In 2018, the Mexican electorate shed the mask of the establishment’s dominant narrative and chose the candidate that promised to change the ruling axes of the country’s political and economic systems. Since the election, but especially since the congressional swearing-in on September 1, Morena’s groups and allies have acted less like an institutional parliamentary group and more like a clashing force that wants to alter the established order without formal procedures or negotiations. According to their logic, they came to power regardless of the election: rather than winning the election, the election merely acknowledged their victory. In light of this vindictive undercurrent among many members of the Morena coalition, the key question in the months ahead is whether López Obrador will support this idea or whether he will assume the presidency as a statesman who is accountable to the whole of the electorate.

The contrast between both scenarios is radical. The first case presents a government that seeks not only to rule in its own manner but also to change the established order and its sustaining institutions in an integral, drastic, even violent manner. It hearkens back to the days of the Mexican Revolution, where one regime ended and another began without an institutional process in between. In the second case, López Obrador could maintain the existing institutional frameworks in order to carry out his agenda while bringing with him the population at large, as happened in post-Franco Spain. Such an approach has the enormous virtue of making changes permanent.

Spain illustrates the contrast between these ways of proceeding. When Francisco Franco died in 1975, after nearly 40 years in power, the Spanish people wanted a new regime. Politicians wondered how to take that step. One option was to break away from the Franco regime and enter an environment of absolute uncertainty; the alternative was to accept the existing institutional regime—even if it was hated by most political forces and parties—until a new legal and institutional framework had been built. In that regard, the Moncloa Pact of 1978, in which the political parties and the trade unions came together to discuss the management of the post-Franco economy, did not agree on the “what” but on the “how.” The most pressing issue at that time was that of prices and wages, essential to economics but of lesser political importance. Mexico, by contrast, has failed to agree on the “how”: on procedures for governance and economic management. Beyond the specific issues discussed during the pact negotiations, the essential factor in its success was that all relevant and economic forces were there, from the extreme left to the extreme right, business owners to politicians to union leaders. After decades of exclusion, the presence of all these forces—including iconic figures who had been in exile, such as the communist leaders Dolores “La Pasionaria” Ibárruri and Santiago Carrillo—changed the national context. The presence of these stakeholders spoke volumes. During the discussions, Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez proposed that Spain’s political and economic leaders accept the continued existence of the Franco legal establishment until a new constitution could be drafted and implemented. In other words, the process through which the post-Franco Spain would transition to full democracy was agreed. The negotiations did not attempt to make headway on the content of the new constitution, the way in which state companies would be managed, or the process for granting media operating licenses. These affairs would be decided by a future government. The agreement confined itself to handling how the decisions would be made rather than what the decisions would be—and this was the key to its success. With this in mind, López Obrador must determine whether he will take the institutional path—as Suárez did, through which he rose to become one of Spain’s greatest statesman—or the path of radical imposition, typical of a revolutionary project.

In this author’s opinion, López Obrador will soon find that many of his ideas are unfeasible or extraordinarily damaging, and thus are counterproductive to his vision of Mexico’s future. His decision to cancel the new Mexico City airport project is a window through which one can observe his perspective on the potential costs of carrying out actions that have more relevant angles than initially thought. In this case, the airport project cancellation affected not merely a few contractors (for whom López Obrador has assured compensation for the termination of their contracts) but thousands or hundreds of thousands of bondholders in international financial markets, national and foreign providers, and many other kinds of key stakeholders. By closing that door, López Obrador sent a sign that he will not stick by the existing rules, and that no investment can be completely certain. The immediate costs of this decision were apparent in the actions of the credit-rating agencies as well as the effect on Mexico’s exchange rates, but the potentially uncontainable costs will come later, when future investors ponder whether it is worth losing their investments to the actions of an unpredictable government. Unlike contractors and the construction industry, businesses and investors operate a longer-term horizon.

Above all, López Obrador has a fundamental decision to make in terms of how he will act as president: whether to be a social activist or a statesman. If the former is true, the airport decision has set the tone already. If the latter, there is still time to set a new course, as he showed before the Conago (national governors’ conference) when he demonstrated his willingness to work with the governors rather than seek to impose his will on them. For López Obrador, such a change likely would be difficult to make, given his deeply rooted conviction that everything that was done after 1982 was wrong. This conviction is an important factor for his base, which has stayed with him against all odds and often chants “it’s an honor to be with López Obrador!” As a leader, he might well regard such a change, in a way, as the equivalent of betraying himself and the political bases that have supported him through thick and thin. Yet it also may be more important, in López Obrador’s point of view, to achieve his goals than to stick to counterproductive dogmas.


Excerpt from Unmasked: López Obrador and The End of Make-Believe, which can be downloaded at: