The Gamble

Luis Rubio

“The curse of man, and the cause of his worst woes, wrote HL Mencken, is his stupendous capability for believing the incredible. He is forever embracing delusions, and each new one is more preposterous than all that have gone before.” That’s what Mexican politics seems like these days.

The great question with an eye toward 2024 is to what degree will the social base of the president and his popularity be relevant. Though it is not the sole pertinent variable, its transcendence is more than evident.

Three factors appear to be true. First, to date there has not been a single individual who agglutinates the opposition. This variable is key because the president dominates the stage, as if he were the only actor, scarcely complemented (or distracted) by the pre-candidates in his own stable. Although there are some individuals and potential candidates who occasionally show their face, none has been able to capture the imagination of the electorate nor who has come to represent a salient point of competition (or confrontation) for the presidential rhetoric. Time will shape potential options, but only one recognizable and accepted by the wide-reaching electorate would be prone to altering the current vectors of national politics.

Second certainty: popularity is not transferred. The surveys demonstrate that the president’s popularity is not linked to traditional gauges, such as economic growth, which benefits him. But this has the effect of isolating him from day-to-day life, including the fate of his candidates, which could exert an effect on what happens in 2024. One election after another has shown that the party of the president and its candidates wins or loses due more to the mobilization capacity of the Morena party (and of the threatened governors) than to the popularity of the president; where the (diminished) opposition has achieved mobilizing the electorate, Morena has confronted greater rivalry. But where it has lost has been to a greater extent the product of the electorate itself than that of any mobilization.

And, third certainty, the president is a communications genius and has procured that his narrative dominates public discourse and discussion in all orders of Mexican politics. However, as Emilio Lezama fittingly argues, everything has its consequences: “from the pinnacle of political power, AMLO has wrested a convincing narrative that he is not the power, but instead the spokesperson for the general struggle against the ‘true power’… the president has maintained his popularity but has lost a historic opportunity to transform the country. His confrontation with institutions and public personages empowers him but weaken the State. In the final analysis, that is one of the great differences between Lázaro Cárdenas and AMLO, the former employed his coming into power to transform the country and the latter to nurture his popularity.”

The narrative of AMLO has triumphed, but he has done this at the price of his project of national transformation; the president’s success in monopolizing the narrative has come at the cost of forfeiting the advance of his agenda. The president has also distanced himself from his government and Morena, to the degree that on more than one occasion he threatened to withdraw from his party. That distance also enriches his popularity and creates a peculiar phenomenon that will moreover be accompanied by its own consequences: in Fidel’s Cuba, the suffering of the population was legendary because his revolution did not translate into more production, better services or products or a better quality of life. But the Cubans did not blame Fidel Castro: “they don’t tell Fidel how things are, they fool him,” “if Fidel only knew.” That is, the fault was of the government, not the president’s, his strategy, or his poor decisions. Perhaps this explains the enormous and bourgeoning gap between the popularity of the president and that of his government.

Each of these factors obeys its own dynamic, but the totality furnishes a panorama that is increasingly more complex and simultaneously clarifying. The country lives under the spell of a narrative that exalts accumulated resentment and deposits it in the limelight as the political factor that is concurrently the mobilizer of the social base, but also the paralyzer of the economy. One feeds the other, limiting the potential for the country´s development and, paradoxically, impeding the articulation of policies likely to resolve the causes of the inequality and resentment. The strategy of political confrontation is in the end very useful for boosting a person’s profile, but not for improving life levels or the possibility of achieving it.

Nothing better illustrates the imbroglio that national politics is presently undergoing than a December 2021 Alarcón comic strip on the so-called “revocation of the mandate” of the president: “We don’t want him to go, but we want to be asked whether we want him to go to say that we don’t want him to go.” The objectives of the president in promoting the referendum are transparent, but not for that reason does it not end up as a mere deception. Yet another.

The panorama is clear; the country demands a contest to determine its future, a debate which establishes the options going forward, forces clear decisions because the current lack of definition does nothing other than deteriorate the present and cancel out the future. The way out will not come from the spell, but rather from the debate -and the evidence- that unmasks it. While that does not happen, everything will continue in limbo.