The president enjoys a high popularity rating, higher, for the first time (if only by a couple of percentage points), than his recent predecessors at this point in the game. This popularity has two relevant characteristics: on the one hand, it bears no relation to the performance of the government, where its rating is abysmal to say the least. On the other hand, the main source for the president’s high approval rate dwells on the cash transfers of the government’s social programs. The president did not bet on the growth of the economy, on employment growth or on the consolidation of previously existing projects, but on the construction of a structure of dependence of his social base. This begs two questions: first, how solid is that base of support? And, second, is it a source of power and popularity that could transcend the six-year presidential term or does it reflect a merely transactional relationship, as used to happen in the PRI era? The answer to these questions could well determine the future of the sexenio and the nature of the next government.
The great success of the president has been precisely the approval that he enjoys personally and the consequent high popularity. In this, his management has been exceptional not because of the high numbers, but because of the disconnect between the president’s popularity and the way in which the population evaluates the things that directly affect them, such as security, employment and consumption capacity. In other words, the population does not feel satisfied in terms of their well-being and, nevertheless, gives high marks to the presidential management. The contradiction seems evident, but that is where the president stands out: in his ability to communicate with his base, based on cash transfers, not results.
Virtually every government in the world begins with high expectations that reflect the hope that the new administration will be able to successfully deal with the challenges of everyday life. The president himself raised four fundamental challenges (poverty, corruption, growth and inequality) as the issues to deal with, but the population has not experienced relief in any of them: the indicators show a growing deterioration. Worse, there is no reason to expect an improvement in the performance of the economy -or of government itself- in the next two years, from here to the end of the administration, because the government has not invested in projects likely to improve well-being of the population, solve their problems or attract investments that could achieve this.
In reality, the government has done everything possible to impede private investment, while overloading government accounts with obligations that have already become a burden for the future development of the country. After emptying all trusts, reserves and contingency funds to continue financing cash transfers, the public sector accounts are beginning to experience increasing fragility because the absence of growth results in a decrease in tax collection. Although at first glance managed responsibly, public finances look artificial as all sources of promotion of economic growth have been stripped, the lack of new sources of revenue and the growing obligations assumed by the government to invest in and pay for deficits of PEMEX and CFE. In other words, the pretense of fiscal orthodoxy is unstable and will become a huge risk factor as the six-year term advances, interest rates rise, and the most basic problems that affect the daily life of the population are not dealt with.
The six-year term progresses while the natural problems inherent to the political cycle become more acute. Presidential control begins to diminish, the internal struggles for power intensify (and much more for having unleashed the succession three years before time), and the insufficiencies of the government become more and more evident. Also, the fractures in Morena are not small. Doubtlessly, narrative control and cash transfers contribute to maintaining a high popularity rating, but such support is only guaranteed from the social base that maintains a quasi-religious connection to the president. As the revocation of the mandate vote of April 10 demonstrated, that base is no longer what it was and its erosion can only accelerate. The president has benefited from the lack of compass and capacity shown by the opposition leaders, but this also has limits. The political cycle is uncontainable, and it will provoke swifter political activity and many items that today look virtues will begin to reverse, and that is if things go well for the president.
The revocation of the mandate determined the ceiling of unrestricted support for the president. The rest -some 70 million potential voters- is up for grabs. Clearly, the popularity index includes many of those 70 million, but that support, historically, is circumstantial, almost always dependent on an exchange of benefits for votes: it is interests, not beliefs, that guide that relationship. The president has been extremely adept at using government funds to solidify his support base, but there is no substitute for well-being. Now it is the opposition who has to prove that they have a better project to achieve it.