MEXICO CITY — There seem to be just two types of people in Mexico: those who hate their president and those who love him.
Even Andrés Manuel López Obrador himself seems to be fascinated by the division he inspires, fueling the polarization by casting Mexicans as either for the “Fourth Transformation” — the set of administrative, economic and social reforms that he promotes — or against it, with no room for nuance. Every morning the president turns his daily news conferences into a battlefield, singling out adversaries and laying the groundwork for the next 24 hours of verbal attacks.
But this polarization is not new. Mexico stopped being one society a long time ago, splitting into two countries, so to speak, that struggle to coexist where they overlap. Both sides are genuinely convinced that their approach for Mexico is the one that best suits the country. And they are both correct, except that they are talking about two different countries.
In this Sunday’s midterm elections, these competing visions will face off in what is also a kind of plebiscite three years into the López Obrador administration. Although his Morena party appears to lead in the polls, it’s still unclear whether he can achieve a qualified majority in the legislative branch, which would allow him to modify the Constitution without negotiating with the opposition.
Some believe that granting even more power to a president they consider authoritarian would endanger Mexican democracy. His supporters, for their part, are convinced that controlling Congress is necessary to undo the years of economic policies that have prevented poor Mexicans from prospering.
Although I disagree with Mr. López Obrador’s personalist leadership style and some of his authoritarian actions, I believe his political aims are a legitimate attempt to afford greater representation to the Mexicans who have been left behind, many of them living in underdeveloped rural areas. More than three decades of an economic model that increased inequality has led to the fragmented and unequal Mexican society that we see today. Given that the opposition has thus far been unable to offer an alternative to this model, I am convinced that Mr. López Obrador is our only viable option.
According to the National Institute of Statistics, 56 percent of Mexicans work in the informal sector and lack social security, and not by choice. Mr. López Obrador has enacted social programs that have benefited more than 20 million Mexicans, although it’s not enough for the estimated 52 million who live in poverty.
So it’s no surprise that he has significant support among much of the population. That support is even easier to understand when you consider one of the milestones of contemporary Mexico: In 1992, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, betting that privatizing the economy and relying on market forces would modernize and grow the country.
But something went awry in the calculations. Over the past 30 years, Mexico’s G.D.P. has grown at an average annual rate of only 2.2 percent, and there are enormous internal inequalities. The 10 richest people have the same wealth as the poorest half of the country, according to a 2018 Oxfam report.
Mr. Salinas was unable or unwilling to rein in the elites who benefited from a system of protected monopolies, kickbacks and extraordinary profit margins derived from corruption and inefficiency.
Mexico has also modernized its electoral system and built democratic institutions to promote competition, transparency and the balance of power. To the many Mexicans who saw that these supposedly democratic and transparent norms were applied selectively, the changes did not amount to much. Again, modernization seemed to pan out for some Mexicans, but had little effect for those who couldn’t take advantage of it — a majority of the population in need. For many, “democracy” is nothing but a word wielded in elections and in the discourse of leaders who have made themselves rich at the expense of the treasury. According to Latinobarómetro, a regional polling organization, just 15.7 percent of Mexicans said they were satisfied with their country’s form of democracy, making Mexico one of the countries in Latin America with the lowest levels of confidence in government.
In 2018, when Mr. López Obrador ran for the presidency for a third time, the indignation and rage of those left behind had reached a boiling point. The signs of discontent were visible: historically low approval of government performance and communities that were willing to take justice into their own hands. Mr. López Obrador offered a political pathway to dissipate this tension and won the election with more than 50 percent of the vote.
Since then he has radically increased the minimum wage; established about $33 billion in annual direct transfers and handouts to disadvantaged groups; and begun ambitious projects, like the Mayan train and the Dos Bocas refinery, in regions traditionally overlooked by central governments. Mr. López Obrador’s administration’s financial policy is practically neoliberal, with its aversion to indebtedness; inflation control; austerity and balance in public spending; and rejection of private sector expropriations. During the pandemic, he has been harshly criticized across the political spectrum for his refusal to expand fiscal spending to counteract its disproportionate impact on people, especially those who did not benefit from direct Covid relief.
Many describe Mr. López Obrador’s style of governance and his social and economic projects as populist in nature. In attempts to fend off criticism, he’s gone as far as attacking the independent press and anti-corruption groups. The small portion of the population that prospered these past decades has good reason to be irritated and concerned.
But in short, Mr. López Obrador is a less radical politician than he’s accused of being and is more prudent with his management of government than he’s given credit for.
It’s understandable how the 61 percent of the population that backs him, people belonging to groups that have the most reason to be dissatisfied with the system, assumes that the president is on their side. Mr. López Obrador is not a threat to Mexico, as his adversaries claim. The real threat is the social discontent that made him president.
A failure to resolve this issue puts everyone at risk. The two Mexicos must come together. Right now, despite it all, only Mr. López Obrador is in a position to make that possible for his fellow citizens. On Sunday we will know how many of them concur.
Jorge Zepeda Patterson (@jorgezepedap) is a Mexican economist and sociologist. He founded the digital daily SinEmbargo and is the author of “Los amos de México,” among other books. This essay was translated from the Spanish by Erin Goodman.
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