MEXICO CITY — Corruption is the pretext, but what's happening is really a power grab. Step by step, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is consolidating his position and bending Congress — and now the Supreme Court — to his will while browbeating relevant sectors of society. The message is clear: I'm the one in charge here.
His strategy is transparent and advancing briskly. There isn't a week that goes by without another element of this project, often in the form of legislative initiatives, falling into place. Certain components of the project's legislative scaffolding may seem superfluous, but their overarching purpose is clear: control of everything — absolutely everything.
The path set out so far suggests that there are two central components to this project. The first is to neutralize all counterweights, either by removing them or filling them with presidential nominees, or just killing them off with inertia. The second is that popular support must be maintained and fed through constant revelations of (supposed) cases of corruption, prominent imprisonments and as much circus and spectacle as the president's morning press conferences will allow.
The careful selection of eminences to be sent to the gallows serves two objectives: bending the institutions and terrorizing vast segments of the political, business and trade union class.
Governments worldwide have lost the ability to control economic decisions on which growth depends.
The strategy isn't new. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari did exactly the same in the late 1980s, with opposite objectives. He jailed politicians, union bosses and businessmen to consolidate his power and enable the launch of reforms he was proposing to transform the country and prepare it for the 21st century. AMLO is following that recipe but for the purpose of rolling back those reforms. He is submitting large sectors of society to his will and returning to a time when, he imagines, the country lived well, was quiet and enjoyed growth and stability.
The problem is that Mexico — and the world beyond it — have changed in these decades, and it is impossible to recreate the dream that inspires AMLO's government. Worse is the fact that, like in the 1980s, arresting certain emblematic individuals does not solve the problem of corruption, because it does not tackle its causes. This becomes more complicated when some of the cronies end up becoming "good guys" should the president 'absolve' them, while others will always be bad guys because they are not close to him or because the president sees them as enemies.
Anti-AMLO protests in Mexico City on Oct. 16 — Photo: Berenice Fregoso/ZUMA
Circuses arrive for a season then leave, because people are initially amazed but soon get bored. The same goes for political circuses: If they do nothing to improve everyday life, then sooner or later they run out of steam.
The great fallacy of the project assiduously pursued by AMLO is that it merely provokes paralysis in political and economic life. Without economic growth, it is impossible to diminish poverty or reduce regional inequalities, and without attacking the causes of corruption, it will merely morph in shape and location but never disappear. And that will inexorably harm the credibility of the government that has vowed to fight it.
The revocation of mandates (allowing public votes to sack elected officials), recently approved in parliamentary commissions, is a telling example. This instrument will change the dynamics of Mexican politics as it keeps the president and state governors in a permanent state of campaigning. Instead of having space to develop programs without electoral pressures, they will be in a constant circus, which undermines the country's long-term development.
There are solutions, but these require reassuring investors.
It's obvious why the president wanted this bit of legislation: He wants to be on the ticket in 2021 — before his six-year term ends, in 2024 — so that hey keep going. Whether people actually reward him with a vote remains to be seen, especially if the economy does not substantially improve. As they say here, be careful with what you wish as you might get it up the a**e.
The great difference between the 1980s and now is that governments worldwide have lost the ability to control economic decisions on which growth depends. This is neither good nor bad. It's just a simple, 21st century reality, and the reason why all countries seek to attract investment.
All the projects that have stopped coming to Mexico because of the uncertainty this government exudes, are going elsewhere. They are heading to countries that instead of denying global realities compete to exploit them so that their populations will prosper. One wonders whether or not this government could accept this condition.
Some in the government may think they can temper the president's spirits or moderate his conduct. But in reality all they do is represent him and become an integral part of the presidential strategy, with all its consequences for the economy. There are solutions, but these require reassuring investors, and that, quite simply, goes against AMLO's centralization drive.
His message is clear and repeated to the press every morning. Only those who would deceive themselves can ignore it. The rules of the game have changed, and will duly yield their results.
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