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How Mexico's president-elect is remaking the country

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Saturday, December 1, 2018 – Page A7

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a 65-year-old leftist career politician, will be sworn in as Mexico's new president on Saturday, marking a momentous shift in the country's politics. He has promised a new era in Mexico in which its poor and marginalized citizens will have a greater voice, and he has not waited to don the red-whiteand-green silk presidential sash to start making changes.

Mr. Lopez Obrador has to some degree been running the country for the past several months, issuing a series of highprofile policy decisions that have roiled stock markets, caused the worst slump in the value of the peso in years, alarmed independent government agencies, emboldened some of his supporters and frustrated others - and raised questions about the six years to come.

"This is not normal," said political analyst Maria Marvan Laborde. "I've been following elections and transitions since 1976 and it's the first time that we see this kind of activity by the next president."

Mr. Lopez Obrador appears to be seeking to establish new rules for politics, centralizing power in the presidency and making clear that it is he who will set the agenda, not the private sector, which has had a strong influence on government the last two decades.

Soledad Loaeza, an expert on Mexican democratization, said Mr. Lopez Obrador has acted so boldly because he won 53 per cent of the vote in the July 1 election, a decisive majority in a four-way race, and his party took control of both houses of the federal legislature, plus a majority of state ones and governorships.

"He didn't expect that huge victory: That has given him such a tremendous force, and he's persuaded that he has capacity to change things and he's in a rush to do so," she said. "He doesn't understand the constraints and he feels he can do anything."

Even as AMLO, as he is known, has been flexing his political muscle, the outgoing President, Enrique Pena Nieto, has largely withdrawn from public life; he leaves office with an approval rating of just 21 per cent, his term marked by corruption scandals and a record-high rate of violence.

The most dramatic of Mr. Lopez Obrador's preinauguration decisions was to cancel construction of a new airport in Mexico City. The $17-billion project is already a third built - but the president-elect, following through on a campaign promise, put the question of whether it should proceed to a national referendum. When voters (just 1 per cent of those eligible) said no, on Oct. 29, he said he would scrap it on Dec. 1. Ostensibly troubled by its environmental impact and corruption associated with contracts to build it, Mr. Lopez Obrador has also decried the "ostentation" of the new airport.

The move triggered the worst fears of the business community, about which Mr. Lopez Obrador has been alternatively dismissive and antagonistic. On the heels of the airport decision, his party, the National Regeneration Movement, or MORENA, proposed eliminating most bank fees, causing stocks to tumble. (His party's legislators took office in September.) During the campaign, Mr. Lopez Obrador was at pains to reassure investors that he did not represent a threat. For example, although he had in the past been a vocal critic of the North American free-trade agreement, he quickly appointed a team of veteran technocrats to represent him in NAFTA negotiations and stressed the importance of reaching a deal. But that conciliatory attitude has largely disappeared in recent weeks.

"Before the election he tried to show he was a different guy than we knew before - but since he got the majority, he's back to the person we knew in past years," said Prof. Loaeza, who teaches international relations at the Colegio de Mexico.

There was another referendum last week. This one asked Mexican voters 10 yes-or-no questions about what the government should do: Build a train across the southern part of the country? Double pensions? Build an oil refinery? Mr. Lopez Obrador's policy objectives were all approved, but the referendum did not follow the country's existing rules for plebiscites and is not, under current law, a legal way for government to set policy.

Days later, MORENA legislators introduced a bill to make these public votes binding in future.

Prof. Loaeza said the reliance on referendums - which Mr. Lopez Obrador has called a way of bringing ordinary Mexicans into a political process long dominated by a small, wealthy elite - is a smokescreen to cover his intention to act on his own conviction that he knows what's best. "The reason he relies on these popular consultations is that then he doesn't have to argue, he doesn't have to have reasons or evidence," she said. "He just has to say, 'The people have spoken,' and he is their instrument."

Some of his other decisions have troubled both supporters and critics. Mr. Lopez Obrador repeatedly promised during the campaign to end the practice, begun 12 years ago, of using the armed forces to do policing and fight narco-trafficking. The practice has been heavily criticized by Mexico's human-rights organizations, and on Nov. 15, the Supreme Court ruled that a Nietoadministration law enshrining it is unconstitutional. But that same day, Mr. Lopez Obrador announced his new security policy, which continues to rely on the military, looks very similar to the one the court rejected and creates an additional institution - a national guard drawn from the armed forces - to do public-security policing.

Leonor Ortiz Monasterio, who heads an advocacy organization called Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, said that the president-elect's about-face on issues such as this may reflect that he has had access to new information such as intelligence briefings since the election, and has had to recalibrate his ambitions. The fact that his base of supporters is located in some of the most violent and insecure areas where people want armed forces, who provide at least nominal security, to stay, may have shifted his views on the issue, she said.

But Prof. Marvan sees something else in that policy announcement: "He was saying to the Supreme Court, 'I don't care what you say' - it's not a coincidence that he announced it the same day."

Mr. Lopez Obrador and top MORENA officials have indicated their desire to eliminate or weaken autonomous regulatory agencies, including those covering telecommunications and energy.

Political analyst Carlos Elizondo Mayer-Serra said that investors are waiting for the first Lopez Obrador government budget, expected in mid-December.

"This is the last card MORENA has to play to recuperate trust ... they will need to send an austere budget with targets that are realistic and politically sustainable."

Prof. Marvan noted that the brunt of a weakened peso and frozen investment will, ultimately, be borne by Mexico's poor - the people Mr. Lopez Obrador has vowed to work for. The stakes are high, Ms. Ortiz said, because of the hope for reduced poverty and greater security that led so many Mexicans to vote for him.

"He's made huge promises," she said. "It's clear that he won't be able to deliver on many of them. The most we can hope is that he will do the most possible to improve the country."

Associated Graphic

President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, also known as AMLO, has instituted dramatic changes since the July 1 election that have roiled markets and alarmed government agencies.


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