When Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office four years ago, he promised to deliver what he branded a “Fourth Transformation,” the next in a series of defining junctures in Mexican history: the War of Independence in the early 1800s, the liberal movement of President Benito Juárez later that century, and the Revolution of 1910. To “make Mexico great again,” he said he would fight deeply ingrained corruption and eradicate persistent poverty. But in the name of his agenda, López Obrador has removed checks and balances, weakened autonomous institutions, and seized discretionary control of the budget. Arguing that police forces cannot stop the country’s mounting insecurity, he has supplanted them with the Mexican military and endowed it with unprecedented economic and political power. Today, the armed forces carry out his bidding on multiple fronts and have become a pillar of support for the government. López Obrador, or AMLO as he is known, seems intent on restoring something akin to the dominant-party rule that characterized Mexican politics from 1929 to 2000, but with a militarized twist.
Despite these questionable moves, the president and his party, Morena, remain popular. His supporters applaud the return of a strong and unencumbered leader, capable of enacting change in a country that is clamoring for more social justice for the many and less entitlement for the few. But his presidency, and the country’s trajectory, worry scholars, activists, opposition parties, and members of civil society who fought to dismantle the hegemony of the former Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which was in power for 71 years, and now seek to defend Mexico’s transition to multiparty democracy. These critics contend that López Obrador is polarizing the populace and jeopardizing the country’s fledgling democracy with his routine attacks on civil society organizations, his stated desire to take apart key institutions, and his use of the bully pulpit to lambaste the media and members of the opposition.
His playbook is like those of strongmen in other countries, who argue that they have too many constraints on their power to effect foundational change, promote participatory politics, and rid the country of immoral and rapacious elites. Yet as Western scholars have lamented the rise of autocrats in Hungary, Nicaragua, Poland, Turkey, Venezuela, and even the United States, they have often overlooked Mexico’s prominence in the growing list of countries where democracy is being subverted by elected leaders. [Continue reading…]