December 16, 2018

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Mexico’s President-Elect Rethinks His Campaign Promises

Mexico’s President-Elect Rethinks His Campaign Promises
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MEXICO CITY — Winning Mexico’s presidency this summer did not slow down Andrés Manuel López Obrador: Three months into his transition, he is traveling across the country to thank voters, replay his campaign promises and pledge, “I will not fail you.”

But now there’s often an asterisk: “We wish we could give more.”

Mr. López Obrador was elected by a landslide in July on a mandate to battle corruption, reduce soaring violence and tackle the country’s entrenched inequality. Now those promises are colliding against a reality too complex to be reduced to a stump speech.

As a result, a new note has crept into his speeches. He has backtracked on many of his signature issues and hedged on his commitments, trying to whittle down his supporters’ outsize expectations.

At stops around the country, he is renewing his pledges to provide cash grants for young people, higher pensions for retirees, price supports for farmers and loans for small business. Only now he adds, “We are not going to spend more than what comes in,” as he told a rally recently.

Instead of pulling the military off the streets as he had once suggested, Mr. López Obrador now admits that Mexico’s ill-trained, underpaid police forces cannot protect citizens and that the soldiers will remain for the near future.

During his campaign, he had vowed to cancel construction of a costly airport to replace Mexico City’s congested hub. Now, Mr. López Obrador says citizens will decide the airport’s fate in a vote later this month. Critics say the poll’s design is rigged against the new airport; fewer than 2 percent of Mexico’s voters will get ballots.

He has also flipped between stating that Mexico’s economy is in solid shape to declaring that the country is bankrupt, and he recalibrated a plan to increase steadily declining oil production. In July, he said he would increase output by about 30 percent in two years. Now he says it will take six years.

Some Mexicans and analysts say these shifts might be the result of a pragmatic and necessary adjustment to the reality of governing, after the hyperbole of campaigning.

As he prepares to switch from the opposition to the role of president on Dec. 1, Mr. López Obrador “is seeing Mexico with different eyes for the first time,” said Jesús Silva-Herzog, a political scientist at the School of Government at the Tec de Monterrey in Mexico City.

He now has a “heavy responsibility on his shoulders,” Mr. Silva-Herzog added, and that edges him toward a more prudent stance.

Others are less charitable. Mr. López Obrador is improvising, critics say, because he had given little thought to the nuts and bolts of governing.

“Someone who has almost 20 years of experience campaigning and still does not know what to do shows that either he isn’t very concerned about change through policymaking — or he does not know how to do it,” said Vidal Romero, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, a university in Mexico City.

Either way, the uncertainty over what to expect is extremely troubling, Mr. Romero said.

The president-elect, who promised to abstain from the lavish lifestyle of Mexico’s political elite — to the point of saying he would sell the presidential plane and fly commercial — has even stumbled over image issues.

When the opulent wedding of his longtime press aide appeared on the cover of a society magazine, Mr. López Obrador waved it off as a private event. The gushing article struck a dissonant note, though, with his message of personal austerity.

Such missteps and reversals take a toll, said Carlos Bravo Regidor, the director of the journalism program at CIDE, a Mexico City university.

Mr. López Obrador “isn’t president yet and already he is administering disappointment,” Mr. Bravo said.

Governing also requires solid institutional capabilities that Mexico does not have, Mr. Bravo said. Building those, he said, is a slow and painful task that does not render results in the short term — a reality that the president-elect will soon confront.

“He believes that strong honest leadership can go a long way,” Mr. Bravo said. “But there’s a point where that sort of an iron will is not enough.”

Nowhere is that more obvious than in dealing with Mexico’s unchecked violence, where the new government will have to take on the escalating murder rate and the impunity associated with 12 years of the government’s drug war.

“The challenges are extraordinary, and the victims have the right to truth and justice,” said Guillermo Trejo, a professor at the University of Notre Dame. “The state has the responsibility to respond.”

Mr. López Obrador’s response so far has involved mixed signals.

In moves that were widely welcomed by human rights groups, he has promised to work with international organizations to look for the tens of thousands of Mexicans who went missing during the drug war.

He has also accepted the idea of a truth commission based on the peace processes that followed civil wars elsewhere in Latin America. The incoming government has agreed to discuss other measures, including a mechanism to bring justice and reparations to the victims of the most serious crimes.

Mr. López Obrador and his transition team have met with anguished relatives of Mexico’s dead and missing at forums around the country — including the parents of 43 students who vanished after their arrests four years ago.

This is a striking departure from his predecessor’s handling of the case. President Enrique Peña Nieto wrapped up the investigation quickly and met with the parents only once. His administration harassed international investigators when their conclusions questioned those reached by his government. The case has become emblematic of the government’s indifference toward victims’ demands and of the corruption underlying the drug war.

But earlier this month, Mr. López Obrador’s incoming public security minister canceled the last five forums with families of victims — with a tweet. This was interpreted as a slap in the face to victims in those states, which are among the most violent in the country.

Tackling the problem requires more than the good will of the president, analysts said. It requires effective law enforcement — and Mexico has weak judicial and police systems which, in many cases, have been co-opted by or colluded with organized crime.

A first step to strengthen the judicial system would be creating an independent attorney general’s office. But a bill introduced in Congress by Mr. López Obrador’s party, which has an effective majority, would leave key elements, like the selection of the person to fill the position, in the president’s hands.

While Mr. López Obrador has made significant adjustments to his promises even before taking office, Mr. Silva-Herzog said, more may be in store.

“The reality will prove to be much more stubborn than what he expects,” he said.





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