López Obrador takes power in Mexico after an unstable transition and broken campaign promises

Five months after he won a landslide victory in Mexico’s 2018 presidential election on promises to “transform” the country, leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador will be sworn into office on Dec. 1.

The prolonged transition period – currently one of the the world’s lengthiest – has given Mexicans a preview of what presidential leadership will look like under López Obrador: aggressive.

Since its July 1 general election, Mexico has effectively been run by parallel governments with very different agendas. President Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s conservative and highly unpopular outgoing leader, has all but disappeared from the public eye, even as tensions with the United States over the treatment of Central American migrants run high.

Meanwhile, López Obrador has been increasingly visible, offering asylum and temporary work permits to refugees, pushing his legislative priorities and deciding the fate of major infrastructure projects – though, strictly speaking, he cannot follow through on any of these decisions until after his inauguration on Saturday.

The president-elect’s disregard for constitutional restrictions has many political analysts in the country, myself included, concerned about how he will use his executive power once in office.

A regressive transformation of Mexico

Since July, López Obrador has unilaterally called two “people’s polls,” circumventing a constitutional requirement that all popular referenda be approved by the Supreme Court and administered by the national election authority.

In October, his Morena party hired a private polling firm to ask Mexicans in 538 towns near the nation’s capital to vote on whether to cancel Mexico City’s controversial, extravagantly over-budget and environmentally disastrous – but much-needed – new international airport.

Seventy percent of the nearly 1.1 million people who cast their ballots wanted to scrap the $13.3 billion project, which López Obrador had harshly criticized on the campaign trail.

Opposition lawmakers and protesters retorted that Mexican law requires a 40 percent voter turnout for a popular referendum to be considered binding. López Obrador polled 1.1 million people in a country of 130 million.

Nonetheless, the president-elect immediately announced the termination of the airport project in favor of revamping an unused military airport north of the capital.

As engineers, academics and the business sector also denounced the decision to scrap the new airport, the Mexican peso plummeted amid investor concern about national stability.

López Obrador responded to criticism with a populist evasion, saying simply that “the people are wise.”

A ‘national consultation’ on the fate of Mexico City’s new airport polled just 1.1 million people in 535 towns. AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo
A month later, López Obrador’s transitional government called another unconstitutional referendum to decide the fate of another major infrastructure project. In late November, 900,000 voters determined that the Mexican government should build the “Maya Train,” a 932-mile rail line that would connect five southern Mexican states and the Yucatan Peninsula.

Not consulted prior to the referendum: the Mayan communities traversed by the proposed railroad and who, by law, must be included in all decision-making that impacts their indigenous territories.

Nonetheless, López Obrador has declared that the rail project will be completed by the end of his six-year term.

Mexico’s powerful presidency

López Obrador’s misuse of direct democracy to expand his executive powers while not even president sends worrisome signals about how he will govern Mexico.

The Mexican presidency is already an enormously powerful office. It was designed that way in the 1920s by the authoritarian Revolutionary Institutional Party, known as the PRI, which ruled the country virtually uncontested for nearly the entire 20th century.

After 80 years in power, the PRI lost the presidency in 2000 but was restored to power with President Peña Nieto in 2012.

López Obrador, a former Mexico City mayor who has unsuccessfully run for president twice before, won this year in large part because he promised to make Mexico’s centralized, stagnant political system more inclusive and consultative.