It’s an all-too-easy reflex. These days, the moment a left-wing populist nears power in the Western hemisphere, critics to the right play the Venezuela card, warning of the ruinous consequences of socialist dogmatism. At its most absurd, the maneuver is deployed in the United States to demonize progressive Democratic candidates advocating greater social welfare. But further south in Latin America, where there is a deep-seated tradition of populist authoritarianism, the analogy has more teeth.
In 2006, the specter of Venezuela loomed over Andrés Manuel López Obrador ahead of presidential elections. Opponents of the then-mayor of Mexico City attacked him as a “danger” to the country, likening him to Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez, a demagogic populist bent on nationalizing oil and wrecking the economy. López Obrador narrowly lost then; six years later, he would be runner-up again, though defeated by a wider margin.
But now, 12 years since his first attempt, López Obrador, 64, is basking in triumph. In elections over the weekend, he won more than 50 percent of the vote, the most in the history of Mexico’s multiparty democracy, as my colleagues reported. He will take office Dec. 1. Results also suggested that his Morena party had won a majority in Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies, giving López Obrador a strong mandate to enact the reforms he seeks. Beyond attacking a whole political ecosystem built on graft, he wants to expand pensions to the elderly, launch ambitious infrastructure projects, subsidize poor farmers and help create jobs and apprenticeships for unemployed youths. Many analysts aren’t sure how he will manage to do it.
In the run-up to the vote, numerous headlines framed López Obrador’s rise in global terms: The hoary specter of the now-deceased Chávez was raised once more. More cautious prognosticators linked him to former Brazilian President Lula Inacio da Silva, a former trade unionist turned popular politician who championed growth while also expanding the social safety net (he’s also now in prison on controversial, disputed corruption charges). And then, of course, there’s President Trump, whom López Obrador lashed on the campaign trail, but who is also seen as a populist foil to Mexico’s new president-elect. (On Monday, the two had a cordial telephone call.)
Throughout, López Obrador himself has summoned the legacies of Mexican revolutionary leaders and independence heroes. He is an inveterate nationalist who believes in uplifting the poor of his nation. The clarion call of his election campaign was a platform of anti-corruption, so intense and sweeping that it channeled a huge amount of voter disaffection with Mexico’s mainstream parties, the now-ousted PRI and the conservative PAN. “There is so much wrong. I think some people voted for López Obrador, but the majority voted for a change that we need,” Fernando Torres, a 23-year-old publicity agent in Mexico City, said to my colleagues.
There is no easy answer for how López Obrador, or AMLO, as he’s referred to colloquially, will govern once in power. But there are not that many revealing lessons to be drawn from politicians elsewhere. Some analysts are concerned that his “authoritarian tendencies” may emerge when he struggles to deliver on his ambitious program. “What worries me here is the magnitude of his promises. What he has promised is an idea of Mexico. He has promised to end corruption, to end poverty, immigration to the United States, and even domestic migration of people moving inside Mexico. He has promised to reforest the whole of Mexico’s territory, to grow [the economy by] 6 percent,” said Univision’s Leon Krauze in an interview with Slate. “He says the most important step, the only step, is not institution building and all that, but rather myself. ... Since I don’t believe in magic, that worries me.”
“If he really cares about curbing corruption, why did he enlist Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, a mining-union leader accused of embezzling millions of dollars, as a senate candidate for his party?” asked the Economist. “If the PRI is part of the mafia of power, why is he encouraging its senior officials to join him?”
This skepticism of López Obrador’s intentions is also shared by some progressives in Mexico. “The most astute criticism of López Obrador, however, often comes from the very leftists he claims to represent, who lament a burgeoning cult of personality; a regressive attitude on social issues such as abortion and LGBT rights; and a longing for the all-powerful presidency and statism of Mexico’s past,” noted Foreign Policy ahead of the election.
Other observers cast López Obrador as a more calm, conciliatory figure capable of both improving the lot of the poor while not scaring away big business. “It’s true that López Obrador is wary of the close and, in his view, corrupt relationships in the past between certain powerful businesses and the old PRI political regime, which he opposed during his developing political career,” James Jones, a U.S. ambassador to Mexico in the 1990s, wrote for The Washington Post. “But AMLO is at heart a pragmatist. He recognizes that to help his primary constituency - the poor and disadvantaged - he must grow the economy, and he understands that economic growth comes from a competitive private economy, not from government. The redevelopment of the Zocalo, the historic center of Mexico City, was a public-private partnership with the two main actors being Carlos Slim, Mexico’s richest business leader, and López Obrador, then mayor of Mexico City. This project transformed the area, helping all levels of society.”
Whatever the case, he cuts a very different figure than Chávez in a vastly different context. The Venezuelan leader “came to politics because he failed with violence. Before becoming president, he never held a public office. He had more experience as a radio commentator than as a political leader. He never stopped being a military man,” wrote Venezuelan author Alberto Barrera Tyszka in the Spanish edition of the New York Times, “AMLO does not belong to the uniform and blind obedience. He comes from failure and negotiation. It is no small thing.”
And in Mexico’s complicated political scene, there’s perhaps more of a chance that the president-elect succumbs to the same missteps as previous democratically elected Mexican presidents - Vicente Fox, Felipe Calderon or the outgoing Enrique Peña Nieto - than the delusions of dictators elsewhere.
“If he fails to develop and execute a solid agenda, it will be the same old, same old for Mexico, and another six-year-long bad date to the presidential ball for voters,” wrote Katherine Corcoran, a former Associated Press bureau chief in Mexico City. “Another Hugo Chávez? Better to fear that López Obrador will be another Fox, Peña Nieto or Calderón instead.”
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.