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A president of paradox for Mexico

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05th-Jul-2018       
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Pamela K. Starr :
In a landslide vote on Sunday, Mexicans elected Andrés Manuel López Obrador as their next president. AMLO, as he is known, has been labeled populist, leftist, authoritarian and nationalist. Yet he's also been called a pragmatist and a fiscal conservative. Who is AMLO and what kind of president is he apt to be? All of the above is the correct answer.
Mr. López Obrador is both a leftist ideologue and a pragmatic politician. He favors increasing social welfare spending and claims to be a fiscal conservative too. He's stood for election as a committed democrat but campaigns as a populist, and he has an authoritarian streak.
He is a capitalist who calls for increased state intervention in the economy. He insists he is pro-business but in the next breath savages Mexico's business leaders by name for a history of cozy deals with the government. His coalition includes hard leftist admirers of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, socially conservative Christian evangelicals, and many others in between.
He is a complex politician who has made seemingly contradictory statements throughout his political career and during the current political campaign.
Mr. López Obrador is an ideologue who aims to transform Mexico politically, economically and socially, but who prefers a gradual change to rapid revolutionary upheaval. He's a thin-skinned populist who lashes out against his opponents but operates within the loose constraints of Mexican politics. His goals are ideologically driven, but his programs are mostly pragmatic.
As mayor of Mexico City from 2000-05, he expanded social welfare spending, including an old-age pension, without busting the budget. He worked closely with the businessman Carlos Slim to refurbish a downtown that was still damaged by the huge 1985 earthquake. And he brought in international advisers to help develop new ideas to deal with insecurity and crime.
In economic policy, the president-elect says he hopes to finance a sharp increase in social welfare spending through an anticorruption campaign and government austerity programs. Critics, including prominent fiscal analysts, argue that the savings won't begin to cover his long wish list.
Having promised no tax increases and no significant deficits, how will he work the balance sheet?
Many worry that he'll practice Chávez-like economics, spending what he does not have. But Mr. López Obrador's statements and his tenure as Mexico City's mayor suggest otherwise. It seems likely that he'll initiate his promised programs, but at a pace dictated by the availability of funds. He seems to appreciate that doing otherwise could ignite inflation, which hurts the poor most.
Like others of the nationalist left, Mr. López Obrador long and fervently opposed both the North American Free Trade Agreement and energy reform. But he also understands that the context has changed, and that being in office requires the pragmatism absent from his decade-long quest for the presidency.
He now accepts Nafta and reliance on trade with the United States as a fact of life, and he has backed the team renegotiating the agreement.
And he has pulled back from a promised referendum on the 2013 energy reform that, for the first time since 1938, allowed foreign investment in the hydrocarbons sector. He recognizes that he does not have the backing to reverse the constitutional changes that enabled the reform and understands that he can achieve most of his objectives without modifying the Mexican Constitutution.
Mr. López Obrador strongly supports electoral democracy and the "sexenio," the six-year term-limited presidency. But he will chafe at constitutional constraints on presidential powers, and he is apt to pillory Mexico's autonomous bureaucracies should their actions hinder his policies.
Mr. López Obrador's coalition should get a majority in Congress, but that won't give him the capacity to change the Constitution to enact his own reforms, as his predecessors have. He will also encounter a wide array of government agencies jealous of their autonomy and responsibilities, including most notably the Supreme Court, the Central Bank, the Hydrocarbons Commission and the Federal Transparency Institute.
The authoritarian AMLO may rail against their obstructionism, but he can do little in the short term to mitigate the obstacles they pose to his policy preferences.
None of this means that Mr. López Obrador will fail to change Mexico. He will. It doesn't mean that his pragmatism will prevent him from making some bad policy choices. It won't. And his rhetorical excesses will most likely reinforce fears that he's a radical in a pragmatist's clothing.
Mr. López Obrador appears dedicated to setting in motion a great transformation that creates a strong national economy with much more government intervention, less poverty and inequality, and increased national sovereignty and autonomy. That idealism will surely get the better of him at times. Mistakes will be made. But then his innate pragmatism and real-world constraints ought to kick in. His future and Mexico's will depend on it.

(Pamela K. Starr is a senior adviser at Monarch Global Strategies and an associate professor at the University of Southern California. Courtesy: The New York Times).

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