World / Politics

Popularity sky-high, Mexico's president runs a one-man show

Reuters

Three months into his presidency, Mexico’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has already spent more time facing the press corps than his predecessor did in his entire six-year term.

And the people love it.

Standing at the center of a stage for his news conferences at 7 a.m. every weekday, Lopez Obrador has used the platform to swat at initial skepticism from financial markets and cement his hold on Mexico after a landslide election win last summer.

The president’s approval rates are soaring. But if in time things go wrong, he will still be out in front on his own.

Dictating debate much as U.S. President Donald Trump has via Twitter, the news conferences have muscled aside breakfast news programming and reduced other political leaders, including his own Cabinet, to bystanders at Lopez Obrador’s parade.

“There’s nothing between him and the people, not even oxygen,” said Jesus Ortega, an erstwhile ally who ran the 2006 presidential campaign that Lopez Obrador lost by a whisker.

As promised, the veteran leftist has slashed public-sector pay, given up presidential perks and launched one welfare program after another at rallies around the country, replacing existing social security schemes with more direct transfers.

Throughout, he has kept a steady stream of verbal fire trained on dissenting voices or checks on his power, including critical media, civil society groups or independent regulatory bodies — while reaffirming his belief in free speech and transparency.

Relentlessly hammering home his commitment to end Mexico’s chronic inequality, he has often used his media gatherings to denounce previous “neo-liberal” administrations he accuses of ruining Mexico, such as that of his predecessor, Enrique Pena Nieto, who very rarely faced reporters at live news conferences.

Voters have lapped it up.

“He’s doing well,” said Joel Carrillo, a 52-year-old car valet in Mexico City who supports Lopez Obrador. “He’s taking away lots of privileges from the politicians.”

In his July election, Lopez Obrador triumphed with 53 percent of the vote. Now, as his administration reaches the 100-day mark on Sunday, the president has the support of almost four out of five Mexicans, according to one recent opinion poll.

“For the moment, he is completely invulnerable and completely indestructible,” said Agustin Barrios Gomez, a former lawmaker and board member of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI). “He owns the country.”

Financial markets are not impressed.

Rating agencies have issued a series of warnings that Mexico’s creditworthiness may be downgraded if Lopez Obrador cannot turn around state oil firm Pemex, which ended 2018 with more than $100 billion of financial debt.

Lopez Obrador said the agencies were punishing Mexico for failed policies from the “neo-liberal” era. Still, a government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the president was more concerned than he let on about the agencies’ views.

If economic problems do arise, Lopez Obrador would struggle to evade blame, said car valet Carrillo.

“He’s not taking help from his ministers,” he said. “He’s taking all the responsibility on himself.”

Diplomats, politicians and members of his own government tend to agree the economy is Lopez Obrador’s Achilles’ heel.

The president has pushed consumer confidence to its highest level since at least 2001. But that has yet to translate into tangible gains for the economy. Forecasters are paring back their growth expectations for 2019.

Car sales dropped in February by over 5 percent. By Friday, Mexico’s main share index had fallen for 10 consecutive days. Meanwhile, the latest data for Mexican retail sales and fixed capital investment showed significant declines in December.

Business leaders were furious when Lopez Obrador scrapped a part-built, $13 billion new Mexico City airport and triggered billions of dollars of losses on Mexican markets. His steps to undo measures by Pena Nieto aimed at luring private capital to the oil and gas industry further soured sentiment.

Lopez Obrador argued the airport was tainted by corruption. And he has long espoused the belief Mexico must keep its own oil — even if he has yet to entirely rule out continuing the auctions of oil and gas fields that Pena Nieto started.

The problem for Mexico, said Barrios Gomez at COMEXI, is that the rhetoric of Lopez Obrador and his more ideological allies have almost made investment a dirty word.

“When somebody says investment, in their minds they translate it as bourgeoisie getting rich,” he said.

And the more moderate aides were unlikely to pick a fight with Lopez Obrador over the economy because they owed him their jobs, noted Ortega, his former campaign chief.

For now, the president would continue to blame previous governments for economic difficulties, he added. But in due course, others would pay the price.

“When something goes wrong, he won’t hesitate to make heads roll,” said Ortega.