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Dec 1, 2018

AMLO inaugurated as Mexico’s president, vowing to transform the country


By Mary Beth Sheridan



President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador greets supporters in Mazatlan, Mexico, on Sept. 16. (Eduardo Verdugo/AP)
MEXICO CITY — A leftist leader vowing to launch a “radical transformation” of Mexico and improve the lives of the poor was sworn in as president on Saturday, opening an uncertain era in a country with deep economic and security ties with the United States. 
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, 65, known as AMLO, took office as potentially the most powerful Mexican president in decades. Not only did he take 53 percent of the vote in a three-way race, but his party cinched a majority in both houses of Congress and gained control of numerous state legislatures. 
López Obrador is the first leftist president since Mexico transitioned from a one-party authoritarian state to full democracy in 2000. He has promised to increase benefits for the poor, young and elderly — all while maintaining budget discipline. He has vowed to fight corruption and slash perks for senior officials, even declining to occupy Los Pinos, the Mexican White House. The estate will instead be turned into a public park, set to open Saturday. 
The election of a leftist “is a historic, very important change for Mexico, and it’s very healthy in a country with the grotesque inequalities that we have,” said Jesus Silva-Herzog Marquez, a prominent political scientist who teaches at the Tecnologico de Monterrey university. 
Yet, he and many other Mexicans are unsure whether López Obrador will govern as a practical-minded centrist — as he did as mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005 — or an autocratic populist. While there are moderate, U.S.-educated appointees in the new cabinet, analysts say power has shifted from the kind of technocrats who had steered Mexican financial policy since the mid-90s. 
In November, the stock market tumbled 14 percent and the peso weakened after López Obrador and his party announced proposed limits on bank fees and the cancellation of a $13 billion airport in Mexico City that was already under construction. The sell-off occurred as Brazil’s markets soared on the election of a far-right politician.
“There’s just a lot of uncertainty,” said Alfredo Coutiño, director for Latin America at Moody’s Analytics. Investors “don’t know what López Obrador is going to say on Monday, Dec. 3. They don’t know what [his party] Morena is going to propose at the end of the year.” 
The incoming president has sought to reassure investors, saying he will respect the independence of the central bank and not expropriate land. Mexico will “provide security for investment,” he said this week. López Obrador has embraced the outgoing Mexican government’s efforts to preserve much of NAFTA in negotiations with the Trump administration. 
Another sign of López Obrador’s pragmatism is his relationship with Washington. He has developed surprisingly warm relations with President Trump, even comparing himself to the U.S. leader. “It encourages me that we both know how to keep our pledges, and … have managed to put our voters and citizens at the center, displacing the establishment,” López Obrador wrote to Trump after the Mexican election in July. Trump sent his daughter and adviser, Ivanka Trump, as well as Vice President Pence, to Saturday’s inauguration.
The bilateral relationship, which has been severely strained by Trump’s insulting tweets and insistence on a border wall, may soon be tested. Trump has made the fight against illegal immigration a centerpiece of his presidency and vowed to block thousands of migrants who have traveled to the U.S. border in a caravan from Central America. 
López Obrador pledged during his campaign that he would not “do the dirty work of foreign governments” in deterring Central American migrants. But in a significant concession, his administration recently indicated its willingness to host the Central Americans as they await asylum interviews in the United States. For his part, the Mexican leader hopes to enlist the Trump administration in a joint, multibillion-dollar investment program in Central America aimed at keeping migrants at home. U.S. officials are studying the idea.
López Obrador, the son of a shopkeeper in southern Tabasco state, is a longtime opposition politician who ran twice previously for president. He built his career as an outsider using mass demonstrations to pressure the government on issues like alleged electoral fraud. He has long campaigned for more attention to the poor, who make up over 40 percent of Mexico’s population. 
He has been critical of Mexico’s democratic institutions including courts, the press and the independent electoral commission, and sought to use informal public referendums to rally support for his plans, raising concerns he will pursue a personalistic, autocratic form of government. 
“It has become abundantly clear that AMLO’s number one priority is to consolidate power,” Duncan Wood, the director of the Mexico Institute at the Washington-based Wilson Center, wrote in a recent issue of Americas Quarterly. The new president, he wrote, feels that democratization and the decentralization of authority have “weakened the government’s ability to bring order to the country” and contributed to soaring rates of violence. López Obrador has denied seeking to rule as a strongman. 
He takes office with a 66 percent favorability rating, according to the newspaper El Financiero, while only 26percent of Mexicans approve of the performance of outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto.
But support for López Obrador could flag if he can’t carry out his ambitious agenda. He has pledged to pay for new social programs by reducing government salaries and fighting corruption. Analysts say that may not be enough.
“There is no space to accommodate everything. Something has to give,” said Marco Oviedo, Barclays chief economist for Mexico. “He either will not deliver in the first year, or deviate from his fiscal goals, or will have to eliminate other programs in an aggressive manner.”
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