President Biden met virtually with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Friday to discuss bilateral and regional issues, according to the White House. Diplomatic gibberish aside, the priority of the call was clear: Both presidents are politically harmed by the mess on the US southern border and want it gone.
Let’s be honest, though. That’s about the extent of their common goals.
It is in the interests of the United States that Mexico grow faster and strengthen its democratic institutions. Mr. López Obrador does not care about growth and tries to tear down independent institutions because they stand in the way of his power to dictate the political economy. Those who disagree with him are called greedy and corrupt.
Exhibit A is the President’s recent threat to jail his political opponents and to pursue investors who do not accept its energy program. This Putin-style assault is unlikely to win convictions, but criminal complaints filed with the attorney general could result in years of investigation, harassment and even pre-trial detention.
Last week, Mr. López Obrador announced a constitutional reform initiative aimed at ending the independence of the federal body that organizes all elections in the country and of the court that settles electoral disputes. The initiative would also ensure that all seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Mexico’s Congress, are chosen by proportional representation, a change that would empower his Morena party.
The initiative is not expected to garner the necessary two-thirds majority votes in Congress to pass. But that’s not important to AMLO, which according to polls still has an approval rating above 50%. He tells his supporters that Mexico’s representative democracy is run by a “power mafia” that disenfranchises them. According to his account, only he can protect their interests. If this electoral reform fails, it strengthens his argument.
The left calls what AMLO wants “participatory democracy”, but it is rather a dangerous flirtation with the popular regime.
Upon taking office in 2018, Mr. López Obrador promised to deliver an irreversible “fourth transformation” of Mexico, an ambiguous utopian vision that appears to require the centralization of political power and the state as the dominant actor in the economy. With only two years and seven months left in his six-year term, he is running out of time.
The April 17 defeat in Congress of constitutional reforms aimed at reversing the opening of Mexican energy markets in 2014 is a major setback for AMLO. These reforms aimed to restore the monopoly power of the state oil company Petróleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, and the Federal Electricity Commission, or CFE.
Mexicans do not seem to see a future in inefficient and corrupt state energy monopolies. The reforms never had the support of the necessary qualified majorities in Congress. Even Morena knew they were way off, so he tried to cut the number of opposition lawmakers showing up to vote by scheduling the session during Holy Week, then abruptly moving it to Easter Sunday. Desperate Morena supporters even tried to raise a crowd to physically block opposition lawmakers from entering the chamber.
AMLO and Morena are furious at the loss. The day after the vote, the President accused those in Congress who oppose treason reforms. Members of his party echoed the sentiment, create “wanted” posters of some dissident members of Congress on social media.
It’s absurd, but it can’t go away. A week ago, the leader of Morena, Mario Delgado
propose a “popular consultation” to determine whether the 223 members of Congress who voted against the reform should be tried for treason.
The president turned to an electricity bill passed in Congress to try to enforce his energy agenda. The new law obliges private producers to sell their electricity to the CFE, which means that it fixes the prices in monopsony. Opponents say not so fast.
Seven of 11 Supreme Court justices voted that the electricity law is unconstitutional. Because it would have taken an 8 to 3 majority to overturn it, it remains. But with a majority of the court in opposition, lower courts have issued stays against him while the investors, many of them foreigners, pursue legal remedies.
Mr. López Obrador and Morena are also upset about this. In a March interview with Mexico’s La Jornada, CFE Director General Manuel Bartlett
mentioned that criminal complaints against Spanish companies in the electricity sector could be filed. Translation: Either renegotiate your contracts or face legal armageddon. Some analysts expect investors to win out eventually, but that’s not very reassuring when the road from here to there is through mud.
There is no way to sugarcoat the reality that the Mexican government, led by Mr. López Obrador, practices extortion. Democracy champion Joe Biden might want to take note.
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