Enrique Peña Nieto and AMLO shaking hands

Implications of Mexico’s 2018 General Elections for US-Mexico Relations

An opinion piece by Dr. John Bailey

In this opinion piece prepared by Center for Latin American faculty member and Professor Emeritus of Government John Bailey, he explores the implications of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) electoral victory. Professor Bailey highlights economic and security challenges as potential flash-points that could lead the bilateral relationship towards a negative scenario.

Mexico’s general election on July 1 came off quite well. After 50 years of following Mexican politics and seeing all sorts of election turmoil, this was no foregone conclusion. Up for election were the president (with three main candidates), the federal congress (with 628 seats at stake), nine of the 32 governorships, and  hundreds of state and local offices. An estimated 63 percent of the 89 million registered voters cast ballots in 156,000 voting places. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, won the presidency with 53 percent of the vote, a 30 percent margin over his closest rival. There was no doubt about the outcome, and his opponents quickly and graciously conceded.

AMLO is a career politician of an anti-elitist, populist sort, who ran for the presidency twice before. His main experience in government was as mayor of Mexico City in 2000-2005. His record on balance was probably positive, with greater attention to welfare and poverty reduction, but he did nothing to reduce the ingrained corruption of city government. His election on July 1, in which his movement, called Morena, won 5 of the 9 governorships and majorities in both houses of congress, is an emphatic rejection of the established parties. The old system is finished, and I’m wondering what new system will emerge in years to come.

The president-elect faces serious challenges in the form of crime, corruption, and violence, in addition to slow economic growth and stagnant wages. With some 26,000 homicides anticipated for this year, Mexico is on a path to its highest homicide rate since 2011. (An estimated 130 persons were murdered in connection with this year’s election.)The president-elect has put anti-corruption as his main goal, although it’s not at all clear how he will act against corruption, except to lead by example. I published a book about Mexico’s security “trap,” in which crime, corruption, violence, and impunity override efforts by government and civil society to enact significant reforms. One can only hope that AMLO has plans about how to escape from the trap, but thus far he hasn’t laid out a clear strategy.

The bilateral relationship with the U.S. will be a top priority for the new government. Here I see four issues that are also priorities for President Trump. These include illegal drugs, the border, illegal migration, and trade. Mexico is the main source of opiates and chemical drugs that supply the heroin and methamphetamine crises in the U.S. President Trump has said that Mexico ought to do more to curtail production and trafficking; AMLO has pointed to rural development and employment as keys to a solution.

President Trump put border security and the construction of a wall at the center of his 2016 campaign and continues to press Congress to find the money to begin construction. The wall and the accompanying hostile rhetoric are major irritants to Mexican public opinion, and AMLO has pushed back more vigorously than has the current Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto.

Illegal migration is viewed as a security problem from the U.S. perspective, but not so by Mexico. The main current issue is pressure by the U.S. for Mexico to take a more active role to halt migration from Central America into the U.S.. AMLO puts more emphasis on the rights of migrants to seek asylum from poverty and violence and has called for a regional strategy to seek solutions for the security crisis in Central America.

On trade, Mexico is the third largest trading partner of the U.S., with total trade volume for 2017 estimated at $557 billion. The U.S. runs deficit of $71 billion in goods, which is an irritant for President Trump. Here the main issue is the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was implemented in 1994. President Trump maintains that NAFTA is tilted against U.S. interests, for example, with respect to “rules of origin,” about local content. This refers to the percentage of value-added required for products to qualify for preferential entry. Auto manufacturing is a key point here. AMLO actively opposed NAFTA in the past and gave mixed signals in the election campaign. I would describe him as a reluctant, skeptical supporter of NAFTA.

President Trump’s political base expects a hard line on drugs, illegal migration, border security, and trade. Similarly the core electorate for AMLO expects a more vigorous defense of Mexico’s sovereignty and self-respect. So, any of these issues, or any combination of them, could produce serious tensions. A positive scenario sees the two governments engaging in frank discussions that look for common ground and constructive solutions. AMLO and his team have emphasized their strong preference for a good working relationship with the U.S. The negative scenario sees aggressive rhetoric on both sides and  volatility, with a likely slide toward confrontation.

Let’s consider the time line. President Trump tweeted his congratulations to AMLO, which led to a cordial telephone conversation, so things are off to a good start. The U.S. congressional election is November 6 and AMLO takes office on December 1, so there’s plenty of time to look for common ground on all of these issues. President Trump has indicated he will postpone a decision about NAFTA until after the November election. In the meantime the U.S. still needs to appoint an ambassador to Mexico, and that will be read as a signal, either positive or negative.

I very much hope I’m wrong, but I see the odds leaning toward a negative scenario for the bilateral relationship. President Trump will be focused on mobilizing his base to maintain the Republican majorities in the House and Senate. Drugs, the border wall, illegal migration, and trade are hot-button issues that can help generate a strong Republican voter turnout. It’s easy to picture how “red meat” campaign rhetoric, and the related tweets, will further irritate Mexican public opinion, especially in AMLO’s political base. The question is, How much perceived insult can AMLO tolerate before he feels compelled to respond? Will his response then generate push-back by Trump, and so forth.

I hope US authorities recognize that there’s a lot at stake here. The bedrock of U.S. foreign policy is stable borders with its immediate neighbors, and we take stability in Canada and Mexico for granted. But AMLO is stepping into a very difficult situation. A constructive relationship with the US can help AMLO manage Mexico’s problems, and successful democratic governance in Mexico is key to the U.S. national security.

Dr. John Bailey is professor emeritus of government and former director of the Mexico Project in the School of Foreign Service.