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date: 24 February 2024

López Obrador in Democratic Mexicofree

López Obrador in Democratic Mexicofree

  • Alejandro García MagosAlejandro García MagosDepartment of Political Science, University of Toronto


Andrés Manuel López Obrador (b. 1953) is the current president of Mexico (for the period 2018–2024). He has been at the forefront of Mexican politics since 2000, having served as mayor of Mexico City between 2000 and 2005, and making three runs for the presidency in 2006, 2012, and 2018 in which he finally emerged victorious. While his detractors consider him a radical leftist in the mold of Venezuela’s late Hugo Chávez, his supporters praise him as a man of the people who fights to bridge the gap between rich and poor. Political preferences aside, the ascent of López Obrador to the presidency of Mexico needs to be understood first and foremost in the context of the country’s democratic transition. This was a protracted process that started in 1977 and concluded at some point between 1997 and 2000, right about when López arrived on the national political stage. The transition leveled the electoral arena and opened up opportunities for electoral competition that López has been able to capitalize on. Ironically, to this day he refuses to acknowledge the democratic improvements that Mexico experienced during its transition, and which allowed his political ascent in the first place.


  • History of Mexico
  • 1991 and After


Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO as he is popularly known, was born in the town of Tepatitán, in the Gulf state of Tabasco, on November 13, 1953. The then-president Adolfo Ruiz Cortines (1952–1958) was close to completing his first year in office, and the ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) was enjoying its heyday as a hegemonic party system: one that “neither allows for a formal nor a de facto competition for power.”1 AMLO is one of seven brothers born into a middle-class business family that traces its ancestry to farm workers in Veracruz and a Spanish immigrant from Santander, in the present-day Cantabria. He showed interest in politics at a young age and moved to Mexico City in 1969 to study political science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). After graduating, he returned to Tabasco to start a political career, joining the local branch of the PRI in 1976. He remained there until 1988 when Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas recruited him for the National Democratic Front (FDN), a coalition of left-wing parties that endorsed Cárdenas as a presidential candidate for that year’s election in a major challenge to the PRI’s hegemony. The FDN would eventually evolve into the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), founded in 1991. Once the PRD was legally registered, AMLO quickly rose through its ranks thanks in part to his status as Cárdenas’s protégé, becoming its national president in 1996. Only then had AMLO fully arrived on the national political stage, where he has remained ever since, first by serving as mayor of Mexico City between 2000 and 2005 and then by running for the presidency in 2006, 2012, and finally successfully in 2018.

Notwithstanding his successful and long-lasting career, AMLO is also a highly polarizing figure in Mexico. In his many years in the political limelight, he has repeatedly raised eyebrows by engaging in anti-institutional politics, adopting a class-struggle discourse peppered with biblical references, and supporting clientelistic practices. All of these have earned him both the opposition of voters in the political center and the applause of those closer to the fringes. To try to make sense of his particular mix of politics, some widely cited works about him have followed his personal biography in an attempt to find some clues.2 These works portray a man infused with a missionary zeal to help raise the dispossessed or, as they put it, a “political messiah.” While these works illuminate important aspects of AMLO’s public persona, they tend to overlook the importance of Mexico’s democratic transition for his political ascent. The Mexican transition was a long and protracted process spanning the last two decades of the 20th century, which levelled the political playing field and opened new opportunities for electoral competition. It is only through understanding how the transition unfolded that it becomes evident that, in his ascent to the presidency, AMLO has taken full advantage of the freedoms and opportunities brought about by democratization. This is ironic, given the fact that throughout his ascent he continuously refused to acknowledge Mexico as a full-fledged democracy.

The Mexican Democratic Transition, 1977–2000

By most accounts, Mexico’s transition to democracy ended sometime between 1997 and 2000. Before then, the country had been ruled by the PRI since 1929 under different banners, first as the National Revolutionary Party (PNR; 1929–1938), then as the Party of the Mexican Revolution (PRM; 1938–1946), and finally as the PRI (1946–2000). Despite the change in name, the PRI ruled for most of its lengthy seventy-one years in power as a hegemonic party system. This is one in which “other parties are permitted to exist, but as second class, licensed parties; for they are not permitted to compete with the hegemonic party in antagonistic terms and on an equal basis. Not only does alternation not occur in fact; it cannot occur, since the possibility of a rotation in power is not even envisaged. The implication is that the hegemonic party will remain in power whether it is liked or not.”3

Changing this system was a lengthy process. The transition to democracy arguably began in 1977 when a PRI-dominated Congress passed a mild political reform that allowed opposition parties to gain representation: the Federal Law of Political Organizations and Electoral Procedures (LOPPE).4 The LOPPE introduced two changes in the system of representation that meant democratic improvements. First, it significantly increased the number of seats in the Chamber of Deputies from 186 to 400. Second, and most important, it introduced a mixed method of representation through which 300 members were elected by plurality and the remaining 100 were assigned through proportional representation. In addition, the LOPPE granted legal recognition to the Mexican Communist Party (PCM)—paving the way for an amnesty for former guerrillas a year later—and gave all political parties access to official TV and radio time.

Passing the LOPPE was intended not to change the hegemonic nature of the PRI but to obscure it under a minimal patina of democracy. Nonetheless, this resulted in a political opening of sorts, which at the time was a sensible strategy due to a series of factors. The most critical one was the total lack of electoral competition in the 1976 presidential election when the PRI candidate José López Portillo won unopposed.5 Other factors included the surge in guerrilla activity throughout the country in the early 1970s and the international context marked by the return of democracy to Spain and Portugal.

By widening opportunities for political representation, the LOPPE also promoted electoral competition in the country, even if to a very small extent. And while this did not put at risk the PRI’s hold on power by any means, it did open a door in case the electorate ever turned its back on the party en masse. In the 1970s this was an extremely remote possibility, the PRI being a well-oiled hegemonic party in full control of the overwhelming resources that came with incumbency. These resources gave the PRI significant advantages, such as the capacity “to outspend on campaigns, deploy legions of canvassers, and, most importantly, to supplement policy appeals with patronage goods that bias voters in their favor.”6

The PRI’s incumbency advantage suffered after 1981 when oil prices crashed and the country went into a debt spiral crisis. Things for the PRI only worsened from there as a cash-strapped Mexican government was forced to stick to an austerity plan mandated by the International Monetary Fund. Throughout the so-called “lost decade” of the 1980s, voters started to defect from the PRI in unprecedented numbers. As a result, the margin of victory in state and municipal elections between the PRI and the second-place finisher decreased, pushing the party to resort more often (and more blatantly) to fraudulent means to ensure comfortable victories. Winning by a wide margin is important for hegemonic parties because they discourage internal fractures and send a message of invincibility to the outside.7 But fraudulent elections come at a cost, and for the PRI regime these were loud and continuous protests that the government was only able to appease with promises of electoral reform.

That is, in essence, the story of Mexico’s democratic transition: a decades-long series of “constant iterations of electoral fraud, opposition protest, and electoral reform.”8 At every turn in this protracted process, the main dispute between the PRI governments and the opposition parties was the autonomy of the electoral authorities with respect to the executive branch, which was granted in instalments through meaningful electoral reform in 1986, 1989–1990, 1993, 1994, and 1996. If in 1977 elections were organized and sanctioned by the Ministry of the Interior, by 2000 they were organized by an autonomous Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) and sanctioned by the newly created Electoral Tribunal of the Federal Judiciary Branch (TEPJF).9 Since 1996, the executive branch has had no say in the configuration of the IFE board. Members of the board are citizens nominated by the parties represented in Congress, and their appointment requires two-thirds of the votes in order to guarantee their neutrality. Two momentous occasions in Mexican history are evidence of the effectiveness of these electoral institutions in upholding free and fair elections: first, the 1997 mid-term election when the PRI lost its decades-long majority in the Chamber of Deputies; and second, the victory of Vicente Fox Quesada from the National Action Party (PAN) in the 2000 presidential election, which put an end to the world’s longest-lasting party dynasty and definitely capped Mexico’s drawn-out democratization project.10

AMLO and the Democratic Transition

AMLO arrived on the national political stage when the transition ended, becoming the president of the national PRD in 1996 after winning an internal election against two historical leaders of the Mexican left: Heberto Castillo and Amalia García. His timing could not have been better, for two reasons connected to the 1996 electoral reform: first, the reform granted the residents of Mexico City the right to select their local authorities, opening up an opportunity for AMLO which he later capitalized on; and second, it established a massive fourfold increase in public financing to all political parties, from 596 million pesos in 1996 to 2,111 million pesos in 1997.11

Throughout the transition, a more equitable and transparent scheme of public financing for political parties based on their vote share had been a top priority for both the PAN and the PRD. During the discussions of the 1996 electoral reform, the PRI negotiators finally acquiesced to this request but with a caveat: rather than distributing the existing funds among all parties, the total funds would be increased first and then distributed. In practice, this left the PRI’s finances untouched in absolute terms, allowing the party to go on living in democracy enjoying the same lifestyle as before. Clearly, this was a subterfuge of the PRI to avoid the economic pain that would result from its inevitable electoral decline under democracy.

For the opposition, the generous financing scheme of 1996 represented an opportunity for growth. But understandably, both AMLO’s PRD and the PAN opposed the formula of the PRI, describing it as a fraud and accusing their leaders of passing on to the taxpayer the cost of the democratic transition. At the time, the president of the PAN was Felipe Calderón (1996–1999), against whom AMLO would contest the presidency during the bitter 2006 electoral season. Back then, though, they maintained a cordial relation as opposition leaders, and they agreed to return in some way the excess monies. Calderón decided that his party would send a check to the Federal Treasury every month. For his part, AMLO announced that the funds would be used to print textbooks for elementary school students. Eventually, only two checks from the PAN were ever received at the Treasury; as for the promised textbooks, no one ever heard about them.

Leaving aside for a moment the PRI financing scam and the opposition’s double standard, the fact remains that the electoral reform of 1996 was a key turning point in the democratic transition by (1) setting up an equitable system of public financing for political parties, (2) finally giving complete autonomy to the IFE and the TEPJF with respect to the executive branch, and (3) granting the residents of Mexico City the right to vote for their local authorities. Yet not everybody considered this to be the end of Mexico’s long democratization project—certainly not AMLO, who as president of the PRD kept returning to the notion that the country remained under authoritarian rule. One of his biographers, George W. Grayson, illustrates this by describing a conversation between AMLO and Secretary of the Interior Emilio Chuayffet on the occasion of the 1996 reform, when AMLO expressed his dissatisfaction with the public financing scheme established by it.12 According to Chuayffet, AMLO’s dissatisfaction was ultimately rooted in his conviction that democracy as a national project was still a work in progress, which could only develop “by staging mobilizations, not tinkering with legislation.”

Here we have evidence of the discrepancy between the democratic regime in which AMLO has thrived and his own perception of things. He is not alone in that. The notion that Mexico never transitioned to democracy is widespread both inside and outside Mexico, both in academic circles and among the general public. Perhaps no one else expresses this view more forcefully than John Ackerman, a UNAM academic and current advisor to AMLO, who in 2015 published a book aptly titled The Myth of the Democratic Transition.13 In it Ackerman argues that Mexico should not really be considered a democracy for two reasons: first, because the established economic and political groups exert a disproportionate influence in politics; and second, because the electoral authorities—the IFE and the TEPJF—are in his opinion biased against the candidates (i.e., AMLO) that challenge the aforementioned groups. As proof of the latter, he points to the outcomes of the presidential election of 2006 and 2012, to which we now turn.

Building a Candidacy: AMLO in Mexico City, 2000–2005

As the PRD’s national president, AMLO achieved national prominence, developing a reputation as a belligerent but results-oriented politician. Making good use of the IFE’s monies, he guided his party in the 1997 mid-term election to its best result ever, as they increased their representation in the Chamber of Deputies from 71 seats to 126. He also helped Cárdenas capture the mayoralty of Mexico City and immediately aligned himself as a possible successor. His plans were almost dashed in 1999 when information surfaced showing that he did not fulfil the five-year legal residence requirement to run for mayor in the 2000 elections. Indeed, when AMLO moved to Mexico City in 1996, he was still a registered voter in his home state of Tabasco. When the local Electoral Institute of the Federal District (IEDF) decided to allow his candidacy for the mayoralty, the PAN and the PRI turned to the local Electoral Tribunal of the Federal District (TEDF) to demand his disqualification. Their arguments did not persuade a majority of the TEDF and by a split vote of 3–2 decided to allow AMLO to run for the mayors’ office.

At that point, the PAN and the PRI were unsure as to what course of action to take—to bring the controversy to the federal TEPJ or to move on and concentrate on the campaign. During the previous weeks, AMLO had basked in free publicity, cultivating an image of an embattled man of the people persecuted by the city’s economic interests. Hoping that AMLO would fizzle out over time, the PAN and the PRI opted to move on and decided not to bring the case to the TEPJF. AMLO eventually proved his opponents wrong. With the help of a lavish marketing campaign launched by the PRD’s Mexico City government headed by Rosario Robles, he managed to win the election by a margin of 3 percent over the PAN’s candidate, Santiago Creel. On December 5, 2000, he was sworn in as the second mayor ever elected in Mexico City.

From day one in the mayoralty, AMLO made clear that he considered it a springboard to the presidency. His strategy was simple—to place himself as the unofficial leader of the opposition to the federal government of Vicente Fox (2000–2006). To do this he followed two courses of action. The first was to hold daily conferences at 6 a.m., popularly referred to as the conferencias mañaneras, in which AMLO lauded the achievements of his administration and criticized whatever policies Fox proposed (even the most politically innocuous, such as daylight-saving time). Between May 2001 and April 2005 he held a stunning 1,316 mañaneras, which made him the most visible politician in Mexico by becoming the first news story of the day.14 AMLO’s second course of action was to challenge the prominence of the federal government in the capital city by building splashy public works. Chief among them were the two-story highways over the Anillo Periférico (the city’s outer beltway), the renovation of the city’s historic downtown, and the creation of a public university. Taken together, these strategies allowed AMLO to become an ever-present, all-encompassing figure in Mexico City and Fox’s main antagonist nationwide.

AMLO, 2006–2012

AMLO’s confrontational strategy with the federal government paid dividends in the polls, and as the 2006 presidential election loomed he commanded a double-digit lead as the PRD candidate. He owed this in part to the most improbable of allies: President Fox, who seemingly sponsored in 2004 an attempt to disqualify AMLO from running for office by leveling criminal charges against him over a land-use infraction. As with the controversy over his residency in Mexico City in 1999, the weeks and months that the legal case went on gave AMLO plenty of free publicity and the opportunity to cultivate again the image of the embattled champion of progressive causes. In contrast to 2000, however, this image fizzled once all the legal procedures were called off and the candidates hit the campaign trail. This was in part because of AMLO’s own strategic mistakes, likely resulting of overconfidence. For example, he decided not to attend the first of the two presidential debates organized by the IFE, ceding the stage to his opponents. He was also reluctant to adopt a more “presidential” style in the build-up to the election, sticking instead to his pugilistic style, which did little to quell the fear over his supposedly authoritarian temperament. By election day, AMLO and the PAN’s candidate, Felipe Calderón, were tied in the polls at around 35 percent. Calderón would end up winning by the narrowest of margins: 0.62 percent, or 233,831 votes out of 41.5 million ballots cast as reported by the IFE.

While on that occasion the PRD achieved their best results ever, AMLO reacted to defeat by crying foul and lashing out against the electoral authorities for allowing what he later described with an oxymoron as “the crudest yet most sophisticated electoral fraud in the history of Mexico.”15 Living up to his words, he and his partisans filed a criminal complaint against the IFE board members accusing them of committing electoral crimes.16 AMLO then took his protest to the streets by blocking Reforma Avenue (one of the city’s main thoroughfares) to put pressure on the TEPJF to annul the election. When the magistrates of the TEPJF finally decided to validate the election, upholding the IFE’s results, he loudly decried their decision during a rally in Mexico City’s Zócalo square: “The magistrates of the Electoral Tribunal of the Federal Judiciary bowed out, lacking the courage, the dignity, the pride, the arrogance to act as freemen. They opt to validate the electoral fraud; in this way, the popular will has been violated and the constitutional order broken.”17 In order to restore it, AMLO declared himself a few months later the “legitimate president of Mexico.” He held to his “post” throughout the Calderón years, only to quietly “step down” right before the 2012 electoral season got started.

In 2012, however, AMLO lagged in third place in the polls behind the PAN’s Josefina Vázquez and the frontrunner Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI. But once he secured the PRD nomination, AMLO was able to overcome his disadvantage in the polls by cultivating a softer image, which starkly contrasted with his belligerent persona of 2006. Indeed, in one of his first TV spots, he offered a mild apology to those affected by his blockade and protests six years earlier: “I offer my hand as a mean of reconciliation, of friendship, to those that I could have upset in my determination to fight for democracy and peace.”18 In this about-face, AMLO went so far as to talk about creating a “loving republic with a social dimension and spiritual greatness” and “doing a different kind of politics, applying in prudent harmony three main ideas: honesty, justice, and love.”19 The strategy worked well, and two months before election day AMLO overtook Vázquez and moved into second place. If things did not improve for him from there, it was likely again due to his own strategic mistakes, such as firing his campaign strategist, Costa Bonino. Bonino had been responsible for “softening” AMLO’s image but fell out of favor when the media reported that he had met with a group of entrepreneurs to request funds for the campaign. Rising private donations is not illegal in Mexico, but it is routinely portrayed as malfeasance by political opponents.

The IFE’s official results of the 2012 presidential election gave AMLO 31 percent of the vote, not bad considering he started in a distant third place with 20 points in the polls. For their part, the PRI received 38 percent of vote share, and the PAN a disappointing 25. While this was not the razor-thin defeat of 2006, AMLO’s reaction was the same: crying foul and lashing out against the electoral authorities. Gone was the reconciliation and love talk, and in came the accusations against the IFE and the TEPJF for allegedly siding with Peña Nieto. In his memoir of the election, AMLO speaks his mind loud and clear: “In regards to the role played by the electoral authorities, suffice it to say that the councillors of the IFE and the magistrates of the TEPFJ demonstrated with their decision that they are complaisant characters, with no conviction, chosen in a way to fit the anti-democratic regime that prevails.” As in 2006, he neither acknowledged the decision of the TEPJF nor the government that resulted from the election.20

The 2018 Campaign

On both occasions that AMLO lost the presidential race, in the years that followed he remained politically active —albeit in his own non-conforming ways. Rather than assuming a role as head of the opposition in Congress, he opted instead to visit every single municipality of the country to hold public assemblies —a notable feat in itself (and one for which he never fully explained the origin of the funds that made it possible). In the years after 2006 he toured the country in his self-appointed capacity of “legitimate president of Mexico,” and after 2012 as the leader of his personal new political outfit: the Movement of National Regeneration, or MORENA, essentially a one-man party that resulted from his decision to part ways with the PRD.21 As one of the most publicly recognized brands in Mexican politics, AMLO was able to quickly fulfill all the legal requirements of the IFE necessary to achieve legal recognition for MORENA —and with it to gain access to the attendant generous public financing. Back in 2014 when this happened, few could have anticipated that in only four years’ time MORENA would capture the presidency. There was a clear indicator in 2017, though: the electoral results in the gubernatorial elections of July of that year in the State of Mexico, or Edomex, the state that surrounds Mexico City.

Edomex is a key electoral battleground in Mexico, being the most heavily and densely populated of the 31 that make up the country. It is also a PRI stronghold, one of a handful of states where the party has ruled without interruption since its foundation in 1929. In the Mexican political calendar, Edomex’s gubernatorial elections are seen as a dress rehearsal for the presidential race that occurs exactly one year later. In 2011, the PRI won the state’s governorship with a landslide of over 60 percent of the vote, heralding its return to the national presidency in 2012 with Peña Nieto. In 2017, however, there was a virtual tie at 30 percent between the PRI and MORENA. The closeness of the vote shocked the Mexican political system and firmly positioned AMLO as the front-runner for the 2018 presidential race. From then on, his growth in the polls was unrelenting. By November 2017 he commanded a lead of 9 points over MORENA’s closest competitor, and by the end of the campaign in June 2018 he led by over 20 points.22 Eventually, he won by a landslide of 53 percent of the vote—more than 30 points over the second-place candidate, Ricardo Anaya of the PAN. In addition, AMLO’s MORENA obtained the majority of seats in Congress.

The results of the elections completely disrupted the party system that had dominated Mexico since 1991, in which the PRD, the PRI, and the PAN occupied respectively the political left, center, and right. It was also the first time in democratic Mexico that the voters opted to give the incoming president control of Congress —and with it the capacity to amend the constitution without compromising with other parties. The reasons for this dramatic shake-up of the Mexican party system are clearly rooted in the unpopularity of president Peña Nieto, who dragged the PRI to its worst-ever electoral results with a meager 16 percent of the vote share. Under his administration (2012–2018), Mexicans became increasingly exasperated with the country’s insecurity, its sluggish economy, and the corruption scandals involving senior members of his party and even his own family. Angry and frustrated, voters turned to AMLO and his promises: more security, higher wages, zero corruption, and justice for all.

The outcome of the election was not inevitable. Had the PAN and the PRI come to grips at some point during the Fall of 2017 with the fact that the election had effectively become a plebiscite on AMLO, they could have struck an unholy alliance to unify the anti-AMLO vote. Although this would have been an unlikely unification of two antagonistic parties and historical foes, they would have stood a chance. Had such a coalition won, today AMLO would be in La Chingada, his ranch in Tabasco where he promised he would retire if he lost the election. MORENA would have eventually fizzled without its leader. If not victorious, at the very least a PRI-PAN alliance could have prevented a MORENA majority in Congress. But none of that happened. From the outset the strategy of the PAN’s candidate, Ricardo Anaya, and the candidate of the PRI, José Antonio Meade, was to attempt a repeat of the 2006 turn of events: secure the second place and from there capture the anti-AMLO vote. It did not work this time around. On the contrary, the gap in the polls became wider month after month. During all that time Anaya and Meade kept fighting over an increasingly irrelevant second place, while the electorate rallied around AMLO. At the end both Anaya and Meade lost, dividing in the process the anti-AMLO camp.

For his part, AMLO did not move an inch during the campaign from the positions he has held for decades, nor did he particularly soften his image. He continued lashing out at the rich (a “rapacious minority”), unabashedly portrayed himself as a moral man while taking on corrupt and powerful elites (the “mafia of power”), and promised to bring to the country “authentic democracy.”23 What changed was the electorate, who became less tolerant and more belligerent than before, just like AMLO himself. The younger cohorts —born after the democratic transition and with no recollection of the hegemonic PRI—seemed particularly fed up with the status quo. And so they gave AMLO a blank check to deliver his promised change of regime, one that favors the poor over the middle classes, and in which the voracious “mafia” will be cast away from the government institutions and replaced with “men and women of good will.”24 That is what Mexicans, knowingly or not, voted for in 2018. AMLO did not misrepresent himself, and again capitalized on the opportunities opened up by the democratic transition to gain access to governing roles.

Democracy According to AMLO

The 2018 presidential election was the fourth organized by the IFE since becoming completely independent from the executive branch in 1996. Late that evening, its president, Lorenzo Córdova Vianello, announced the winner and theofficial results overall. It was a remarkable twist of fate given AMLO’s fierce critiques of the IFE. To this day, he does not acknowledge the electoral defeats he suffered in the presidential elections of 2006 and 2012, and has never backed down from his accusations that the board members of the IFE were bribed into supporting a different candidate. These expressions and actions might be dismissed as political rhetoric or even demagoguery, but according to scholars of democratic deconsolidation, politicizing and bullying independent state institutions is one of the preferred strategies of politicians with authoritarian proclivities. These leaders “have a powerful incentive to purge career civil servants and other independent-minded officials and replace them with partisans. Agencies that cannot be easily purged, such as the judiciary, may be politicized in other ways. Judges, for instance, may be bribed, bullied, or blackmailed into compliance, or be publicly vilified as incompetent, corrupt, or unpatriotic.”25

AMLO’s antics are more understandable when we remember that he does not acknowledge that Mexico is a democracy, or at least not a full-fledged one. As a matter of fact, he and his partisans consider themselves to be “fighting to establish an authentic and true democracy in our country.”26 This is so because for AMLO the concept of democracy is not based on the simple act of voting but on the revolutionary notion of a general will. And as Bertrand Russell explains, the general will is not the same as the will of a majority of voters; rather, it belongs “to the body politic as such” and “has no need of confirmation by so mundane an apparatus as the ballot-box.”27 Thus, from AMLO’s perspective his defeats were not caused by the caprices of the electorate, but necessarily by the malfeasance of his adversaries, abetted by the acquiescence of the IFE. In 2006, he accused its board members of allowing ballot-stuffing and engaging in cyber fraud in favor of the PAN, and in 2012 of turning a blind eye to what he described as a massive vote-buying operation by the PRI. On both occasions, he bullied and publicly vilified the IFE for months, calling the board members “thieves” and “traitors.”28

What would AMLO’s “authentic and true democracy” look like? Ackerman offers a clue when he talks about the need for “organizing a nation-wide participatory and popular political movement that transforms the current political system.”29 Indeed, AMLO’s MORENA labels itself not as a political party but as a social movement whose declared objective is “a change of regime” and “an authentic exercise of democracy.”30 In this objective, Ackerman will collaborate in MORENA’s Political Formation Institute, which will be the vehicle of the party in the “battle of ideas.” The risk here is that AMLO’s “authentic” democracy could sideline the IFE, the TEPJF, and the rest of the current electoral institutional framework carefully built over decades of negotiations, rolling back some of the democratic improvements achieved during the transition. Because of this, the relationship that president AMLO will establish with the IFE is of utmost importance for the survival of democracy in Mexico. He is off to a bad start: just weeks after the election he accused the board members of attempting to commit an act of “vile vengeance” against him for fining his party for breaking campaign finance rules.31

Democratic Deconsolidation in Sight?

Democracy as fair elections and political freedoms cannot simply be a campaign promise of a single candidate or party. It is necessarily a legal and political arrangement between different and opposing groups, who agree to disagree and set up some rules and institutions to oversee political competition. Starting in 1977, a generation of Mexican politicians from both the PRI and the opposition began to set up these rules and institutions in the country. It was a sensible strategy to exit the social crisis experienced by Mexico back then, attuned also with the democratic winds blowing in other parts of the Spanish-speaking world. For the next two decades, this generation of politicians worked on the democratic project intermittently—sometimes acting decidedly and other times reluctantly, sometimes mobilizing people in the streets and other times striking deals in smoke-filled rooms, sometimes with a sense of urgency and other times dragging their feet. It was a long and protracted process—one, incidentally, to which AMLO himself contributed in Tabasco. The result was that by 1997 the electoral authorities, the IFE and the TEPJF, were finally independent of the PRI-dominated executive branch, and all parties were legalized and received equitable amounts of public financing.

AMLO emerged in this context on the national political stage (never to leave again) as the president of the PRD, where he oversaw a large transfer of economic resources to political parties. His ascent continued as the mayor of Mexico City, only the second incumbent elected in modern history. He kept rising as the perennial presidential candidate of the left, first endorsed by the PRD and then successfully by MORENA, his very own publicly-funded party that will, starting in 2019, receive the same amount of monies as the PRI and PAN combined.32 When we consider all this, it is evident that AMLO’s ascent to the presidency is very much a product of the Mexican democratic transition. Portraying his ascent as that of an embattled democrat against an authoritarian regime is a hard case to make.

Now that AMLO has fulfilled his long-held ambition of becoming president, the real question is what will happen to the current electoral institutional framework. The question will become critical if he disappoints on the multiple and almost impossible promises he has made. If that happens, voters are likely to seek other alternatives, and given his previous record he might attempt to undermine the autonomy of the IFE, openly or behind the scenes, to tilt the electoral field in favor of his party. This is by no means a far-fetched scenario: as mentioned before, MORENA controls the Congress, and president AMLO will have no trouble unifying around him the parties on the left along with left-leaning sectors of the PRI. A coalition of that breadth amounts to two-thirds of Congress, the necessary threshold to appoint IFE board members. At that point, MORENA could be an inch away from becoming a new hegemonic party, and AMLO the unopposed leader of Mexico.

If that comes to pass, Mexico would have come full circle back into a hegemonic party system akin to that which existed under the PRI in the 20th century. The decades of democracy that followed the granting of complete autonomy to the IFE in 1996 will come to a close, and a new competitive authoritarian regime—to use the expression coined by Levitsky and Way—will emerge: “In competitive authoritarian regimes, formal democratic institutions are widely viewed as the principal means of obtaining and exercising political authority. Incumbents violate those rules so often and to such an extent, however, that the regime fails to meet conventional minimum standards for democracy.”33 If that comes to pass, AMLO will surely have fulfilled his promise to transform Mexico.

Whatever the future holds for the country, one thing is certain: democracies are not necessarily born in spectacular fashion, nor are democratic advancements definitive. The protracted Mexican democratic transition spanning two decades of back-and-forth political bargaining is a case in point. The same can be said about democratic deconsolidation. As Mickey et al. point out, “the experience of most contemporary autocracies suggests that it would take place through a series of little-noticed, incremental steps, most of which are legal and many of which appear innocuous. Taken together, however, they would tilt the playing field in favor of the ruling party.”34

Discussion of the Literature

Some biographical and analytical works about AMLO have been published over the years, their general tone becoming more critical over time. Earlier works, particularly those that came out when AMLO was mayor of Mexico City, tend to cast him in a positive light. This is the case for AMLO: Historia Política y Personal del Jefe de Gobierno del D.F. (2004) by Alejandro Trelles and Héctor Zagal. Their work provides a thorough examination of the relationships that AMLO established during his term in office with other political actors such as president Fox, the media, intellectuals, and his own party. The image of AMLO that emerges from its pages is of a hyperactive politician focused on courting the public opinion.

The build-up and the aftermath of the 2006 presidential election marks a change in tone in the literature about AMLO. From then on, the works about him became more critical with his style of politics. This is the case for AMLO: Entre la Atracción y el Temor (2006) by Alejandra Lajous. She recounts the main political episodes in which AMLO was involved between 2003 and 2005, providing examples of the confrontational style of politics he displayed in Mexico City. She argues that the key of AMLO’s success is his ability to present himself as if he were in the margins of power when in fact he is a full member of the political elite of the country.35 Luis González de Alba suggests something similar in his critique AMLO. La construcción de un liderazgo fascinante (2007). For González de Alba, AMLO is an “authority disguised as opposition” capable of making others forget that he is in fact a powerful man.36 González de Alba, incidentally, was a founding member of the Unified Socialist Party of Mexico (PSUM), which later merged with other leftist parties in the PRD.

The publication of the work of Lajous coincided with Enrique Krauze’s El Mesías Tropical (2006), one of the most widely cited and influential essays on AMLO. Published in the run-up to the 2006 election, Krauze’s book is a critique of AMLO’s seemingly authoritarian and religious-infused politics. In it, he foreshadows with remarkable prescience his reaction in defeat in 2006: “If the margin of victory is less than seven percent, López Obrador will not acknowledge the results, he will cry foul, talk about conspiracies, accuse the rich, double down his bet, call for civil resistance, mobilize supporters across the country demanding new elections, and even try to form a parallel government.”37 For a rebuke of Krauze’s theses, see Todos somos mesías tropicales (2006) by Víctor M. Toledo.

Besides providing AMLO with his long-lasting monicker, Krauze’s work also provided inspiration for George W. Grayson’s Mexican Messiah: Andrés Manuel López Obrador (2007). Grayson’s work is probably the best-documented work on AMLO available, both in English and Spanish language. As suggested by its title, the theme of this book is the presumptive messianic politics of AMLO and how his public life seems to be guided by a biblical compass. Grayson does a great job at putting together a biographical narrative of AMLO while at the same time providing an exemplary, well-researched analysis of his politics. The works of scholars such as Jorge G. Castañeda, Leonardo Curzio, Diane E. Davis, Todd Eisenstadt, Guillermo Sheridan, Joseph Klesner, Gabriel Zaid, Joy Langston, Roger Bartra, Andreas Schedler, Tina Hilgers, Roderic Ai Camp, Beatriz Magaloni, Kathleen Bruhn, Clifford Wirth, Pablo González Casanova, Caroline Beer, and Matthew Cleary are all worthy of note.

Primary Sources

AMLO is a prolific writer, having authored 16 books in 27 years. Most of them are short and topic-specific, typically published around elections to position himself politically. That is the case of Un Proyecto Alternativo de Nación (2004), La mafia que se adueñó de México…y el 2012 (2010), and 2018, la salida: decadencia y renacimiento de México (2017). The first two can be paired, respectively, with La Mafia nos robó la Presidencia (2007) and No decir adiós a la esperanza (2012), a pair of j’accuse style diatribes against all actors and institutions he blames for his defeats in 2006 and 2012. One book that stands apart is El Poder en el Trópico (2015), a 700+- page work in which he explains the political history and culture of his native Tabasco.

For journalistic accounts of AMLO’s political career, see the online archives of the major Mexico City’s newspapers such as Reforma, El Universal, La Jornada, Crónica, and Milenio. For the print versions, see the Hemeroteca of the Biblioteca Francisco Xavier Clavijero of the Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City; and the Biblioteca Raúl Baillères Jr. of the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM), Mexico City.

For financial records of AMLO’s administration of Mexico City, see the Biblioteca del Banco de México, Mexico City; the Archivo Histórico de la Ciudad de México, Mexico City; and the Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico City.

For contemporary accounts of AMLO’s career, the following works are essential reading: 2 de Julio (2007) of Carlos Tello Díaz, a detailed chronicle of the 2006 election day; and Así lo viví (2008), a memoir of the 2006 election by the then-president of the IFE Luis Carlos Ugalde.

Further Reading

  • Beer, Caroline. Electoral Competition and Institutional Change in Mexico. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003.
  • Bruhn, Kathleen. Taking on Goliath: The Emergence of a New Left Party and the Struggle for Democracy in Mexico. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.
  • Camp, Roderic Ai. Mexico: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Camp, Roderic Ai. “The 2012 Presidential Election and What It Reveals About Mexican Voters.” Journal of Latin American Studies 45, no. 3 (2013): 451–481.
  • Castañeda, Jorge G. Perpetuating Power. New York: New Press, 2000.
  • Cleary, Matthew R. The Sources of Democratic Responsiveness in Mexico. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010.
  • Curzio, Leonardo. Gobernabilidad, democracia y videopolítica en Tabasco 1994–1999. Mexico City: Plaza y Valdés, 2000.
  • Davis, Diane E. Urban Leviathan: Mexico City in the Twentieth Century. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.
  • Domínguez, Jorge I., Chappell Lawson, and Alejandro Moreno. Consolidating Mexico’s Democracy: The 2006 Presidential Campaign in Comparative Perspective. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.
  • Eisenstadt, Todd A. Courting Democracy in Mexico. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Eisenstadt, Todd A. “The Origins and Rationality of the ‘Legal Versus Legitimate’ Dichotomy Invoked in Mexico’s 2006 Post-Electoral Conflict,” PS: Political Science 40, no. 1 (2007): 39–43.
  • González Casanova, Pablo. La Democracia en Mexico. Mexico City: Ediciones ERA, 1967.
  • González de Alba, Luis. AMLO. La construcción de un liderazgo fascinante. Mexico City: Cal y Arena, 2007.
  • Hilgers, Tina, ed. Clientelism in Everyday Latin American Politics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
  • Federal Electoral Institute. Historia del Instituto Federal Electoral. Mexico City: Federal Electoral Institute, 1995.
  • Klesner, Joseph L. “The End of Mexico’s One-Party Regime.” Political Science & Politics 34, no. 1 (2001): 107–114.
  • Lajous, Alejandra. AMLO: Entre la Atracción y el Temor. Mexico City: Océano, 2006.
  • Langston, Joy. “How Did We Get Here? Mexican Democracy After the 2006 Elections,” PS: Political Science and Politics 40, no. 1 (2007): 45–48.
  • Levy, Daniel C., and Kathleen Bruhn. Mexico: The Struggle for Democratic Development. Los Angeles: University of California, 2006.
  • Magaloni, Beatriz. Voting for Autocracy: Hegemonic Party Survival and Its Demise in Mexico. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Schedler, Andreas. “From Electoral Authoritarianism to Democratic Consolidation.” In Mexico’s Democracy at Work, edited by Russell Crandall, Guadalupe Paz, and Riordan Roett, 9–37. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2005.
  • Trelles, Alejandro, and Héctor Zagal. AMLO: Historia Política y Personal del Jefe de Gobierno del D.F. Mexico City: Plaza y Janés, 2004.
  • Wirth, Clifford. “Democracy in Mexico City: The Impacts of Structural Reforms.” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 22, no. 1 (2006): 153–174.
  • Zaid, Gabriel. La Economía Presidencial. Mexico City: Vuelta, 1987.


  • 1. Giovanni Sartori, Parties and Party Systems: A Framework of Analysis (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 230.

  • 2. See Enrique Krauze, “El mesías tropical,” Letras Libres, June 2006, 90; see also George Grayson, Mexican Messiah: Andrés López Obrador (University Park: Pennsylvania State Press, 2007).

  • 3. Sartori, Parties and Party Systems, 230.

  • 4. “The typical sign that the transition has begun comes when these authoritarian incumbents, for whatever reason, begin to modify their own rules in the direction of providing more secure guarantees for the rights of individuals and groups.” Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Transitions (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 6.

  • 5. On that occasion, the PAN could not agree on a candidate, and the Mexican Communist Party (PCM) was barred from participating. Years later, López Portillo recalled the experience saying “Tuve la satisfacción y desazón, al mismo tiempo, de ser candidato único, de tal manera que con que hubiera votado mi mamá por su hijito, ‘Pepito,’ hubiera yo salido presidente”; José López Portillo, “La reforma original (1976–1982),” México la historia de su democracia, 5:38, filmed 2004, posted June 2013.

  • 6. The corollary of this is that “opposition parties fail not because of limited voter demand or institutional constraints but because their resource disadvantages force them to form as niche parties with appeals that are out of step with the average voter”; Kenneth Greene, Why Dominant Parties Lose Mexico’s Democratization in Comparative Perspective (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009), 5. For a similar resource-based explanation of hegemonic party dominance, see Beatriz Magaloni, Voting for Autocracy: Hegemonic Party Survival and Its Demise in Mexico (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

  • 7. “Elections [in autocratic regimes] are meant to disseminate public information about the regime’s strength that would serve to discourage potential divisions within the ruling party. By holding elections regularly, winning them by huge margins, painting the streets and towns all over the country in the party’s colors, and mobilizing voters in great numbers to party rallies and the polls, the PRI sought to generate a public image of invincibility. This image would serve to discourage coordination among potential challengers—most fundamentally, those coming from within the party—and to diminish bandwagon effects in favor of the opposition parties among the mass public”; Magaloni, Voting for Autocracy, 8–9.

  • 8. Caroline Beer, Electoral Competition and Institutional Change in Mexico (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 10.

  • 9. In 2014, the IFE was renamed the National Electoral Institute (Instituto Nacional Electoral, INE).

  • 10. “... the transition is over when “abnormality” is no longer the central feature of political life, that is, when actors have settled on and obey a set of more of less explicit rules defining the channels they may use to gain access to governing roles, the means they can legitimately employ in their conflicts with each other, the procedures they should apply in taking decisions, and the criteria they may use to exclude others from the game. Normality, in other words, becomes a major characteristic of political life when those active in politics come to expect each other to play according to the rules —and the ensemble of these rules is what we mean by a [democratic] regime.” O’Donnell and Schmitter, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule, 65.

  • 11. Figures are at current prices of 1996 and 1997 respectively; Luis Carlos Ugalde, “Democracia a precio alzado,” Nexos, August 2015, 452.

  • 12. Grayson, Mexican Messiah, 116.

  • 13. John Ackerman, El mito de la transición democrática (Mexico City: Planeta, 2015).

  • 14. Grayson, Mexican Messiah, 161.

  • 15. Carlos Tello Díaz, 2 de Julio (Mexico City: Planeta, 2007), 176.

  • 16. Newsroom, “Por el Bien de Todos demanda penalmente a los consejeros del IFE,” Proceso, July 16, 2006.

  • 17. Newsroom, “Discurso íntegro de Andrés Manuel López Obrador,” El Universal, September 6, 2006.

  • 18. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, “Reconciliación,” LaPrimeraPlana TV, filmed 2012, posted March 20, 2012.

  • 19. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, “Fundamentos para una república amorosa”, La Jornada, December 6, 2011.

  • 20. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, No decir adiós a la esperanza (Mexico City: Random House Mondadori, 2012), 97–98.

  • 21. MORENA is a double entendre that also means “brown-skinned woman” in Spanish. In Mexico the term has religious connotations as it is associated with the Virgin of Guadalupe, the country’s patron saint in the Catholic religion. MORENA’s motto is “The Hope of Mexico.”

  • 22. Kiko Llaneras and Javier Lafuent, “López Obrador sube en las encuestas y tiene un 92% de probabilidades de ganar,” El País, June 3, 2018.

  • 23. Misael Zavala, “Empresarios una minoría rapaz, dice AMLO,” El Universal, May 4, 2018.

  • 24. Newsroom, “Son bienvenidos mujeres y hombres de buena voluntad: AMLO,” Paréntesis, January 24, 2018.

  • 25. Robert Mickey, Steven Levitsky, and Lucan Ahmad Way, “Is America Still Safe for Democracy?: Why the United States Is in Danger of Backsliding,” Foreign Affairs 96 (2017): 2.

  • 26. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, “AMLO en Chile; homenajea a Salvador Allende,” MORENA comunica, 1:14, filmed 2017, posted August 2, 2017.

  • 27. Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (London: Taylor & Francis, 2004), 634; and David Lay Williams, Rousseau’s Social Contract: An Introduction (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 1–2.

  • 28. Newsroom, “Discurso íntegro de López Obrador en respuesta al fallo del TEPJF,” SDPnoticias, August 31, 2012.

  • 29. Lorenzo Meyer, John M. Ackerman. El mito de la transición democrática (Mexico City: Planeta, 2015); and John M. Ackerman, “Review of El mito de la transición democrática,” Revista Mexicana de Sociología 2, no. 78 (April–June 2016): 321–325.

  • 30. Estatuto de MORENA,” MORENA, November 5, 2014, 1.

  • 31. Newsroom, “AMLO se sube al ring vs. el INE por multa a Morena: ‘es una vil venganza’,” El Financiero, July 19, 2018.

  • 32. Newsroom, “Morena 'nadará' en dinero, recibirá casi cuatro veces más presupuesto en 2019,” Vanguardia, July 13, 2018.

  • 33. Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, “The rise of competitive authoritarianism,” Journal of democracy 13, no. 2 (2002): 52.

  • 34. Mickey, Levitsky, and Way, Is America Still Safe for Democracy?, 1.

  • 35. “Lo notable de su caso es que, estando en el centro de la política, López Obrador ha logrado presentarse como quien se encuentra en los márgenes. Usó el poder y el dinero que le dio la jefatura de gobierno para conseguir que los marginados se identificaran con él”; Alejandra Lajous, AMLO: Entre la Atracción y el Temor (Mexico City: Océano, 2006), 304.

  • 36. “. . . tiene el lenguage adecuado para prender en ciertas mentalidades: las que pueden olvidar que es una autoridad y un poderoso cuando lo oyen hablar contra las autoridades y contra los poderosos”; Luis González de Alba, AMLO. La construcción de un liderazgo fascinante (Mexico City: Cal y Arena, 2007), 139.

  • 37. Enrique Krauze, “El mesías tropical,” Letras Libres, June 2006, 90.