Andres Oppenheimer

Will Mexico become authoritarian, like Turkey? Probably not, but there are some parallels

Mexico’s President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador has moderated his populist tone.
Mexico’s President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador has moderated his populist tone.

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Visiting Turkey shortly after leftist populist leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s landslide election victory in Mexico, I couldn’t help drawing some parallels between the two countries — and hoping that Mexico won’t follow Turkey’s authoritarian path.

Earlier this week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a former mayor of Istanbul and prime minister who has been Turkey’s de facto leader since 2003, started a new five-year term.

Erdoğan will rule this country of 81 million with sweeping executive powers, following a referendum last year that abolished the job of prime minister and curbed congressional oversight controls. Emboldened by his referendum victory, Erdogan held a snap election on June 24 and won with 53 percent of the vote.

But it’s hard to take Erdoğan’s election victory too seriously. His main opponent ran while in prison on politically motivated charges. More than 200 journalists are in prison for criticizing the government, human rights groups say.

Criticism of the government in broadcast and print media has “largely disappeared,” Amnesty International says.

When you drive along any of Istanbul’s major avenues these days, you find signs every 50 yards with Erdoğan’s image, staring into the horizon like a movie hero. Critics say he has become a modern-day sultan.

It would be unfair to forecast that Lopez Obrador will become a Mexican-style Erdogan. But it would be irresponsible to rule it out.

Both men are former big-city mayors and have historically drawn their largest support from the rural poor. Both despise what they describe as pro-American elites, have little tolerance for critical media and vow to return their countries to a mostly mythical nationalist past.

And despite many differences — Erdogan has regional ambitions as an Islamist leader; Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, or AMLO seems less interested in foreign affairs — their two countries are regional manufacturing centers that in recent decades opened up their economies and multiplied exports to the industrialized world.

Like Erdogan, AMLO has shown some authoritarian traits, too. After his defeat in Mexico’s 2006 presidential elections, he refused to accept his loss, and his followers blocked major avenues in Mexico City. AMLO then appointed himself the “legitimate president” of Mexico, drawing widespread criticism that he was not accepting democratic rules.

Previously, he had refused to accept his defeat when he lost the 1994 elections for governor of Tabasco state.

Last year, in a tweet last year, AMLO accused Mexico’s Reforma newspaper of being a representative of what he described as the “snobby, for-hire and dishonest” media.

To his credit, AMLO has moderated his tone recently. Since his election, he has given some hopeful signs that he will respect the private sector and a free press.

But if AMLO chose to return to his old authoritarian ways, his recent landslide electoral victory will give him nearly unprecedented powers to do so.

The president-elect and his allied parties will control 307 of Mexico’s 500-member Chamber of Deputies, and 68 out of 128 senators. He would only have to lure or coerce a few smaller parties into supporting him in Congress to change Mexico’s Constitution and eliminate the clause by which Mexican presidents can only serve one six-year term.

While the consensus in Mexico is that AMLO is no longer the fiery populist he once was, there is little question that he will be a stronger president than his most recent predecessors.

As Reforma columnist Jesus Silva Herzog-Marquez noted this week, AMLO’s party — Morena — is not really a political party, but a coalition of ideologically diverse groups. “The point of union of that organization is not a program, but a person,” he said, adding that Mexico is witnessing the birth of a caudillo.

Most likely, Lopez Obrador will be more pragmatic than his critics fear, in part because his current top aides are moderates who will try to steer him away from autocratic moves that could scare the markets. But, then again, Turkey is a good reminder that a country that had shifted toward a modern democracy in recent decades can make a U-turn — and turn increasingly more authoritarian.

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