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How López Obrador Can Turn His Victory Into Mexico’s Triumph

“The third time is the one that counts” is a famous Mexican saying that Andrés Manuel López Obrador repeated often during his recent presidential campaign. Those words carried him to win with 53 percent of the vote, according to a quick count carried out by the National Electoral Institute.

Mr. López Obrador lost the 2006 presidential race by a wafer-thin and controversial margin, lost again in 2012 and still continued his democratic pursuit of the highest elected office. He traveled the country, town by town, establishing a close, magnetic, almost religious relationship with the Mexican people. This bond is the root and reason for his victory. Mexicans who are fed up with the country’s problems value the manner in which AMLO, as he is known, has succeeded in channeling the discontent of tens of millions of people and their hopes for what he calls “a true change.”

Mr. López Obrador’s program has been the target of ample criticism, yet it contains a potential power that he will now have the chance to put into action. But beyond policy objectives, what our great country calls for (and what the world expects from us) is something much more transcendent than the victory of a leftist leader. Confronting a United States government that has lost its moral compass, Mexico can embody a democracy marked by peace and social justice, achieved not by authoritarian methods but within the frame of a modern state, respectful of institutions, the rule of law and civil liberties.

Mexico’s ancestral problems are poverty and social inequality. Another problem is corruption, which may seem new but is not. Corruption was hidden in the past. Now the media and new institutions of transparency have put it on full display. Mexicans, aggrieved by the impunity handed to the corrupt, are showing zero tolerance.

The problem that has most directly disturbed our families is criminal violence, which is being perpetrated to a degree the country has not experienced for a century, since the upheavals of the Mexican Revolution. Since 2000, more than 250,000 people have died as a result of organized crime. Many people blame the state, arguing it has abdicated its responsibility to provide security for its citizens.

Some outstanding elements of Mr. López Obrador’s social project are cash transfers to adults over 65, as well as the implementation of scholarships and training courses for young people who lack education and work. These promising proposals contrast with other aspects of his program that are regressive, such as his connection with the National Coordinator of Workers in Education, an organization of radical teachers that favors the sale or inheritance of teaching jobs and is opposed to the formal certification of teachers. Mexico’s low place among education rankings globally could tumble even further.

Aiming to reverse economic backwardness in our southern states, the president-elect has proposed to subsidize agriculture and build new oil refineries. Serious critics have pointed out that such protectionist policies could cost Mexico its competitive advantages in exchange for self-sufficiency in food and energy. That’s an outmoded ideal. Critics are also alarmed by the possible reversion under Mr. López Obrador of an energy reform that opened up the exploitation of oil and natural gas to foreign investment and could attract as much as $200 billion. Such fears seem well founded, especially in view of the uncertainty surrounding Nafta’s future. In any case, the Mexican economy is much richer, diversified and dynamic than ever before. I trust that Mr. López Obrador, a man known for his personal honesty and austere nature, will not strain the public budget nor nationalize enterprises.

Mr. López Obrador has said, “If the president is honest, his correct behavior will have to be seconded by the other public servants.” But he has undervalued the struggle against corruption by nongovernmental civil organizations. On the issue of crime, he has committed to meeting with his security council every morning. A more controversial idea that he has floated, in practical, juridical and ethical terms, is offering amnesty to a still undefined category of criminals.

This voluntarism stems from a political culture that for millenniums has revered and feared the all-powerful ruler: Aztec “tlatoani,” Spanish monarch, “caudillo” president. The restoration of that kind of authority could function as a deterrent for corrupt officials and major criminals, including drug lords. The effect might occur for a short time. But confronting the proliferation of criminal gangs requires profound institutional reform that does not depend on one man, no matter how powerful or charismatic he may be. Rather, what’s needed is the convergence of all levels of government and the organs of justice with an engaged civil society.

While I have been a persistent critic of Mr. López Obrador, my core preoccupations have been political. In a nation with barely two decades of democratic experience, his victory could drift into an extraordinary concentration of power. Many Mexicans see Mr. López Obrador as a savior, but historical experience has demonstrated that politics is not, nor can it be, a road to salvation. In the best of cases, it is only a means for gradual improvement. Will our new president, who is prone to insulting and disqualifying his critics, accept limits or put his own limits on his personal power?

Today we must look to the future. Mr. López Obrador should turn his personal triumph into the triumph of Mexico. He should set his sights on beginning a historical epoch in which agreement, tolerance and full respect for freedom of expression take precedence over polarization, rancor and censorship. If he adopts this position and our democratic institutions are strengthened, he will offer an example of ethical, democratic leadership. Mexico deserves it. The world deserves it. And both very much need it.

Published by The New York Times,  July 2nd, 2006.

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