Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who campaigned as an anti-establishment candidate who would prioritize nationalist concerns above all else, will become the president of Mexico on Saturday. His party, which was founded only in 2014, is the first non-mainstream party to win an election since 1934, when the modern political system was established. And it did so by a considerable margin. Lopez Obrador won 30.1 million votes (53 percent) in July’s election, more than double the number of votes received by the second-place candidate. By August, he had a 64.6 percent approval rating, according to an El Universal survey, though it has slipped since then to 55.6 percent. In line with his populist message, Lopez Obrador has relied heavily on public consent to validate his platform and policies. Last weekend, for example, the incoming government held a referendum on the top ten projects it will focus on – which include everything from infrastructure to pensions and employment. At least 89 percent of voters cast a ballot in favor of each of the projects, though turnout was very low, with less than 1 million people participating in the referendum.
But regardless of what Lopez Obrador hopes to achieve while in office, he will face certain unavoidable constraints once he’s inaugurated – as all political leaders do. Domestically, he will need to satisfy his base, at least to some degree, while balancing the views and wishes of other segments of the population. His most challenging constraints, however, will be in dealing with the United States. The asymmetrical relationship between the two countries will limit Mexico’s ability to ignore Washington’s wishes and chart its own path. This will be most apparent in two issues: trade and immigration. Both are pivotal to Mexico’s national interests and go beyond party politics – which explains why Lopez Obrador has been closely collaborating with the current administration in both areas since July. They’re also inextricably intertwined with Lopez Obrador’s campaign promise to stimulate the country’s economy.
On trade, Lopez Obrador will have a lot of work to do during his first year in office to ensure that the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement is ratified and implemented in such a way that meets Mexico’s interests. The final draft of the deal was agreed to on Sept. 30, but the U.S., Mexico and Canada are supposed to officially sign the agreement on Nov. 30. (The legislatures of all three countries will then need to ratify it, which could take several months or longer.) The two-month delay was supposed to give each country time to meet certain preconditions – which are not stated in the agreement itself – before all three would officially agree to the treaty. But in some cases, that hasn’t happened. Mexico and Canada said they wanted exemptions from U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs before signing the deal. They didn’t get them, but U.S. companies with operations in Canada and Mexico are still lobbying for the wavers. Another precondition – this one demanded by Democrats in the U.S. Congress – was that Mexico pass a series of labor reforms, which it has so far failed to do. (It has said it will approve these reforms by Jan. 1.)
Once all three countries pass the agreement, implementation will be the next hurdle. One of the biggest constraints on the member governments will be Chapter 32, which restricts their ability to enter into free trade agreements with non-market economies. Members must notify the other signatories before entering trade talks with non-market economies, and a copy of any deal must be provided to them before being signed. The members then have the option to scrap the USMCA and replace it with a bilateral agreement. The target of this provision is clearly China, though both Canada and Mexico claim it doesn’t rule out any future trade agreements with Beijing. The U.S., meanwhile, is locked in a trade war with China for now and is therefore unlikely to sign any new deals with the Chinese anyway. The agreement thus gives all future Mexican leaders, including Lopez Obrador, less room to maneuver. Despite any plans to distance Mexico from the U.S. economically, they can’t risk doing anything that could sever trade ties with the U.S. and put the Mexican economy in danger.
Immigration will be another major concern for Lopez Obrador, who faces different pressures on the issue at home and abroad. The U.S. president has threatened to shut down the U.S.-Mexico border if Mexico doesn’t deport Central American migrants making their way to the United States. A border closure could have devastating impacts on the Mexican economy. The government has thus tried to stop migrants from trying to enter the U.S. illegally by either deporting them or persuading them to stay in Mexico instead. The U.S. has also proposed a “safe third country agreement” with Mexico, which would require asylum seekers to apply for refugee status in the first country of arrival. This would effectively mean that Central American migrants traveling through Mexico could not claim refugee status in the U.S. But the current Mexican government has refused to agree to such a deal and the incoming government has said it doesn’t plan to agree to it either. It would essentially make Mexico’s immigration policy subordinate to the United States and make the Mexican government responsible for the Central American migrants trying to reach the U.S. border. The new government, however, has proposed creating a mini-Marshall Plan along with the U.S. and Canada to help develop Central American economies.
Domestically, the inflow of Central American migrants presents challenges to Lopez Obrador’s promise to improve the standard of living for Mexicans while also bringing down government spending. Public backlash is already building as more and more local and federal resources are allocated to accommodating the migrants instead of providing services for the local population. According to a recent El Universal survey, roughly 70 percent of Mexicans have a negative view of the migrant caravans, with 46 percent believing the migrants could increase crime rates and 27 percent believing they could take jobs away from Mexicans. Mexico’s Labor and Social Welfare Ministry announced that over 200 companies with facilities in Tijuana are offering at least 3,500 jobs to migrants. Mexico’s National Jobs Service portal will also post 45,000 jobs for migrants in the northern border states and 160,000 jobs nationwide. So while Lopez Obrador wants to show that he’s putting Mexico first, his government will still need to devote time and money to dealing with the migrant influx and encouraging economic development in Central America to stem the flow of migrants in the first place.
Even beyond trade and immigration, Lopez Obrador will find that he has to govern within certain parameters. The extent to which he can pave a new path for Mexico is limited by his need to satisfy his base, maintain a healthy economy and balance protection of Mexico’s long-term interests against U.S. demands. All these challenges predate Lopez Obrador’s election, so while he may want more freedom of action, his hands will be tied by the same factors that limited flexibility for presidents before him.