Mexico’s Newly Elected President Can’t Tackle Corruption Alone

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Written by Greg Brown

Mexico’s newly elected leftist president Andrés Manuel López Obrador aims to tackle the country’s crippling corruption epidemic all on his own. The solutions to this intractable challenge have evaded Mexican leaders for decades. Whether López Obrador’s individualistic personalized approach to anticorruption is successful will define his presidency, and shape Mexico’s political and economic future. To deliver the transformative change he’s promised and effectively combat corruption, López Obrador must abandon the personality-centered, individualistic approach that brought him to power.

López Obrador, a leftist who shares stylistic similarities with Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, soared to victory on inspirational rhetoric. The central plank of López Obrador’s platform called for massive public investment and pro-poor programs funded by reclaiming public monies that had been lost to corruption. While López Obrador’s rhetoric touched a chord with Mexico’s dissatisfied millions, his words will only achieve so much when he assumes office on December 1st.

Throughout the months-long campaign period, López Obrador stressed his frugality, unbending morals, and personal dedication to rooting out corruption. He is a man of humble roots who flew to campaign events on commercial airlines and has indicated that he won’t be staying in the palatial presidential residence, instead turning the grounds into a public park. López Obrador, who repeatedly stated “only I can fix corruption,” has adopted a strategy for tackling corruption that relies primarily on the power of his example and charisma, rather than a well-developed set of policy proposals.

López Obrador’s political movement—National Regeneration Movement (Morena)—is highly-personalized and lacking in precise policy proposals. The party seems to be held together by López Obrador’s outsider appeal and a treasure trove of political capital. The New York Times indicated that some members of the mainstream Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) began abandoning their party to join Morena as it surged in the polls this spring, suggesting the party is more of a big tent than a focused movement. Without a unified ideology or clear policy preferences, Morena’s transition into government may be rocky.

In addition to his personal approach to politics, López Obrador has repeatedly expressed frustrations with government and with Mexico’s democratic institutions. On the campaign trail this year, he regularly railed against inept, self-serving bureaucrats. López Obrador’s frustrations are legitimate. Mexican democracy is deeply flawed and the state has failed to control corruption and violence. But his personal vendetta against the state may pose challenges as he becomes the leader of that same government.

Combatting the corruption that is embedded across Mexico’s public and private spheres requires a fundamental shift in culture and sustained collective efforts to strengthen or redesign key public institutions. Only time will tell whether López Obrador’s political and leadership style is inconsistent with these requirements, but early signs suggest that his campaign instincts will follow him into office.

Recently, the Wilson Center reported that López Obrador does not intend to consider a constitutional reform that would create an independent National Prosecutor’s Office. Currently, the prosecutor is appointed by the president and approved by the Senate, a process that opens the door to significant political interference in the office’s activities. López Obrador opposes the reform because it was introduced by civil society, who he does not see as representative of the public despite the broad coalition of organizations supporting the measure. This example raises two worrying trends. First, it demonstrates López Obrador’s seeming resistance to institutional solutions that may constrain his authority. And second, his apparent lack of interest in working with civil society, who could be key allies in his anticorruption push.

There are other reasons why López Obrador’s tactics may not be effective. For instance, he has spoken frequently about slashing government employee salaries. While this may send a powerful message that the impunity enjoyed by civil servants is a thing of the past, it may also create an incentive for bureaucrats to supplement their lower pay through corruption. The Washington Post argued that anticorruption experts broadly believe that such a measure would be counterproductive. Perhaps more importantly, ostracizing the bureaucracy immediately upon entering office may hinder the implementation of new reforms.

Consider this example from López Obrador’s term as mayor of Mexico City. In 2004, López Obrador’s finance secretary was accused of corruption and sentenced to eight years in prison. While this could be interpreted as a victory in López Obrador’s war against corruption, the result was less encouraging: the finance secretary was released early after the judge determined there was a lack of evidence. Foul play shouldn’t be assumed, but the evidence appeared to be overwhelming. Had López Obrador embraced more institutional forms of anticorruption, perhaps the authorities would’ve been in a stronger position to prosecute corruption and the finance secretary would’ve served out the length of his term.

To change Mexico’s culture of corruption, end the waste of public funds, and restore trust in public institutions, López Obrador can’t do it alone.

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