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Tuesday 20th March 2018

AMLO v Bolsonaro: Comparing Latin America’s New Populist Presidents


Benjamin Schmidt

Thu, 11 Apr 2019 10:28 GMT

Mexico and Brazil, Latin America's largest countries by population and economic output, both elected populist presidents last year. And as of April 11th, 2019, both right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and left-wing Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (often called simply “Amlo”) have completed their first 100 days in office.

The two presidencies provide a unique case study. Both are new, Latin American, and ideologically different administrations trying to break from the past, and both show obvious flaws as well as genuine promise.

The setting

Lopez Obrador took office on December 1st, 2018, after gaining 53% of the national vote. His left-wing administration replaced the centre-right presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto and currently enjoys unprecedented legislative power for a Mexican presidency. His Morena party and coalition partners have a majority in both houses of Congress and in most state legislatures. In fact, he only lacks a 2/3rds super-majority in the Senate, meaning constitutional changes will require some, but not much, negotiation.

In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro took office exactly one month later on January 1st, 2019, after winning 55% of the vote in the country’s runoff election. Shifting Brazil to the right, after 15 years of control by the leftist Worker's Party (PT), the Bolsonaro administration faces much larger legislative hurdles since the president's Social Liberal Party holds just 10% of the votes in Brazil’s lower house and does not have a majority coalition.

Brazil's new administration is also composed of mostly political newcomers. Bolsonaro was a Brazilian Senate backbencher himself for three decades, and before that he was a military captain. His brusque manner, including recorded comments where he seemed to disparage women, homosexuals, and other minorities, and praise for the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964-1985 have earned him both harsh critics and ardent supporters.

The supporting cast

To compensate for his self-acknowledged lack of expertise, Bolsonaro relies heavily on two prominent cabinet leaders. The first is economy minister, Paulo Guedes, who is a University of Chicago-trained economist and the source of most of Bolsonaro’s economic proposals, which include tax cuts and big reforms to Brazil's runaway public spending like cutting back pensions and privatising government businesses. The second is Lava Jato judge, Sergio Moro, Brazil's justice minister who is leading the administration's charge against crime and corruption and is currently Brazil's most popular politician, according to a recent poll by Atlas Politico.

Lopez Obrador's cabinet, on the other hand, lacks strong leadership outside of the president himself. For the first time in Mexico, half of the cabinet positions are held by women, yet several key leaders lack more than tacit experience. The Secretary of Energy is a former employee at the state oil company whose only energy leadership role was leading Morena’s energy commission in the Chamber of Deputies. Others, like Economy Secretary, Graciela Márquez Colín, who was an associate professor and holds a PhD in Economic History, have qualifications but seem to be having little effect one way or the other on Lopez Obrador’s policies.

“The sheer incompetence of [ALMO’s] cabinet is a major obstacle to his promises’ becoming policies” wrote Jorge G. Castañeda, Mexico’s foreign minister from 2000-2003 and current New York University professor, in a recent New York Times editorial. Or sheer lack of influence. Assembled together each weekday morning at 6:00 am for a meeting with the president, Mexico’s cabinet leaders pale in importance next to Amlo.

Mexico’s one-man show

That is partially because Lopez Obrador has no problem commanding attention and popularity on his own. The 65-year-old former mayor of Mexico City and three-time presidential candidate has had a theatrical first 100 days where he made a rush of public-pleasing decisions.

He fired public servants while cutting the salaries of others, removed previous presidents' pensions, and opted to fly in a commercial airliner instead of a private jet. In another rejection of the elite status of the presidency, he opened Los Pinos, Mexico’s White House, to the public as a museum. His 7:00 am morning news conferences each weekday are hugely popular and help him single-handedly set the tone and agenda of daily political discussion in Mexico.

Most of these moves have enjoyed enormous public support and helped keep his popular support at a record-high 80% after his first 100 days in office; a record for a Mexican president. "He has done a great job of convincing Mexicans that he is a great president for them," said Duncan Wood, Director of the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute in an interview published on the Wilson Center website.

Trump of the tropics

Bolsonaro, on the other hand, has come off as much more distanced. His decision to give just a six-minute speech at Davos in January in a normal half-hour time slot surprised and disappointed many Brazilians. He also ate lunch alone at the international conference instead of meeting or mingling with other world leaders.

Not unlike US President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has seemed intent on maintaining the support of his core supporters even if it means alienating others. This is certainly on display in his nearly nonstop stream of Twitter posts that appeal to his more die-hard supporters. It also seems to have contributed to his decision to conduct foreign visits with like-minded leaders like US President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has also stuck with his most controversial positions like loosening gun laws and supporting more farming in the Amazon.

This approach seems to have hurt his public support, which has fallen from a 40% approval/17% disapproval rating in February, to a 35% approval/26% disapproval rating in April, according to Ipespe. In another set of polls, Bolsonaro’s approval has fallen from 67% in January to 51% in March, the quickest fall on record for a first-term president in Brazil. Impatient for change after a long economic recession and years of political crisis, it is easy for many in Brazil to brand Bolsonaro's slow progress as incompetence.


In Mexico, Lopez Obrador has faced critics who are wary of his unpredictable brand of politics and occasional support for unorthodox economic policies. He has also made a long list of promises, among which are new social benefits for the elderly and handicapped as well as a crack-down on corruption and on Mexico's dangerous drug cartels.

A signature policy has been the creation of a new military-controlled National Guard to combat crime throughout the country. It has been approved by Congress, but its full implementation may take years. Meanwhile, there has been an alarming rise in violence across the country in the last few months. January 2019 saw Mexico’s highest number of murders on record. The violence is widespread too, as more than half of the country’s states saw homicide rates increase.

As a result, investors have remained wary. In late February the Mexican Central Bank lowered its growth expectations for 2019 to between 1.1% and 2.1%. Credit rating agencies recently downgraded Mexico not long after the government announced a $5.2 billion rescue package for the state oil company, Pemex, which is fraught with financial difficulties and falling output. They warned that keeping the ailing public business afloat will be a drag on government spending and will make raising future financing more difficult.

In Brazil, investors have been wary of Bolsonaro’s military ties but are much more optimistic about his business-friendly campaign promises. Most Brazilians have expected the economy to rebound this year, though those expectations have fallen due to the slow pace of change. On April 9th, the International Monetary Fund dropped its earlier forecast of 2.5% growth in 2019 to 2.1%.

At home, Bolsonaro is credited for being a political outsider with no connections to Brazil’s recent Lava Jato bribery scheme that implicated a huge portion of the country’s political class. By elevating Sergio Moro to the Justice Ministry, he signalled his intention to fight corruption and crack down on organised and violent crime.

Yet proposals to loosen gun ownership laws run counter to that goal since statistics show that more weapons correlate to higher rates of violence. Statistics collected by each government show the murder rate for both Mexico and Brazil was over 25 per 100,000 in 2017, putting them both among the top 20 national murder rates in the world.

Brazil: Party and pension problems

In February, the Bolsonaro administration unveiled their proposal to reform the pension system, a massive social programme that uses up half the government’s annual expenditure. That proposal is currently being debated by Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies; a fragmented chamber made up of representatives from 30 parties.

The new administration’s naivety and disorganisation have done nothing to smooth the bill’s passage before an expected mid-year vote. In early April, Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party failed to organise speakers for an important legislative committee meeting to debate the pension proposal. The omission left Paulo Guedes, Bolsonaro’s economy minister, alone to lead a 7-hour marathon session with deputies. That episode ended in an embarrassing exchange of insults after which Mr Guedes stormed from the chamber.

It was also only in April that Brazilian government leaders started holding meetings with rival party leaders to try and win support for the reform. Such meetings were inevitable given the government's lack of a majority coalition, but during the election campaign Bolsonaro called these kinds of meetings a form of corruption.

The government’s hands have also been tied by refusing to use tangible benefits to cut political deals with opponents. Geraldo Alckmin, a former presidential candidate from the centrist PSDB party, said he would not support the government because "there is no exchange" and criticised Bolsonaro's belief that politics was about dialogue instead of ‘pork barrel’. The administration has begun changing its approach in recent days, offering positions to parties that vote with the government and legal financial perks for first-term representatives, according to Bloomberg News.

The stalled pension reform bill is so far Bolsonaro’s signature policy effort. If passed, it could cut up to 20% from Brazil's huge government deficit. If it doesn’t, it could seriously undermine confidence that any of the government’s proposals will find their way into law.

Mexico: airport, day-cares, and migrants

Lopez Obrador’s practical policy decisions have not been any more successful. The most baffling has been Lopez Obrador's decision to cancel construction of the $13 billion new airport in Mexico City, which is already 1/3rd built. The new hub was intended to replace the capital’s old and overused current airport.

Although 70% of the public said they supported the project in a referendum, AMLO insisted that the project was a waste of taxpayer money and mired in corruption. He later proposed a three-airport solution for Mexico City that Alexandre de Juniac, head of the International Air Transport Association described as “very, very, very challenging,” due to a variety of safety concerns, according to Bloomberg News.

Lopez Obrador also decided to cut spending to NGOs, social, and civil organisations to make way for a system where social payments are made directly to individuals. Supporters like the idea since the current multi-level system is riddled with corruption. Critics have fired back that the proposal could lead to a new system of clientelism by giving the government a direct transfer mechanism to reward political supporters. The short-term effect has been reduced funding to day-care centres and other social services, a decision that the majority of Mexicans oppose.

While observers have praised a decision to raise the country's meagre minimum wage, Lopez Obrador has been accused of bowing to pressure from the US to host large groups of migrants from Central America who have tried to reach America.

Hopes and fears

It is difficult to know anything for certain after just 100 days, but a few trends stand out. The first is that despite his remarkable hold on power and public opinion, Lopez Obrador has done little to fundamentally alter Mexico. However, with his popularity so high there is certainly still time left for him to do so.

The promise of Amlo’s presidency is that lower- and middle-class Mexicans will see tangible benefits in the form of more inclusive social programmes, fairer wages, and (eventually) lower crime and weaker drug cartels. The fear is that while their ebullient leader holds the public’s attention, nothing actually improves during his presidency.

Meanwhile, even though the Bolsonaro administration’s promises made have hit some of the right notes with investors and businesses, his government is quickly losing momentum. The pension reform bill is looking increasingly like a make or break moment, with all the government’s future plans held in the balance.

If successful, Bolsonaro’s reforms could restore investor confidence and reinvigorate economic growth while his capable justice minister effectively tackles gangs and corruption. The fear is that the president and his team lack the deal-making ability to get their reforms through the labyrinth of congressional approval; loosened gun laws will only make violence worse, and public support will dwindle before slow-moving changes can be made.

Latin America