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López Obrador is bigger threat to liberal democracy than Bolsonaro

Mexico’s new president will be unconstrained by institutions, unlike his Brazilian counterpart


Mexico’s new leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador, left, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro © Sergio Lima/AFP/Getty Images;
Cesar Rodriguez/Bloomberg

John Paul Rathbone, Latin American editor 4 HOURS AGO

On Saturday, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a maverick leftist, will become

president of Mexico and launch what he has called the country’s “fourth
transformation”. How this progressive nationalist matches up against Donald
Trump, his equally nationalistic neighbour, is anybody’s guess — although the
US president is said to refer to him fondly in private as “Juan Trump”.

A month later, Jair Bolsonaro, a maverick conservative, will become president

of Brazil and begin what he claims will be a radical reforging of society and
the economy. With his crudely misogynistic and racist comments, divisive
nationalism and praise of the dictatorship, the former army captain is often
labelled a “Tropical Trump”.

The two leaders are part of the epochal changes that are sweeping Latin
America’s two biggest economies. Although from opposite ends of the
political spectrum, both are also throwbacks to an age of caudillos, or populist
strong men, that the region had seemingly left behind. Who though is the
bigger threat to liberal democracy? Almost certainly “peace and love” Mr
López Obrador rather than “lock ‘em up” Mr Bolsonaro.
That may sound provocative but it is only empirical. Mr López Obrador will
enjoy almost unconstrained power when he takes o�ce. His party has
majorities in the Senate and the Chamber. He has vast popular support,
dominates his cabinet, inherits a relatively healthy macroeconomy thereby
freeing him from immediate market pressures, and faces a feeble judiciary.

Furthermore, he wants even more power. He plans to create federal “super

delegates”, answerable to the executive, to monitor all state programmes and
their budgets. At the same time, public sector wage cuts have prompted an
exodus of technocrats from the civil service, weakening Mexico’s few
independent institutions that could check his power.

Mr Bolsonaro faces the exact opposite. He is hemmed in. His party has a
minority in both houses of Congress. He does not control state budgets. He
faces an aggressive press, a �ercely independent judiciary, is subject to more
market discipline given Brazil’s weak economy, and has appointed
heavyweight technocrats to his cabinet. Unlike Mr López Obrador, his
instincts seem to be to decentralise power, including independence for the
central bank.

Mr Bolsonaro has also shown �exibility on his more outrageous campaign

pledges. He has changed his mind on withdrawing Brazil from the Paris
accord on climate change, reconsidered moving the embassy in Israel to
Jerusalem and welcomed Venezuelan refugees.

Recommended By contrast, Mr López Obrador has dug

in. Following a “people’s consultation”,
he cancelled construction of Mexico
City’s new airport, even though billions of dollars of compensation costs now
mock his claims of a “government of austerity”. Other pet projects endorsed
by similar referendums, such as a billion-dollar re�nery in his home state of
Tabasco, will provide potentially lucrative sources of patronage and political

He has also said Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro is “welcome” at his

inauguration, despite his regime’s record of human rights abuses and theft.

None of this is to gloss over the potential for reactionary illiberalism from Mr
Bolsonaro. How he responds should protests erupt over painful economic
reforms is vital. Yet if Mr Bolsonaro goes too far astray, Brazilian institutions
such as markets, media and the military will hold him to account. His
problem is a lack of political power, not a surfeit.

Mr López Obrador, by contrast, will be able to implement his vision of

change. Arguably, he also needs to concentrate power in order to improve
policy co-ordination and so rid Mexico of corruption and improve the lot of
the poor. Yet success is only likely if this concentration is part of a new
institutional approach of due process and increased transparency, rather than
personalised discretion. Worryingly, it has been more of the latter, so far.


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John Paul Rathbone

Global Insight
Brazilian politics
Americas politics & policy
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador

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