AMLO has a deeply rooted habit from his time as head of government of Mexico City, 20 years ago, and one that he retains after becoming Mexico’s president in 2018: “La conferencia mañanera” (The morning conference), a mixture of press event, political ritual and mechanism to control the political agenda. What Obrador says in “la mañanera” sets the pace for what his supporters and enemies talk about the rest of the day.
This daily conference is the pillar of his communication strategy. Andrés Manuel governs through the mornings, in which he chooses enemies and allies, defines issues and announces the priorities of his administration. For this reason, despite his 67 years, López Obrador leads them every working day, starting at 7 a.m. and sometimes extending up to 3 hours.
However, on Friday, August 27, President López Obrador did not participate in his conference. He was unable to make it and that absence is much more than an isolated anecdote, it is an early sign of the changes in the balance of power that will mark the second half of his term as Mexico’s president.
AMLO has to pay
What happened? The president traveled to Chiapas for a work tour, and from there he would speak to reporters. However, before arriving at the military installations where the conference would take place, he was surrounded and held by members of the National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE), a radical leftist pseudo-union, famous for its acts of vandalism, sit-ins and prolonged strikes.
The CNTE is a dissidence within the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE), with whom it has reached a more or less uneasy coexistence, where the official union (the SNTE) recognizes the “Coordinadora” (CNTE) as having control over union sections in certain parts of the country, particularly in the states of Guerrero, Michoacán, Oaxaca and Chiapas.
The CNTE and its associated groups have been part of the political alliance backing President Lopez Obrador for years, but the love has begun to wear thin: on August 27 they blocked the President’s passage. Obrador, visibly upset, demanded “respect” and later criticized the leaders of the demonstrators’ group.
What happened? Why did a group of his traditional allies attack him and block his way?
The excuse for the disagreement is that the Mexican government decided to restart on-site classes throughout the country at the end of August, despite the fact that vaccination campaigns are far behind schedule and the country is facing a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, which officially totals nearly 20,000 cases and hundreds of deaths every day.
The teachers claim that there are no suitable conditions for a return to classes, but the government responds that almost a year and a half without classes is harmful not only for the quality of education, but also for the wellbeing of the students and of society itself.
Now, I do not doubt that most of those who physically participated in the demonstration were motivated by this claim. However, this is not the real motive behind the aggression against the president, it is only the excuse.
The real purpose of the demonstration was to remind López Obrador of the political and social mobilization strength of the CNTE, and the political debt he owes them. With their voices they said: AMLO, we do not want to return to classroom classes; but the political message they were conveying was: AMLO, you have to pay.
What does he have to pay?
López Obrador won the 2018 presidential elections with the highest percentage of votes for that office since 1982. This advantage allowed him to obtain a resounding triumph and to drag enough support to build (with some tricks in between) broad parliamentary majorities in the Congress of the Union and in the local congresses, giving him an enormous greater margin of maneuver.
This triumph did not happen by magic. There were two key factors:
First, the López Obrador campaign itself, the charisma and image he consolidated thanks to decades of starring in Mexican political life. AMLO swept his competitors in terms of political communication, presented an attractive proposal and attracted in his favor most of the Mexican wealthy and middle class.
The other factor, which was definitive for him to sweep the election, was a gigantic political alliance that not only included the parties that formally supported him on the ballot, but also a multitude of political, union and social leaders, to whom Andrés Manuel promised to defend their privileges, and to recover all the political ground that these old groups and unions had lost during the process of democratic transition.
All these groups, including union leaders of the teachers, bureaucrats and oil workers, PRI operators in a good part of the country, traditional fighters of the Mexican left, some disenchanted PAN members and a host of local caciques, added their support to López Obrador and feel they are co-participants in his victory. Therefore, they also feel entitled to be co-participants of the political spoils.
AMLO has to pay all of them for their loyalty, through candidacies, public works contracts, government purchases and positions within the ruling alliance. Therein lies the serious problem for the Mexican president.
He won’t be able to afford it
In his ambition to become president, Andrés Manuel added “too many” supporters, to the point that he will not be able to pay them all (not even adding up the federal budget and the political weight that the presidency implies) especially when there are several who want the same thing.
During the first half of his administration, this problem was not so serious. AMLO had the huge political bonus of his victory, large parliamentary majorities, more power than any of his predecessors in the democratic era and plenty of time to meet high expectations. But that is over now.
The mid-term elections are over, and although AMLO could celebrate that his alliance swept the governorships and maintained absolute majorities in both houses, he did not manage to crush the opposition or guarantee the consolidation of his political project as a new party of the State.
What does this mean?
That the President’s room for maneuver has been drastically reduced, because his creditors, whom he would otherwise have been able to manage under a long-term favor payment scheme, will now put more emphasis on being paid before 2024.
In other words, they all want to be paid and many demand payment in a specific currency: candidacies and control of the ruling party (Morena) in their respective states or regions.
The problem? In many cases AMLO has committed himself to several different leaderships and cannot give them multiple candidacies or multiple parties. Therefore, in each of those states, cities and regions, López Obrador will only be able to look good with one group, at the expense of looking bad with all the others.
And this scales to the national level. The biggest prize is the official candidacy for the presidency of the Republic in 2024, a single position, indivisible by its very nature, but longed for by many. From now on, and more and more as time goes by, each decision of Andrés Manuel will be observed by all as a sign of his predilection towards one or another of the aspirants, to the anger of all the others.
In the PRI era, this process was known as the “tapado” game:
a mechanism for the president to “placate” and study the potential loyalty or success of his possible successors, without openly opting in favor of any of them until the moment of the official announcement, where the chosen one received the symbolic support of the entire party (the famous “cargada”.)
However, the Mexico of 2024 will not be the Mexico of that time. The “tapados” of that time were deeply disciplined to the presidential will, those of today are not. Example? Ricardo Monreal (coordinator of the official senators) has already publicly declared that he will be on the presidential ballot and would like to do so through Morena; that is, if AMLO chooses him, so much the better, but he will participate anyway.
This is the size of the political challenge that López Obrador faces and that will define the political success or failure of the second half of his government. He has, let’s say, a cake with 100 slices, but he needs to share it among 200 allies, who are not willing to stay hungry or wait for the next party.
For this reason, the farce staged by the alleged teachers of the CNTE is simply a warning, the first of many that will accumulate and increase in intensity as the 2024 electoral process approaches.
At the end of the day, in Mexico things are never as simple as they should be, and neither will be the succession of the new ruling regime. AMLO has to pay and he will not be able to afford it. We will see if he manages to solve the dilemma.