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When September ended, the Mexican opposition was more optimistic than ever: the Obradorist initiative to expand the presence of the Army in the streets had failed in the Senate, the leaks of files from the Secretariat of National Defense (Sedena) confirmed the President’s poor health and the forthcoming publication of a book entitled El Rey del Cash (The King of Cash) was announced, which vows to reveal once and for all the financial malfeasance of President López Obrador; now (they said) is the beginning of the end of Obradorism, the people will abandon him.
Well, 10 days later, everything went backwards. The “militarization” initiative was approved by the Senate with a new ruling that definitively fractured the block of contention that the opponents had erected in the upper chamber; the leaks of the Sedena files turned out to be, basically, noise and the presidential popularity, instead of plummeting as expected by the opponents, increased to over 60%.
Yes, after several scandal-ridden weeks, the president came out stronger than he went in, while the brief optimism of the opposition turned into exasperated impatience.
What’s going on? Why didn’t last month’s news not alter the course of public opinion? Why are the criticisms and oppositions, so well thought out and elegantly printed on the pages of the newspapers, simply not working?
The answer is quite simple: the message of the opposition does not have an impact because it is not expressed in an understandable language for the people, and the scandals do not affect the president because they do not affect the aspects that people really value about López Obrador.
One step at a time:
First, language. Mexico’s opposition speaks in a political language that is incomprehensible to most voters. The opposition speaks to a Mexico that does not exist, at least not in sufficient numbers to make it politically viable.
For reasons we will not discuss here, the Mexican opposition was left in the hands of a small academic and business “elite”. Broadly speaking, they have benefited from the institutional modernization of the democratic transition, have a good economic position, an optimistic approach to technology and assume themselves to be part of that cosmopolitan nation that watches CNN, reads The New York Times and supports a European-style social democracy.
For this opposition tribe, technical criteria over political criteria, administrative efficiency, solid institutions, global integration, the supremacy of international institutions and the various causes of good vibes are key.
From their perspective, López Obrador’s destruction of modern decentralized institutions, his failure to fully embrace the cause of European social democracies, his technically absurd decisions (such as the cancellation of Mexico City’s new airport to replace it with a poorly patched runway at a military airport) and his lack of understanding of the modern world are more than justified reasons to repudiate him.
Therefore, they have been presenting the argument over and over again since before 2018 that AMLO is a “goat in a china shop” because he is not a good technical public administration manager, does not understand technology and is not a pretty boy like Justin Trudeau.
The problem? Outside the world of NGOs, partisan bureaucracies and certain business and academic circles with cosmopolitan aspirations, the opposition narrative is either shocking or downright absurd.
In this other Mexico live perhaps 70 million people. For them, the modernization of institutions was not such an obvious blessing: with the transition they have more resources, options and government support, but they feel (with some reason) that there were others who got the better part of the transition and they are exasperated by what they perceive as a mixture of posturing and corruption in the PAN and PRI governments.
Furthermore, for this other Mexico, the future and technology are not a source of confidence, but a sign of uncertainty: automation and globalization shape an environment that they do not understand, in which they do not feel integrated or successful.
They want, then, a “just” president, who will restore the old order, nostalgic and understandable, in which the gates of power were not opened by the requirement of a postgraduate degree abroad and the mastery of English. They want him to act by putting politics above technicalities, to give them their revenge against arrogant technocrats. They want him to return Mexico to that poor past, but where they could be part of the system, instead of feeling isolated and discarded.
Thus, this Mexico does not care that López Obrador is technically inept, that he imposes political whims or erodes the institutions; and it will care even less about the accusations against the president by an opposition from which they are emotionally disconnected.
Here is a very clear example: leaks from the Mexican Army confirmed that AMLO was very ill at the beginning of the year, even at risk of another heart attack. What happened after this revelation?
The opposition gleefully paraded the details on social media, pointing out that these health problems make the president technically incapable of performing his duties; since he is sick, he governs poorly. The next day, López Obrador acknowledged his health problems and explained that he suffers from angina pectoris, gout and hypothyroidism… and his popularity went up.
Why? Because these ailments consolidate his character as a venerable, trustworthy and approachable grandfather; he has the same illnesses that millions of people in Mexico suffer from, and just like millions of people in Mexico, despite these illnesses he gets up every day at 4:00 a.m. for his security meeting and his morning conference. He suffers like the people, he gets sick like the people, he gets up early like the people… therefore he is the people, and if he is the people, let him do as he pleases.
That is why his mediocre results and even the corruption scandals within his immediate family have been irrelevant to the people; after all, in a country where corruption is as commonplace as it is in Mexico, corruption does not outrage; what outrages is that the people are left out.
They are not uncomfortable with the ranches and houses of the Obradors, because they feel that he is part of their team… and, by human nature, for all the errors of our tribe there will be a pretext; in the same way that for all the successes of the tribe in front of us there will be a reason for condemnation.
So, what to do?
First step: the opposition has to understand that millions of Mexicans see them as alien to their own reality, and recognize that in many cases this distance is more than justified.
Second step: the opposition needs to abandon the language of elitist technocracies and construct its messages in the language spoken by the people, without appearing condescending or false. It has to be truthful… and also appear to be so.
Third step: the opposition must understand that as long as the emotional link between López Obrador and the people is not broken, every scandal and every argument will fail. Before talking about institutions, laws and other abstract things, they need to achieve one very specific thing: to demonstrate to the people that AMLO is not of the people.
Without at least these 3 steps, the opposition discourse will continue to project itself towards a Mexico that does not exist, at least not in the reality of most Mexicans. As simple and as sad as that.
Gerardo Garibay Camarena, is a doctor of law, writer and political analyst with experience in the public and private sectors. His new book is "How to Play Chess Without Craps: A Guide to Reading Politics and Understanding Politicians" // Gerardo Garibay Camarena es doctor en derecho, escritor y analista político con experiencia en el sector público y privado. Su nuevo libro es “Cómo jugar al ajedrez Sin dados: Una guía para leer la política y entender a los políticos”