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During the first year of Mr. López Obrador’s term, the Mexican economy has stagnated and insecurity is rampant. The president however still enjoys a high level of popular support. Why?

First, some data. During his first year in office, support for López Obrador has shown three different trajectories. He enjoyed what it can be called an Inauguration bonus. According to the poll aggregator, once he took office approval rose 8 percentage points, from 69 to 77 percent. This ascending pattern continued during his first quarter. Due to the “war against huachicol”, the slang name for stolen gasolina, people rallied around the president. In this period, the polls' average level of support   registered 81 percent. Disapproval was minimal at 14 percent.      

During the second quarter, public opinión began to stabilize. The honeymoon period began to fade away, but it also became clear that the increase of support due to the “war against huachicol” was only temporary. It dissipated after a few months. By May, presidential approval entered a second phase, one of a stability. In May, support for the president stood at 70 percent and stayed at that level until October. On October 17th, another phase, one of decline, began. On that day, the federal government tried to apprehend the son of notorious drug dealer “El Chapo Guzmán” and it failed miserably. The episode is now known as “el culiacanazo”. A few days later, the murder of women and children of the LeBaron family increased the saliency of the insecurity issue. Polls at the time showed the public did not buy the oficial argument that “abrazos, no balazos” (“hugs, not bullets”) was an effective strategy to combat the narco industry.

After “el culiacanazo,” support for the president declined slightly. It is now around 68 percent although it is not clear if the declining trend will continue or if it will stabilize around that point. But the impact of “el culiacanazo” can be assessed in other public opinion indicators. In a recent national poll by Buendia y Laredo, a majority of Mexicans (60%) say that problems are overtaking the López Obrador government. Only 34 percent say that it has the problems under control. Three months before the numbers were not that pessimistic (51 and 40 percent respectively). Further, about one out of five Mexicans mention the security issue as the main mistake of the current government and practically no one mentions AMLO’s strategy towards narcos as a strength of this government. It is clear that from now on the insecurity issue will be the main concern for the Mexican public. Further, each episode of violence will be seen as a failure of the “hugs, no bullets” strategy.

The question then is, what explains the high levels of support for López Obrador? There are at least two competing but complementary explanations. The first one is to a certain extent a predictable one. This is a new government and all current problems can not be blamed on it. Corruption, poverty, inequality, and even high levels of violence were inherited by the current administration. People support López Obrador for his intentions to shake the status quo in these areas but not yet for the outcomes of his policies. People will need more time to start blaming the president for the current state of affairs. The truth is we do not know when this will happen, if at all.

The economic issue claims another type of explanation as it is clear that the current stagnation is somewhat AMLO-made. Here the dynamics are mostly about expectations. Month after month, the Consumer Confidence Index (INEGI) shows that people still have high expectations regarding their (and their families) future finances. Expectations are at an all time high and increased substantially after López Obrador’s victory. Actually the victory of López Obrador in July 2018 reversed the trend in expectations: most of the public turned optimist about their finances after years of being pessimistic. The expectations explanation can also make sense of why if the economy has stagnated the public expresses a great deal of support for AMLO. People may believe that the redistribution policies of the current administration will benefit them even if the overall economy is not doing well. In fact, support for the elderly and the underprivileged are the two things most people recognize this government for. It is the keystone of the administration.

To sum up,  after one year in office, López Obrador is still going strong among the Mexican public. His high approval level in a context of a deteriorating economy challenges the conventional wisdom and forces us to find new ways of thinking about his presidency. That is the task ahead.

Opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

About the Author

Dr. Jorge Buendia

Director General, Buendia & Laredo
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Mexico Institute

The Mexico Institute seeks to improve understanding, communication, and cooperation between Mexico and the United States by promoting original research, encouraging public discussion, and proposing policy options for enhancing the bilateral relationship. A binational Advisory Board, chaired by Luis Téllez and Earl Anthony Wayne, oversees the work of the Mexico Institute.   Read more