MEXICO CITY – Even before the coronavirus, Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s approval ratings had slipped. A Mitofsky poll in January showed 57.3% approval for the Mexican president, down from 64.5% in April last year.
As AMLO continues to urge restraint in responding to the outbreak – on Sunday encouraging Mexicans to “go out and eat at restaurants” – his approval ratings have fallen even further, to 51% in the Mitofsky poll.
The driving force behind this fall in popularity – both before and after the outbreak – is easy enough to identify. But there are elements of the dip that should concern the president as he seeks to consolidate support for his progressive agenda.
First, the part that shouldn’t worry the president. Beyond the normal loss of energy 15 months into an administration, the drop in his approval ratings, especially before the outbreak, were due largely to the fact that his government has not been geared toward the traditional centers of power and influence in the country. López Obrador’s presidency has instead been aimed, both rhetorically and on substance, almost entirely at the 50 million or so poor Mexicans who have been overlooked by previous administrations.
While this approach offers the possibility of real strides in improving life for Mexico’s less fortunate, it has also alienated the middle class on whose economic support – and tax revenue – the president’s agenda may come to depend.
AMLO’s response to the coronavirus has been a case in point.
The president has so far resisted pressure from middle class critics for whom it is simple – with cupboards and refrigerators full – to call for widespread lockdown measures. Despite criticism that he is responding to the crisis too slowly, the president has targeted his response to the millions of Mexicans who live day-by-day, many in informal or precarious working conditions, and who are unable to simply stay at home for a week.
While recent comments have suggested that AMLO will ultimately move to adopt more significant restrictions at a national level, he also knows that every additional day that people can be allowed to work and earn money is important. This is why he has also announced that the administration will rush payments related to social programs, especially for senior citizens, who are among those most at risk in the current crisis.
This response fits with the pattern of AMLO’s first year and a half in office, and his oft-repeated mantra of “putting the poor first.” His policy agenda has included expanded scholarships for low-income students, a transfer payment for people with disabilities, a recently approved reform that if successful would guarantee universal health coverage, and a new pension scheme for senior citizens (which already existed, but which doubled in value in the first year of López Obrador’s government).
The political will required to make these programs a reality is unprecedented in Mexico’s recent history: Despite unfavorable economic headwinds, AMLO is designating 500 billion pesos (about $20 billion) to the poorer segments of Mexico’s population. If the programs work and reach their intended targets – a reality that remains to be seen – López Obrador will be able to consolidate a robust social base, especially in the south and southeast of the country, where some relatively ambitious infrastructure projects are also underway.
This approach clearly has its positives, even if it has done damage to López Obrador’s popularity, especially with the urban middle class.
Nor is this dynamic unprecedented for leftist leaders in Latin America. In Brazil, for example, the first few years of the administration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva were enough for his traditional base of electoral support in the relatively well-off south – where Lula had earned significant admiration among the middle class – to shift to the poorer north and northeast.
Néstor Kirchner and then his successor Cristina Fernández de Kirchner quickly drew ire from the electorate in Buenos Aires and other major cities in Argentina. In Bolivia, despite long years of economic growth, a significant part of the traditional middle class ended up at odds with the government of Evo Morales.
This distance between progressive governments and the urban middle classes – permanently unsatisfied and resentful of popular discourse that paints them as a villain – may be unavoidable. But what is more surprising, and should be of more concern to the president, is AMLO’s declining popularity among Mexico’s youth.
Though his overall approval rating remains close to the percentage of voters who elected him president in 2018, AMLO’s popularity among young people between 18 and 29 has fallen sharply, from 85% in February 2019 to 61% last month, according to a Buendía & Laredo poll.
The reasons for this fall in popularity will not necessarily be easy to fix. Access to jobs and social goods are certainly important, but young people in Mexico are also increasingly concerned with – and vote on – social causes and issues such as the environment, human rights and feminism.
There are of course differences within this group as well. According to Buendía & Laredo, young people in the highest socioeconomic quartile are more than twice as likely to disapprove of the president than those in the bottom quartile. That suggests that here, too, the president is speaking mostly to low-income voters. But the overall gap in reaching young people both rhetorically and in a material sense is clear.
Much of this is a problem of López Obrador’s own doing. Facing a wave of femicides in the country, López Obrador has been unable to summon sufficient empathy to convince young women that he takes their outrage seriously. His personal conservatism on issues of interest to younger generations – from family planning to drug policy – has left him unable to connect with the social groups that have increasingly mobilized in Mexican society, as the recent women’s strike made clear. Young people voted overwhelmingly for AMLO in the last election, but his distance from them is now widening.
It is unclear how the coronavirus will fit into this wider context of AMLO’s popularity, given the fact that he has, apparently, thus far underestimated the effects of the pandemic. His decision to bank on a strategy favoring the marginalized majority in the short term could be politically beneficial, but only if the virus somehow fails to significantly affect Mexico’s poor, who have little access to high-quality healthcare and would be particularly vulnerable if the crisis spins out of control.