President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) delivered the annual government report – akin to a state-of-the-nation address – yesterday, 1 September. The speech offered up few insights, which is hardly surprising given that AMLO already has a platform for his loquacity – his daily press conferences, which usually last longer than yesterday’s speech and involve questions. Despite the twin health and economic crises, AMLO insists that the worst is over, while refusing to acknowledge that his administration’s own missteps and failings have exacerbated both. Below we examine why AMLO’s approval ratings remain relatively high and why it may be difficult to sustain them.
Despite a decline in his popularity since Q1, AMLO’s approval ratings remain in the mid-to-late fifties. A recent poll asking how people would vote if the 2022 presidential recall referendum was held now produces a similar conclusion: 56% would vote for AMLO to stay on against 39% in favor of AMLO’s early recall. This is in the context of a Covid-19 outbreak that has surpassed health authorities’ “catastrophic” worst-case scenario, with over 600,000 confirmed cases (surely an undercount) and 65,241 deaths, the fourth highest tally in the world. Meanwhile, the economy contracted by 18.7% in Q2, and the Central Bank (Banxico)’s latest survey points to a contraction of 9.9% for 2020.
The reasons for AMLO’s resilient position in the polls come down to a combination of factors. The president utterly dominates public debate and the news cycle; in parallel, he is adept at political sleight of hand to distract and divide his opponents. Opposition parties have yet to find their feet after the 2018 election defeat; their task is made more difficult by past corruption, which AMLO hammers home at every opportunity. On the economic front, AMLO is benefitting from a surge in remittances that is helping plug household finances and offset joblessness. On Covid-19, it is possible that a segment of public opinion sees the pandemic as virtually impossible for any government to tame and/or that some people do not take Covid-19 seriously given the government’s mixed messaging; expect AMLO to continue to try to frame the pandemic as a purely health, rather than political, issue.
Some of these advantages are brittle. On the economy, AMLO insists that a V-shaped recovery is likely despite the absence of counter-cyclical spending; the Banxico survey points to growth of just 2.95% in 2021. The president has heralded the creation of 93,000 new formal sector jobs in August, when 1.18mn such jobs were shed over the preceding five months. The 2021 budget – to be unveiled in the coming days – is unlikely to open the spending spigot, and flagship infrastructure projects cannot lift the economy on their own, especially as business confidence remains low. Austerity is popular but it also contributes to institutional sluggishness at a time when an agile response to pressing health and economic questions is paramount. Leaked videos showing AMLO’s brother receiving paper bags filled with cash have dented public trust in AMLO’s reputation for honesty. Finally, security remains a problem that shows no signs of abating.
How the situation evolves over the coming months will be key. AMLO will be aware that his predecessor’s popularity sank from around this point of his presidency. It is already significant that in the poll on voting intentions in a recall referendum, there has been an 11-point increase since April of those in favor of AMLO’s departure ahead of schedule.