Mexico’s López Obrador starts final year in office with strong approval and flagship projects to finish

The popular president will seek to complete infrastructure initiatives, support his party’s candidate and ensure a smooth succession

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.Hector Vivas (Getty Images)
Zedryk Raziel

At 69 years old, Andrés Manuel López Obrador is starting the final stretch of his presidential term. His main priorities are completing major infrastructure projects, supporting Claudia Sheinbaum as his party’s candidate in next year’s elections, and ensuring a smooth succession. Mexicans must now envision a future without López Obrador. The president has repeatedly expressed his desire to withdraw from public life and settle down on his farm in Chiapas (southern Mexico) after his term ends on September 30, 2024. “I’m retiring — I am completely retiring from politics,” he said.

It’s hard to believe that a political animal like López Obrador could simply retreat into seclusion. Whether you admire him or not, he has undeniably dominated Mexico’s public discourse for the past five years. Furthermore, López Obrador’s influence extends beyond his presidency, as he has played a significant role in shaping the regional leftist movement over the past 20 years, culminating in the creation of his own political party. The void he leaves behind will undoubtedly be challenging to fill.

This week marks the beginning of the final year of López Obrador’s presidency, the top vote-getter in Mexico’s history and its most popular president in the past 30 years. With a 69% approval rating after five years in office, López Obrador’s popularity is higher than Ernesto Zedillo, the last PRI president; Vicente Fox, the first post-PRI president; Felipe Calderón, the second PAN leader; and Enrique Peña Nieto, the most unpopular recent president by far.

López Obrador is definitely not an irrelevant lame-duck leader in his final year, overshadowed by his successor. He has shown that every year of his term is important to him. That’s why he decided to spend all his political capital to lead the presidential succession process within the party he created — Morena. López Obrador personally crafted the rules for candidate selection and closely supervised the process. His involvement not only validated Claudia Sheinbaum’s victory as the party’s standard-bearer but also minimized allegations of fraud by the runner-up, Marcelo Ebrard.

President López Obrador turns over Morena party leadership to Claudia Sheinbaum; September 7, 2023.
President López Obrador turns over Morena party leadership to Claudia Sheinbaum; September 7, 2023.Nayeli Cruz

López Obrador’s involvement in the upcoming presidential race has compelled the political opposition to devise strategies counteracting the president. A united opposition movement — Frente por México — has surprisingly coalesced parties from across the political spectrum, including the conservative PAN party, the centrist PRI party and the leftist PRD party. Their sole commonality lies in their rejection, and at times, contempt for López Obrador and Morena.

The president’s final year in office will focus on combatting what he calls conservative thinking, a topic he plans to write about when he retires. He also plans to propose a constitutional reform that enables citizens to directly elect federal and Supreme Court judges. To accomplish this, López Obrador will need his party and allies, including the Green Party and the Labor Party, to win a strong congressional majority in the upcoming elections.

Currently, the president has requested a budget from Congress that will address the country’s fiscal deficit, and also fund the completion of major infrastructure initiatives like the Maya Train tourism project, the Interoceanic Corridor to connect the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and the Dos Bocas oil refinery in Tabasco (southeastern Mexico). The budget López Obrador wants will also extend the reach of social welfare programs that benefit Mexico’s most vulnerable citizens. Political analysts are predicting that electioneering will boost public spending.

López Obrador likes to maintain a historical perspective and is skilled at anticipating the political moves of his rivals. He forcefully pushed the ruling bloc in Congress to include social aid entitlements in the constitution, a strategic maneuver that aims to make it difficult for future presidents to reverse what he sees as a major achievement of the leftist movement. López Obrador also implemented a mechanism that allows voters to confirm or remove a sitting president at the midpoint of a term. He put himself to this test in 2022, and the results were a resounding affirmation, as expected. More than a vanity project to demonstrate his own popularity, the recall mechanism will oblige López Obrador’s successors to govern effectively or risk a recall.

Consulta de revocación de mandato
A citizen casts his vote for a referendum to implement a presidential recall mechanism; Puebla, Mexico; April 2022.Hilda Ríos (EFE)

López Obrador has effectively managed the economy by curtailing public debt, boosting oil production and strengthening the currency, disproving his critics’ dire predictions.

In terms of foreign policy, the Mexican government achieved a favorable trade agreement with the U.S. and Canada, although there are still ongoing negotiations about corn and energy policies. Tensions with the United States have also been strained by the fentanyl crisis. Moving south, López Obrador is regarded as a leader of the Latin American left, standing alongside influential leaders like Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Uruguay’s José Mújica. During the height of the pandemic, a diplomatic and political strategy was implemented to ensure that Mexico received vaccine doses promptly, while facilitating access for other needy countries.

The unresolved challenges of the outgoing administration are undeniable. While some issues like infrastructure improvement have been addressed, others will carry over to the next administration. These include the alarming increase in violent crime and homicides. During López Obrador’s term, homicides exceeded the numbers during the Peña Nieto (2012-2018) and Calderón (2006-2012) administrations, two presidents he blames for initiating an ineffective war on drugs.

The president has faced criticism for distributing social aid to address the causes of violence, and for transferring control of the National Guard — a civilian institution — to the Army. López Obrador attempted to reform the constitution for this purpose, but the measure was defeated in one of the president’s biggest setbacks. He plans to reintroduce the initiative next year, along with the reform to elect new judges.

Mexican National Guard forces near Malpaso in the State of Zacatecas; September 29, 2023.
Mexican National Guard forces near Malpaso in the State of Zacatecas; September 29, 2023.Nayeli Cruz

López Obrador usually points to mistakes by previous administrations as the reason behind the negative data about violent crime. The president’s promise to improve Mexico’s health system to match Denmark’s has fallen short, as he again used the tired formula of blaming inherited problems for the lack of progress.

The countdown has begun for a president who tenaciously won the office on his third try. López Obrador succeeded Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas as the leader of the Mexican left, wresting the role from a man whose father was the legendary agrarian reformer, President Lázaro Cárdenas. López Obrador is a charismatic and strong leader, cherished by supporters who shower him with gifts and tears of adoration wherever he goes. During his term, he suffered a heart attack, three bouts of Covid-19, and still found the time and energy to author numerous books. Next year we’ll see if López Obrador can really make good on his promise to withdraw from public life.

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