THE LEFT has rarely been stronger in Mexico. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the new president, won last year’s election by a record margin and has sky-high approval ratings. For the first time, leftist lawmakers have a majority in both houses of congress. Parties scorned by Mr López Obrador as “neoliberal”, which misgoverned Mexico before he took power, are demoralised.
But there are snags. Not all leftists in congress belong to his Movement for National Regeneration (Morena). Not all members of Morena and its allies are on the left. And those who are do not agree on what that means. Mr López Obrador’s priority is to strengthen the state as a weapon against what he calls “economic injustice”. Some of his allies are more interested in expanding social liberties or protecting the environment. The outcome of this tussle will help determine the legacy of Mr López Obrador’s government and the sort of country that Mexico will become.
A row over abortion, flawlessly timed to spoil International Women’s Day on March 8th, illustrates the tension. A pro-life Morena senator was apoplectic to find a green scarf, a pro-choice symbol imported from Argentina, placed on her chair. She used the occasion to denounce abortion as “murder”, which drew rebukes from other Morena lawmakers. Mr López Obrador, who is often called AMLO, tried to quell the controversy. “We must not open these debates,” he said. Congress should focus instead on “cleaning up government corruption”. Morena has put off congressional debate about abortion, which is illegal in most cases in most Mexican states, until September.
Unlike leftists in many other countries, AMLO has never been particularly green or socially liberal. He prefers the dirty oil extracted by state-owned Pemex to clean renewable energy. To the extent he thinks about social issues at all, his views are those of a “moral conservative”, says Clara Jusidman, an economist who has known him since the 1980s.
Latin America’s left does not care much about “expanding social rights”, notes Lorenzo Meyer, a historian whose son, Román, is secretary of rural and urban development in AMLO’s cabinet. Cuba’s communists sent gay people to labour camps in the 1960s. Among the governments that took power in the region’s “pink tide” in the 2000s and early 2010s, only Uruguay’s legalised abortion. Nayib Bukele, El Salvador’s left-leaning, hip-hop-loving president-elect, has no plans to un-ban same-sex marriage.
Though conservative on social matters, AMLO is not doctrinaire. He may thus find himself shepherding in more social and environmental change than he had planned. He has given social liberals top jobs. Olga Sánchez Cordero, the interior minister, and Marcelo Ebrard, the foreign minister, are European-style social democrats who grew up in middle-class families in Mexico City. Claudia Sheinbaum, the capital’s new mayor, was an author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change when it won the Nobel peace prize in 2007. Liberals lead both chambers of congress.
Mr Ebrard, who followed AMLO as Mexico City’s mayor in 2006, legalised same-sex marriage and abortion in the city. Last week Ms Sánchez Cordero floated the idea of a national law that would allow abortion-on-demand in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. She has introduced a bill to legalise cannabis for recreational use, which could make Mexico the third country, after Uruguay and Canada, to take that step. In December AMLO mooted the possibility of legalising assisted dying.
Mexico was becoming more liberal before he took office. Fourteen of Mexico’s 31 states already have laws that allow same-sex marriage. As Mexico grows richer, the hold of the Catholic church is likely to weaken, as it has done in Chile. Travel and technology are making younger Mexicans more cosmopolitan.
AMLO may give such trends an extra push by choosing a moderate to be his political heir. (He is due to leave office in 2024.) That would follow the example of Lázaro Cárdenas, a leftist president of the 1930s. Mr Ebrard and Ms Sheinbaum are his mostly likely successors.
But Mexico is still conservative. AMLO’s election victory, after a campaign during which social issues were barely mentioned, did not change that. This month the state of Nuevo León changed its constitution to say that life begins at conception. AMLO remains fixated on making poor Mexicans richer. The irony is that, if he succeeds, he may also make many of them more liberal.