Executive Summary

Significant electoral-
system progress
Considering Mexico’s experience with military and corporatist autocratic rule, the country has made significant progress over the last three decades with regard to electoral competition and its overall regulatory environment, including market-oriented reforms. Economic and political elites, as well as an increasing share of the middle-class, are technically well qualified, and have gained knowledge on how best to organize the country’s political, economic and social frameworks. Mexican policymakers at both the national and regional levels are often well trained, internationally experienced and regularly equipped with high-level qualifications from high-quality universities. Mexico’s tertiary-education system is increasingly competitive internationally as are several major firms, including an increasing number in the manufacturing sector.
Structural problems that are rare in OECD
At the same time, Mexico suffers from structural problems that are uncommon among most other OECD countries. These challenges mainly relate to the extremely unequal distribution of social benefits and services among the population, such as security and social opportunities. Moreover, the ongoing violent conflicts caused by organized crime has produced a tremendous death toll, and seriously constrains basic human rights. The resulting cleavages between geographic regions, especially north and south Mexico, rural and urban areas, and social classes are among the most pressing barriers to further socioeconomic progress. In addition, uneven state and administrative capacities, both geographically and across policy sectors, often undermines the effective and coherent implementation of policies.
Slow growth over last decade; austerity during pandemic led to serious slump
In comparison to many other OECD countries, Mexico’s GDP growth over the last decade was rather slow, the socioeconomic situation was marked by considerable inflation, the lowest tax-to-GDP ratio of any OECD country, and persistently high levels of poverty and inequality. There is a lack of competition in key domestic sectors, while the labor force remains low-skilled, and the economy is heavily export-oriented and tied completely to the U.S. economy. Severe socioeconomic problems have been aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Poverty rates and inequality have been rising, and the coronavirus pandemic hit the country hard from a public health perspective, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths. Unlike other countries, Mexico responded to the social and economic challenges of the pandemic with a highly conservative spending policy. The primary focus on austerity – perhaps against the background of the severe macroeconomic crises in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s – made the situation worse for many people, and resulted in the worst economic slowdown since the Great Depression.
Focus on multilateral institutions
Internationally, Mexico has been oriented toward multilateral arrangements, in economic and political terms, and is committed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement, and cooperation with international financial institutions. However, Mexico lacks the capacity and influence to promote its own global governance initiatives.
Populist reform
Upon taking office, President López Obrador promised a comprehensive renewal and reform of the country, which suffers from deep-seated structural problems in almost all policy areas. The president called this the “fourth transformation.” Compared to previous administrations, his policy approach can be described as “unorthodox” and populist, as he branded opponents from different camps, regardless of their political orientation, as “elitist” and “neoliberal,” which increased political polarization. Moreover, the government sought to weaken the autonomous and semi-autonomous institutions of the state and civil society.
Rhetorical focus
on the poor
In addition to the effort to bring forward three mega-infrastructure projects – the Tren Maya, the Dos Bocas refinery, and the construction of a new airport outside Mexico City – President López Obrador’s policies focused on a turn toward the lower classes, “putting the poor first.” However, it cannot be said that these people particularly benefited under his presidency.
Systemic violence
and corruption
Neither economically nor politically essential improvements have been in evidence. Instead, next to continuing socioeconomic problems, the security situation continued to deteriorate due to failures in the rule of law, including the persistence of systemic violence and corruption. In particular, the war on drugs has led to a situation of high levels of state fragility and even state failure in several Mexican regions. President López Obrador’s response was to rely on the military, which has further militarized Mexico. In the context of human and civil rights, President López Obrador personally pursued a line of social conservatism, reflected in his difficult relationship with the feminist movement and the abortion issue, while courts and regional governments helped improve the situation for minorities by liberalizing abortion. Furthermore, President López Obrador pursued an anti-progressive policy in the area of the energy transition, relying primarily on fossil fuels and hindering the expansion of renewable energies.
A central problem is the populist and anti-institutionalist approach taken by President López Obrador, which has undermined institutions of horizontal accountability. The Supreme Court, the SNA anti-corruption office and the Ombudsman’s Office have been filled with MORENA affiliates allies, and the still-autonomous INE electoral institute is constantly under attack. Fears at the beginning of President Manuel Andrés López Obrador’s term that there might be an erosion of democracy proved to be correct; President López Obrador is undermining democracy in a populist manner.
Greene, K. (2018). Mexico’s Party System Under Stress. Journal of Democracy 29, 4, October: 31-42.
Sánchez-Talanquer, M./Green, K. (2021). Is Mexico Falling into the Authoritarian Trap? Journal of Democracy 32, 4, October 2021: 56-71
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