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Mexico's "Charismatic Democracy" Under Andrés Manuel López Obrador

Democracy
Institutions
Latin America
Political Leadership
Populism
Mobilisation
Ramón Centeno
Universidad de Sonora
Rebecka Villanueva Ulfgard
Instituto Mora

Abstract

In this paper, we argue that Mexico under president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is a case of “charismatic democracy”, revolving around a particular charismatic and personalized presidential style. In our examination of Mexico's "charismatic democracy" we draw on the works by O'Donnell ('delegative democracy') and Linz and Stepan's seminal work Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation. Following the latter, we assess the Mexican case along four dimensions: leadership, ideology, pluralism, and mobilization. Through this lens, we understand charismatic democracy as a disaggregation of the more all-encompassing concept of populism. As modern democracy is not expected to rely on charismatic leadership, its emergence results in (a) the formation of an ideology claiming grand historical change, (b) a reduction of institutional pluralism, and (c) a reliance on popular mobilization. We argue that this ‘charismatic turn’ is a symptom of an ongoing crisis for Mexico's rather young democracy, trapped between political institutions vulnerable to abuses of power, and the accumulation of grievances of neoliberal rule. The following questions guide our research: Is AMLO’s populist leadership style akin to “mobilizational” presidentialism in that AMLO has invested significantly – ever since the presidential campaign in 2018 – in touring the country and approaching people directly? Affirmatively, this strategy has granted AMLO with a certain personal legitimacy; attached to the person rather than the office holder. What are the potential perils of “charismatic democracy” for Mexico in terms of (a) legitimacy of democratic rule; (b) institutional pluralism, and (c) mobilization around the (State) leader? We conclude that populism in Mexico is at an early stage that precludes diagnosing whether this charismatic democracy is already in transition to (populist) authoritarian rule, as in Venezuela. However, we contend that the greater focus on vertical accountability at the expense of horizontal accountability is hypertrophying the weight of the presidency in an already presidential system, thus unlocking a perilous path.