Mexicans go AMLO

The new President overcomes ‘Russian interference’ and the ‘Venezuela effect’

Andrea Rodriguez Soriano

Government and governance | The World

6 July 2018

Andrés Manuel López Obrador has swept aside fake news and rumours of foreign interference to win with a campaign squarely focused on fighting ubiquitous corruption, Andrea Soriano writes.

The 2017-2018 electoral cycle in Mexico, which culminated on 1 July, was an impressive exercise marked by the historical triumph of leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (popularly known as AMLO). Scoring a landslide victory with 53 per cent of the popular vote, the new President’s Morena party also secured majorities in the Congress and Senate despite a very divisive campaign.

This was the biggest election in Mexico’s history, with an electoral roll of 89.3 million voters – equivalent to the population of 10 neighbouring Latin-American countries. More than 18,000 local and federal representatives were up for election, including the President, 128 Senators and 500 members Congress; with 30 of 32 states also holding local elections.

Due to a lack of press freedom and access to accurate information, Mexican elections have historically been characterised by popular rumours based on half-truths. Past rumours have included vote buying and the alleged crimes of candidates. A prominent example was outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto being accused of killing his first wife when he ran at the 2012 election.

The use of social media during this election increased the risk of dividing society and causing further confusion. A great number of fake news reports appeared from websites with similar names to reputable newspapers, as was the case with El Universal newspaper and the fictitious news site ‘elruinaversal.com’, which has been shared many times on social media.

A common rumour is that AMLO received support from Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, just as in previous elections AMLO was linked to then President Hugo Chavez.

More on this: Social or anti-social media?

This message was mainly directed at the middle class, which has access to social media such as Facebook and Whatsapp. Most media outlets have dismissed this story as Maduro did not support any candidate. However, CNN en español and El Heraldo de Mexico newspaper published opinion pieces arguing that Mexico will suffer an economic and political crisis such as that of Venezuela if AMLO was elected due to his similarities with Venezuelan leaders.

Another rumour doing the rounds was the possibility of Russian interference in the presidential election. It started in January when US National Security Advisor HR McMaster declared there was evidence of Russia meddling in the Mexican election, without giving any evidence. His comments followed those of former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in February asking the Mexican Government to “pay attention” to possible Russian interference.

According to this rumour, AMLO was Russia’s ‘preferred man’ and Russia could possibly hack into the system of the National Electoral Institute in order to give AMLO the presidency. The Institute declared it is completely protected against any hacking and experts consider rigging the whole election would be impossible given that the counting process is done by hand in each polling centre.

Another story causing general hilarity came from a Facebook site that claimed that the Russian Government and AMLO made an agreement to promote marriage between Russian women and Mexican men.

Possibly more damaging has been the link made between AMLO’s supporter Professor John Ackerman and RT, the Russian news network, reported by the Washington Post. Ackerman is a commentator for the news agency and his wife Dr Irma Eréndira Sandoval is set to occupy a position in AMLO’s government. Although RT is funded by the Kremlin, its reported links to Ackerman and Sandoval seem oversimplified.

So far, there has been no incontrovertible proof of Russian interference.

More on this: Social media set to disrupt Russia's fake news

Nevertheless, manipulation of information remains a possibility and the use of Russia’s disruptive model to leverage social division could still have been copied by other local actors during this election. A recent study from by the Botometer project found that an average of 53 per cent of the presidential candidates’ followers on Twitter were bots – AMLO having the highest percentage.

So misinformation and foreign interference do represent potential new challenges for AMLO’s government as it begins to heal social divisions in the country. Equally important will be protecting freedom of the press, for example by supporting web portals such as verificado.mx, a coalition of media outlets with a commitment to disclose fake news and give access to accurate information to a wider spectrum of people.

However, Obrador’s incoming government faces far greater challenges. Years of drug wars and escalating poverty have left Mexico with a weakened social fabric and a political system marred by rampant corruption and a lack of the rule of law. The country scores just 29 out of 100 points in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index; one out of two people report having to pay a bribe when using public services.

Along with inequality, combating corruption and insecurity were the main issues for voters in this election.

More on this: Tackling corruption

Many Mexican candidates risk more than just their public reputation or career. More than 130 candidates and political workers have been killed, making this the most violent election in Mexican history. The violence is mainly the consequence of years of social deterioration and the so-called ‘narcopolítica’, with drug cartels keeping control of local governments through corruption, widespread poverty and violence.

AMLO boosted his popularity with a campaign platform to fight corruption and drug violence. He has estimated that corruption costs the Mexican economy around $500 billion Mexican pesos (about AUD$30 billion) every year. Whether he succeeds will determine the future of a bruised and suffering country.

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