Here comes AMLO

Alejandro Cegarra / Bloomberg News

Supporters wave flags during the presidential inauguration of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico City Saturday.

MEXICO CITY — A leftist leader vowing to launch a “profound and radical” transformation of Mexico and improve the lives of the poor was sworn in as president on Saturday, opening an uncertain era in a country with deep economic and security ties with the United States.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, 65, known by his initials AMLO, took office as potentially the most powerful Mexican president in decades. Not only did he take 53 percent of the vote in a three-way race, but his party cinched a majority in both houses of Congress and gained control of numerous state legislatures.

“Today, we begin a change of our political regime,” López Obrador told a joint session of Congress, after donning the green, white and red presidential sash. “Starting from now, we will carry out a peaceful, steady political transformation. But it will also be profound and radical.”

López Obrador is the first leftist president since Mexico transitioned from a one-party authoritarian state to a full democracy in 2000. In his speech, he launched a blistering attack on the free-market policies that Mexican governments have followed since the 1980s, saying they had been “a disaster, a calamity” for the country.

He vowed, however, that foreign investment would be safe and benefit from an improved justice system.

López Obrador, a longtime social activist, vowed to fight corruption, which he described as the country’s gravest problem, and slash perks for senior officials. In a sign of his crusade to cut government spending, he declined to occupy Los Pinos, the Mexican White House. On Saturday, the estate opened as a public park, with hundreds of people strolling through the once-secretive grounds and gaping at a palatial residence they had only previously seen on television.

“I feel like I’m dreaming,” said Braulio Melquiades, 69, who owns an auto parts shop in the city. “We are poor people staring at these beautiful things for the first time.”

López Obrador pledged to launch programs benefiting the poor, young and elderly, including increasing social security payments and providing more financial aid to students.

“We will govern for everyone, but we will give preference to the vulnerable and dispossessed,” the new president said.

The election of a leftist “is a historic, very important change for Mexico, and it’s very healthy in a country with the grotesque inequalities that we have,” said Jesús Silva-Herzog Márquez, a prominent political scientist who teaches at the Tecnologico de Monterrey university.

Yet, he and many other Mexicans are unsure whether López Obrador will govern as a practical-minded centrist — as he did as mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005 — or an autocratic populist. While there are moderate, U.S.-educated academics in the new president’s cabinet, analysts say power has shifted from the technocrats who have steered Mexican financial policy since the mid-90s.

In November, the stock market tumbled 14 percent and the peso weakened after López Obrador and his party proposed limits on bank fees and the cancellation of a $13 billion airport in Mexico City that was already under construction. The sell-off occurred as Brazil’s markets soared on the election of a far-right politician.

“There’s just a lot of uncertainty,” said Alfredo Coutiño, director for Latin America at Moody’s Analytics. Investors “don’t know what López Obrador is going to say on Monday, Dec. 3., They don’t know what (his party) Morena is going to propose at the end of the year.”

The president has sought to reassure investors, saying he will respect the independence of the central bank and not expropriate land. López Obrador has also embraced the previous Mexican government’s efforts to preserve much of NAFTA in negotiations with the Trump administration.

Another sign of López Obrador’s pragmatism is his relationship with Washington.

He has developed surprisingly warm relations with President Donald Trump. The new Mexican president said Saturday that since his election in July, “I have been treated with respect by President Donald Trump.” Trump sent his daughter and adviser, Ivanka Trump, as well as Vice President Pence, to the inauguration.

The bilateral relationship, which has been severely strained by Trump’s insulting tweets and insistence on a border wall, may soon be tested. Trump has made the fight against illegal immigration a centerpiece of his presidency and vowed to block thousands of migrants who have traveled to the U.S. border in a caravan from Central America.

López Obrador pledged during his campaign that he would not “do the dirty work of foreign governments” in deterring Central American migrants. But in a significant concession, his administration recently indicated its willingness to host the Central Americans as they await asylum interviews in the United States. The Mexican leader said Saturday that he is in talks with the U.S. and Canadian governments on a plan to increase investment in Central America that is aimed at keeping migrants at home.

López Obrador, the son of a shopkeeper in the southern state of Tabasco, is a longtime opposition politician who ran for president three times. He built his career as an outsider using mass demonstrations to pressure the government on issues like alleged electoral fraud.

He has been highly critical of Mexico’s democratic institutions including courts, the press and the independent electoral authority, and has sought to use informal public referendums to rally support for his plans — raising concerns that he will pursue a personalistic, autocratic form of government.

”It has become abundantly clear that AMLO’s number one priority is to consolidate power,” Duncan Wood, the director of the Mexico Institute at the Washington-based Wilson Center, wrote in a recent issue of Americas Quarterly. The new president, he wrote, feels that democratization and the decentralization of authority have “weakened the government’s ability to bring order to the country” and contributed to soaring rates of violence.” López Obrador has denied seeking to rule as a strongman.

He takes office with a 66 percent favorability rating, according to the newspaper El Financiero — while only 26 percent of Mexicans approve of the performance of outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto.

But support for López Obrador could flag if he can’t fund his ambitious agenda. He has pledged to pay for new social programs by reducing government salaries and fighting corruption.

But many wonder whether that’s enough.

Juan Torres Aburto, 57, traveled from Acapulco to the capital for the inauguration. He was among the crowds at the former presidential estate watching the inauguration on giant outdoor screens.

”He’s saying all the right things, but it’s still a nervous time for me, a moment of uncertainty,” Torres Aburto said.

He pointed at the nearby statues of previous Mexican leaders.

”I voted for them, too, and look at what happened. It was a mess.”