Mexico’s false messiah

Voters should curb Mexico’s power-hungry president

Andrés Manuel López Obrador pursues ruinous policies by improper means

In a world plagued by authoritarian populists, Mexico’s president has somehow escaped the limelight. 

Liberals furiously condemn the erosion of democratic norms under Hungary’s Viktor Orban, India’s Narendra Modi and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, but barely notice Andrés Manuel López Obrador. 

This is partly because he lacks some of the vices of his populist peers. 

He does not deride gay people, bash Muslims or spur his supporters to torch the Amazon. 

To his credit, he speaks out loudly and often for Mexico’s have-nots, and he is not personally corrupt. 

Nonetheless, he is a danger to Mexican democracy.

Mr López Obrador divides Mexicans into two groups: “the people”, by which he means those who support him; and the elite, whom he denounces, often by name, as crooks and traitors who are to blame for all Mexico’s problems. 

He says he is building a more authentic democracy. 

It is an odd creature. 

He calls a lot of votes, but not always on topics that are best resolved by voting. 

For example, when legal objections are raised to one of his pet projects—moving an airport, building a pipeline, blocking a factory—he calls a referendum. 

He picks a small electorate that he knows will side with him. 

When it does, he declares that the people have spoken. 

He has even called for a national referendum on whether to prosecute five of the six living ex-presidents of Mexico for corruption. 

As a stunt to remind voters of the shortcomings of previous regimes, it is ingenious. 

It is also a mockery of the rule of law.

The president’s scorn for rules is one reason the elections on June 6th matter. 

He is not on the ballot; his single six-year term expires in 2024. 

But the national legislature is up for grabs, as are 15 of 32 governorships, most state assemblies and thousands of local posts.

Voters have a chance to rein in their president by rejecting his party, Morena. 

It is not clear that they will. Most are dissatisfied with the way the country is being run, but 61% approve of Mr López Obrador himself. 

Many feel that he cares about ordinary people, even if he has not materially improved their lives. 

The opposition parties have failed to offer a coherent alternative. 

Morena is slipping in the polls, but may retain its majority in the lower house, with the help of its allies. 

The more levers he controls, the further Mr López Obrador can pursue his plan to transform Mexico.

He has done good things, such as bumping up pensions and subsidising apprenticeships for the young. 

Though a leftist, he has kept spending and debt under control, so Mexico’s credit rating remains tolerably firm. 

But he suffers from what Moisés Naím, a Venezuelan journalist, calls “ideological necrophilia”—a love of ideas that have been tried and proved not to work.

He has fond memories of the 1970s, when a government-owned oil monopoly spread largesse around his home state. 

He is trying to recreate something similar, by all but banning private investment in hydrocarbons and forcing the grid to buy power from state sources first, no matter how costly and filthy they are. 

He likes railways, so he is ploughing $7bn into a diesel-burning boondoggle in his home region. 

Frustrated with officials who fuss about rules and putting contracts out to tender, he enlists the army to build his railway, run ports and fight crime. 

In other countries, inviting the men with guns to handle huge sums of public money with scant supervision has proved catastrophic, as any Egyptian or Pakistani could warn him. 

But Mr López Obrador is notorious for not listening to advice. 

His catchphrase in cabinet meetings is “Cállate!” (Shut up).

His disdain for expertise has made government less competent. 

His tree-planting scheme has encouraged farmers to chop down old trees so as to be paid to plant new ones. 

His policy of “hugs, not bullets” for gangsters has failed to reduce a stratospheric murder rate. 

For all his railing against graft, Mexicans report as many demands for bribes from officials as before.

He was woefully slow to respond to covid-19 and spent far too little on cushioning its economic effects. 

According to The Economist’s estimates, Mexico has suffered 477,000 excess deaths from the pandemic, one of the worst rates in the world; and its gdp shrank by 8.5% last year. 

The country should be poised for galloping growth. 

Multinationals are eager to diversify their supply chains away from China, and Mexico is a manufacturing hub next to the United States, which is entering a stimulus-stoked post-covid boom. 

Yet investors are wary.

They fear the uncertainty of rule by presidential whimsy. 

Mr López Obrador is undermining checks on his power. 

He leans on advertisers not to support fault-finding media. 

He cuts the budgets of watchdogs, or stuffs them with his supporters. 

Last week he said he would replace the central-bank governor with someone who favours “a moral economy”. 

He has threatened the body that runs elections.

The next three years will determine the depth and duration of the damage he does to Mexico and its democracy. 

He is barred from seeking re-election, but is trying illegally to extend the term of a friendly supreme-court judge. 

Critics fear he wants to set a precedent for himself. Mexico’s institutions are strong, but may buckle under sustained assault by a zealot with popular support. 

The country escaped de facto one-party rule in 2000. 

Given the risk, voters on June 6th should support whichever opposition party is best placed to win, wherever they live. 

The opposition parties should work together to restrain the president.

Learn from your mistakes

They should learn from him, too. 

He is popular partly because they did a poor job of helping those left behind during the long boom that followed economic liberalisation in the 1980s; and also because much of the ruling class really is corrupt. 

Mr López Obrador’s ad hoc, lawless approach has not made Mexico cleaner, but he has highlighted the need for a clean-up.

The United States needs to pay attention. 

Donald Trump did not care about Mexican democracy. 

President Joe Biden should make clear that he does. 

He must be tactful: Mexicans are understandably allergic to being pushed around by their big neighbour. 

But America ought not to turn a blind eye to creeping authoritarianism in its backyard. 

As well as sending vaccines, unconditionally, Mr Biden should send quiet warnings.

Vaccines and the West’s Credibility Crisis

Trust is a precious commodity. By failing to do more to help the rest of the world get vaccinated as quickly as possible, Western advanced economies are squandering their most important resource and jeopardizing the international system upon which their prosperity is based.

Mohamed A. El-Erian

CAMBRIDGE – The proper functioning of any interconnected economic system depends on trust. 

And a global system that has been designed by advanced economies requires a significant level of buy-in from the developing world. 

Both become even more important as more developing economies, led by China, gain systemic importance.

With the world trying to recover from the massive economic shock brought by COVID-19, the mishandling of the global vaccine rollout has weakened trust in the international system that emerged after World War II.

Combined with memories of the 2008 global financial crisis, which originated in the advanced economies, today’s failures are reinforcing suspicions among some countries that the international order may no longer be fit for purpose. 

The West, in particular, must take these concerns seriously. 

With no other multilateral system to replace the current one, the only alternative is a scenario of global fragmentation and rising economic, social, and political tensions.

Although the United Kingdom has been ahead of most other countries in vaccinating its population, its struggle to hold down infections associated with the new B.1.617.2 variant from India serves as a timely reminder that no one is safe until everyone is. 

As former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown notes, whereas “nearly half of US and UK citizens have now received at least one” dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, that figure drops to 11% India. 

In Sub-Saharan Africa, barely 1% of the population has received a single dose.

While country-specific problems have contributed to mismanaged and inefficient vaccine deployment in some developing economies, the real issue has been insufficient supplies. 

As the United Nations pointed out in March, just “ten rich countries … possess nearly 80% of all COVID-19 vaccines.” 

That has allowed them to start vaccinating even low-vulnerability segments of their population – including children as young as 12 – while billions of people in the developing world remain totally unprotected. 

The International Monetary Fund estimates that countries with large vaccine inventories could donate one billion doses in 2021 without undermining their domestic vaccination priorities.

Moreover, several advanced economies have accumulated massive vaccine surpluses as they plan for a round of boosters in the fall. 

And insufficient funding for COVAX, the international community’s facility to ensure equitable global access to vaccines, further underscores their hesitancy in helping the rest of the world. 

But this is not just a moral and ethical failure; it is also a practical one. 

According to IMF research, an additional $50 billion in funding for global vaccination efforts would yield $9 trillion in economic benefits.

The longer the global vaccine rollout stumbles, the greater the long-term damage to an already-stressed international system. 

Designed nearly 80 years ago, that system is centered on advanced economies that historically have provided key “public goods,” such as a stable international reserve currency (the US dollar) and significant funding for multilateral institutions. 

In exchange for these contributions, advanced economies have enjoyed enormous privileges, including a de facto veto in matters of global governance, currency seigniorage, and lower everyday funding costs (by serving as a destination for others’ savings).

Yet while the postwar international system grants the advanced economies disproportionate influence in global affairs, its credibility and basic functioning ultimately depend on whether its stewards conduct themselves responsibly. 

The 2008 financial crisis suggested that they had not done so, and the rich world’s prolonged and excessive reliance on a policy mix over-dependent on monetary policy has since compounded the damage to their credibility.

Against this backdrop, the unbalanced, unfair, and inefficient vaccine rollout could strike a huge blow to the system’s long-term viability. 

That would certainly suit China. 

With its growing economic power and global reach, it has eagerly been challenging the legitimacy and appeal of the Western-dominated order, which it describes as unreliable and dependent on asymmetrical relations vis-à-vis developing countries.

But because one cannot replace something with nothing, the result has been the slow but consistent evolution of a kind of hybrid system. 

The postwar system remains in place, but its dominance is being gradually eroded by the proliferation of arrangements that bypass its core. 

Examples include new multilateral institutions (such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank), new regional plans (notably China’s Belt and Road Initiative), and new bilateral trade and investment deals.

Owing to these developments, the overall operation of the global economy has been weakened, with significant consequences for all. 

And the longer that vaccination lags in many parts of the developing world, the more pressure vaccinated countries will feel to adopt a bunker mindset. 

As the international system fragments, the less stable it will become, reducing the prospects for the kind of synchronized global growth needed to enhance individual countries’ performance. 

Moreover, as trust in the system continues to erode, advanced economies will face additional national-security challenges.

Trust is a precious commodity: it is hard to establish, easily eroded, and exceedingly difficult to regain. 

While far from perfect, the current international order is better than any of the alternatives, and still eminently reformable. 

Advanced economies must not jeopardize it by dragging their feet in the global vaccination effort.

Mohamed A. El-Erian, President of Queens’ College, University of Cambridge, is a former chairman of US President Barack Obama’s Global Development Council. He was named one of Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers four years running. He is the author of two New York Times bestsellers, including most recently The Only Game in Town: Central Banks, Instability, and Avoiding the Next Collapse. 

Covid’s Deadliest Phase May Be Here Soon

By Zeynep Tufekci

     Illustration by Arsh Raziuddin/The New York Times; photographs via Getty

If world leaders don’t act now, the end of the Covid pandemic may come with a horrible form of herd immunity, as more transmissible variants that are taking hold around the world kill millions.

There’s troubling new evidence that the B.1.617.2 variant, first identified in India, could be far more transmissible than even the B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in Britain, which contributed to some of the deadliest surges around the world.

In countries with widespread vaccination, like the United States and Britain, we can expect that Covid cases, hospitalizations and deaths will continue to decline or stay low, especially because lab tests and real world experience show that vaccines appear to defend recipients well against the severe effects of both variants.

For much of the rest of the world, though, this even more transmissible new variant could be catastrophic.

The evidence is not yet conclusive because the data is preliminary and figuring out if a variant is more transmissible isn’t easy. 

It could be spreading rapidly in an area because of chance. 

Maybe it got there before other variants and found a susceptible population, or got lucky and seeded a mega-cluster. 

If a variant is seen more frequently in a country’s genomic databases it could just be because travelers, who are often tested more routinely, are bringing it in from another country where it is already dominant.

One key measure that’s been used in previous outbreaks to figure out if a variant was more transmissible was to look at “secondary attack rates” in non-travel settings — how many people who come into close contact with an infected person get the virus themselves. 

The greater the number of these contacts getting the virus, on average, the greater the likelihood that a variant’s transmissibility is greater.

Data on secondary attack rates released on Saturday by a British public health agency similar to our own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that this variant first seen in India may be substantially more transmissible among close contacts than even the already highly transmissible B.1.1.7. 

A report published by the same agency on Thursday further supports last week’s findings. 

It was just such early data that raised alarms about B.1.1.7, with later information confirming those early fears.

Adam Kucharski, an epidemiologist with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, also told me that the faster spread in areas of Britain with higher levels of the variant suggests it has higher transmissibility. 

This point seems to be backed up by the terrible outbreaks in India and neighboring Nepal, where it is also widespread. 

Given how limited genetic identification is in those countries, the data from Britain is particularly useful for assessing the risk.

A variant with higher transmissibility is a huge danger to people without immunity either from vaccination or prior infection, even if the variant is no more deadly than previous versions of the virus. 

Residents of countries like Taiwan or Vietnam that had almost completely kept out the pandemic, and countries like India and Nepal that had fared relatively well until recently, have fairly little immunity, and are largely unvaccinated. 

A more transmissible variant can burn through such an immunologically naïve population very fast.

Increased transmissibility is an exponential threat. 

If a virus that could previously infect three people on average can now infect four, it looks like a small increase. 

Yet if you start with just two infected people in both scenarios, just 10 iterations later, the former will have caused about 40,000 cases while the latter will be more than 524,000, a nearly 13-fold difference.

Morally and practically, this emergency demands immediate action: widespread vaccination of those most vulnerable where the threat is greatest.

Waiving vaccine patents is fine, but unless it’s tied to a process that actually increases the supply of vaccines, it’s a little bit more than expressing thoughts and prayers after a tragedy. 

Officials from all nations that produce vaccines need to gather for an emergency meeting immediately to decide how to commandeer whatever excess capacity they have to produce more, through whatever means necessary. 

Because of the threat of increased transmissibility, and since the evidence at hand indicates that all of the vaccines, even the Chinese and Russian versions, appear to be highly effective against severe disease or worse, the focus should be on manufacturing and distributing the highest number of doses possible as fast as possible.

If the choice is between no vaccine and any vaccine, the precedence should go to whatever can be manufactured fastest, regardless of patents, nation of origin, or countries prioritizing their allies or wannabe allies.

Vaccine supplies need to be diverted now to where the crisis is the worst, if necessary away from the wealthy countries that have purchased most of the supply. 

It is, of course, understandable that every nation wants to vaccinate its own first, but a country with high levels of vaccination, especially among its more vulnerable populations, can hold things off, especially if they also had big outbreaks before. 

In addition, excess stockpiles can go where they are needed without even slowing down existing vaccination programs.

Right now, Covax, the global alliance for vaccine equity, does not have enough vaccines to distribute, and what supply it does get is allocated according to national population, not the seriousness of outbreaks. 

This needs to change. 

Our fire department needs more water, and should direct it to where the fire is burning, not to every house on the street.

The responses could vary. 

The elderly and health care workers could be prioritized wherever a crisis is worst. 

Dose-sparing strategies could be applied — delaying boosters has been successful in Britain and Canada when they faced surges. 

The details can be decided by the global health authorities.

If there is a reasonable possibility that the world faces a mounting threat, it’s best to intervene as early and aggressively as possible, because even a few weeks of delay could make a huge difference. 

Waiting for definitive evidence of transmissibility could allow the variant to rampage — besides, if fears prove unfounded then the world would still be better off for being more vaccinated. 

And any solution, even if imperfect, is better than waiting for the perfect setup or the most conclusive evidence.

As Dr. Kucharski told me, it’s now entirely possible that most Covid deaths could occur after there are enough vaccines to protect those most at risk globally. 

Britain had more daily Covid-related deaths during the surge involving B.1.1.7 than in the first wave, when there was less understanding of how to treat the disease and far fewer therapeutics that later helped cut mortality rates. 

Even after the vaccination campaign began, B.1.1.7 kept spreading rapidly among the unvaccinated. 

A similar pattern was observed in much of Eastern Europe as well.

Even if it is determined the transmissibility of B.1.617.2 isn’t as bad as feared, the emergency is still there.

The kind of catastrophic outbreak like the one in India can cause many more needless deaths simply by overwhelming our resources. 

Already, there are reports that countries ranging from Nepal to Philippines to South Africa to Nigeria may face supplemental oxygen shortages of the kind seen in India. 

This pathogen has one fatality rate when oxygen is available as a therapy and one when it is not, and it would be an unspeakable tragedy to suffer the latter in the second year of the pandemic.

Like all pandemics, this one will end either with millions — maybe billions — being infected or being vaccinated. 

This time, world leaders have a choice, but little time to make that choice before it is made for them.

Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, the author of “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest” and a contributing Opinion writer.