To repeat the obvious, Mexico is a big federal country. A gigantic federal country, in fact. Which does not make it an advertisement for federalism. Quite the opposite, actually. For while there are a few success stories about states and cities that have creatively taken on challenges, the general picture of Mexican subnational governments is ugly.
A long time ago, in the last century, I dated someone whose job was to audit the accounts of Mexican county governments and help them spend wisely. She soon adopted an attitude not unlike those you might find among E.R. doctors spending their time to limit the damage caused by human stupidity. Two decades later, the causes of her cynicism have not improved.
Now, that is bad for Mexico, but it also helps explain why I am so sanguine about the arrival of the AMLO administration and the creation of a new national political machine. (Hat tip to Viridiana Ríos for the data, if not the interpretation.)
Consider first that between 2013 and 2017 the federal authorities reported that state governments “lost” about 4.5% of all federal transfers, coming to about $8.8 billion. Poof, lost, or in the words of the federal government, “unable to be accounted for or recovered.” Between you and me, that means stolen.
Of course, not all states are created equal. Veracruz, Michoacán, and Chihuahua between them managed to steal lose more than 10% of the federal money handed to them in 2013-17, accounting for more than half the total theft losses. But it is a rotating field: in 2017 you had Coahuila, Tamaulipas, and Oaxaca leading the list.
One problem is that Mexican electoral law makes machine politics easy: you only need a plurality to win the governorship (or county executive) so a machine only needs to gather a minority of the vote.
But a bigger problem is that the feds only come after subnational governments if they are egregiously corrupt or get into bed with the wrong “cartel,” (e.g., criminal syndicate). The voters may hate you but find it tough to dislodge you; the feds may be relatively honest but lack the resources to police local governments.
Now, the Mexican electorate is in a really anti-incumbent mood. Voters have become so anti-incumbent that even long-lasting bastions flipped to Morena. In Mexico State, for example, the voters abandoned the party en masse, including such bastions as Jilotepec and How much of a PRI bastion was Atlacomulco? Well, you can read the link to see how much the town benefited from its association with the party. Consider also that the faction controlling the state PRI is called the Grupo Atlacomulco. The Grupo Atlacomulco is controlled by members of the Del Mazo clan (which includes President Peña) which originally hails from Atlacomulco. Hell, members of the Del Mazo clan ran Atlacomulco during the Porfiriato. (See page 258, bottom right.) So if there was a town that was going to stick to the PRI, it was Atlacomulco. But it did not.
But does that mean that local machines are finished? Not so fast. Consider that Atlacomulco flipped in the 2018 federal election. In last year’s gubernatorial election the PRI hung on with a hair under 34% of the vote, installing (of course) Alfredo del Mazo as governor.
In short, Mexico is dominated by corrupt machines, even excluding the places where criminal syndicates freely assassinate local officials. These machines are very hard to dislodge and cost the country greatly. They have no been able to lock up federal elections ... but federal elections have done little to reform these local machines.
The implication for AMLO is that Morena may be able to get the support of many of these local machines, peeling them away from the PRI. But that does not mean that Morena will get them to work any better or that controlling these local machines will help it remain in power at the federal level if things do not get better by 2024.
That is not to say that I am fully sanguine about Morena in power. I worry about populism: literally decisions driven by their short-term popularity. And oh boy does the new AMLO administration have a bunch of dumb-but-popular moves ready to go before Congress ...