Four years after his inauguration, why is Mexico’s leader still campaigning?

Four years after taking office, Mexico’s populist president seems to have returned to what he does best: firing up his ardent political base.

Although barred by the constitution from running for re-election in 2024, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador appears determined that a successor from his own party carry on the movement that swept him to power in a 2018 landslide.

This week, he provided a stunning show of political force for that movement, drawing hundreds of thousands of supporters out into the streets of Mexico City on Sunday in a march which culminated in a speech in the capital’s central Zócalo plaza.

“It’s been four years, and the people wanted to express it,” the president, popularly known as Amlo, said at a news conference on Monday. “We are not one, we are not 100 – count us well.”

But the show of political strength came at a critical time for López Obrador and his government, which is facing increasing criticism from human rights groups and the opposition, as well as infighting within the governing Morena party.

And although he maintains a high approval rating, it remains to be seen whether his eventual successor can inspire a similar fervor to Amlo, one of the most popular, and polarizing, politicians in Mexican history.

For the first time since he took office, the Mexican opposition seems to have finally found its footing after years in disarray, coalescing against Amlo’s proposal to reform the country’s electoral system, which critics have labeled an attack on Mexico’s democracy.

Earlier last month, tens of thousands of people marched through Mexico City in defense of the National Electoral Institute, arguably the largest opposition march since the president took office, and a stinging rebuke to his claims that his adversaries are a small elite.

“It was a clear sign that the opposition, though fragmented, is there,” said Tony Payan, a Mexico expert at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. “People have a very clear idea of the fact that the country must have an election system that is free and fair.”

The president and his supporters claimed that Sunday’s march was not a direct response to the opposition protest, but a celebration of his achievements in office.

“The purpose was to celebrate the four years of government,” said Allan Pozos, who helped mobilize marchers from the Morena stronghold of Iztapalapa, a working-class neighborhood in Mexico City. “Not to confront the right, but to give a message that we’re here, that we’re happy with the government we have.”

The march had a carnival atmosphere, with supporters cheering for the president, mariachi bands serenading the crowd, and López Obrador, dressed in a simple white shirt, at times surrounded by throngs of adoring followers.

But many critics saw it as a blatant political maneuver, particularly given that some of the marchers were reportedly bussed in from across the country by local governments or politicians with the president’s Morena party, despite Amlo’s promise that “not a penny” of public money would be spent on the march.

Elizabeth García Vilchis, the head of social media for the president’s press office, rejected such claims as racist and insulting to Amlo’s supporters, who are mainly among Mexico’s working class.

But for some analysts, the accusations of public money being used to drum up support for the president and his party harkens back to the autocratic days of the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI party, which governed Mexico uninterrupted for 71 years until 2000.

For decades, various presidents from the PRI would bring busloads of people to marches in Mexico City – often with promises of food or money, while also utilizing the country’s powerful unions to increase turnout.

“Morena has taken that part of Mexican political tradition and instead of burying, instead of reforming it, that way of doing politics remains alive,” said Genaro Lozano, a political scientist and columnist for the right-leaning Reforma newspaper. “They promised a different way of doing politics, and I think in that sense they failed.”

Beyond the questionable party politics, however, analysts say the competing marches are a sign of Mexico’s deep polarization that has only increased since López Obrador’s election, a division which the president and his party have sought to foment and, increasingly, exploit.

“In the last few years, Mexico has gone down a road of powerful polarization,” Lozano said. “The strongest cleavage right now in Mexico is not left and right, but rather pro-Amlo and anti-Amlo.”