John Gledhill, emeritus professor at Manchester University, says that in winning the presidency of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the National Regeneration Movement have managed to produce more of a tsunami than a landslide. ‘But predicting the likely consequences of this unprecedented national election result is a bit more of a challenge.’

On 1 July Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected president of Mexico with a comfortable majority, securing more than 53 per cent of the vote against three rival candidates – Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), National Action Party (PAN), and Jaime Rodríguez, who ran as an independent.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that had ruled Mexico for an unbroken 70 years before the victory of Vicente Fox of the National Action Party in 2000 was returned to power in 2012. Despite two successive National Action Party (PAN) presidencies, its political machine remained largely intact.

The political clique that had stood behind Peña Nieto, the Atlacomulco group, had managed to fend off the challenge of the new party created by López Obrador, MORENA (the National Regeneration Movement) in the governorship elections held in its bastion, the State of Mexico, as recently as June 2017.

They did this by deploying the same scandalous methods of vote buying that helped bring Peña Nieto to the presidency, along with the same panoply of dirty tricks and social media manipulation that were ranged against López Obrador, [or Amlo as he is best known], yet again in his third run for the presidency.

Yet this time nothing could stop a surging tide of sentiment against the established political class, despite the fact that the PAN, represented by Ricardo Anaya, had allied with the increasingly discredited centre-left party for which AMLO himself had stood as presidential candidate in 2006 and 2012, the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution).

MORENA, founded four years ago as a new vehicle for López Obrador’s presidential ambitions not only captured the presidency of the Mexican republic but will also enjoy a comfortable majority in the congress. With its allies the Labour Party (PT) and Social Encounter Party (PES), the coalition backing López Obrador is expected to secure 312 of the 500 seats in the lower house of congress when the final results are declared, and 70 seats in the Senate.

In both houses, the PAN and its coalition allies will come in a distant second place in terms of representation, with an expected 38 senators and 128 deputies, with the PRI and its allies once again in a very poor third place, with only 20 seats in the Senate and 60 in the lower house.

In purely electoral terms, what López Obrador and MORENA have managed to produce is more of a tsunami than a landslide. But predicting the likely consequences of this unprecedented national election result is a bit more of a challenge.

For many people, including BBC journalists, it seems that López Obrador’s victory is symptomatic of a wider tendency in which ‘populists’ exploit mounting dissatisfaction with the record of established mainstream political parties. On this reading, López Obrador would be a ‘left-wing’ nationalist counterpart to Donald Trump’s ‘right-wing’ expression of the same phenomenon.

The problem with this kind of account is that it abstracts from everything that is specific to different national historical settings. In doing so, it is in danger of jumping to premature and simplistic conclusions about why people voted the way they did (as already demonstrated by more rigorous studies of Trump voters), bearing in mind that abstention rates are relatively high in both Mexico and the USA.

Even more seriously, it is in danger of obscuring the deeper structural conditions and constraints that are likely to shape what López Obrador and his party can do in power. The PRI is hardly a typical ‘mainstream political party’ and the PAN’s 12 years of alternation in power at national level is often seen as a continuation of the same regime with a different face.

Furthermore, as anthropologists never tire of pointing out, Mexican society and politics is regionalised in ways that became even more significant as the old PRI corporatist state that Vargas Llosa once dubbed ‘the perfect dictatorship’ fragmented and ‘feudalised’. A statist economic regime was replaced with a neoliberal economic order through an elite strategy of imposition that had no place for genuine democratisation. Yet the party political system did become more plural and elections as such more competitive.

Many of those who voted for López Obrador and MORENA in these elections are responding to Amlo’s promise to do something about the corruption that has tainted the reputations of all the older political parties, including the PRD. Many recent scandals seem to have demonstrated that corrupt practices cross-cut party boundaries, as exemplified by accusations against former PRD leader Rosario Robles, who became Minister for Social Development in Peña Nieto’s government.

This example might, of course, raise the question of whether Amlo, who started his political career in the PRI and then stood as PRD candidate for the presidency twice, as well as serving as PRD mayor of Mexico City as successor to Robles, will really be able to transform a process that seems to be systemic, even if he is personally honest. That the electorate has given Amlo and MORENA the benefit of the doubt may reflect their even greater desperation about the mounting tide of social violence and the promise of a new economic model that will look more to the interests of the majority than a privileged minority of politically-connected businessmen.

But what kind of economic policy changes can we expect? Sensible opinion inside and outside Mexico has already set aside the black propaganda of Amlo’s opponents and opted for the now longstanding comparison between this Mexican figure and former Brazilian president Lula and the kinds of centre-left policies social democratic policies implemented by the PT governments.

Like Lula, Amlo has sought to calm the fears of Mexican business and ‘the markets’. He offers to put genuinely pro-poor policies at centre stage in a country where neoliberal policies have conspicuously failed to work for a majority of citizens. His ascent to power is probably going to have negative implications for some of the interests enriching themselves through projects such as the construction of Mexico City’s new international airport. Yet it seems very unlikely that the new government will be doing much about divesting members of Mexico’s political and economic elites of the wealth that they have already acquired by dubious means, let alone pushing for another version of ‘twenty-first century socialism’.

What one might hope that the new government will do is focus on improving employment, wages and working conditions in a country that has been at the forefront of a global race to the bottom in this respect. Many will also expect Amlo to put a halt to the social and environmental predation of foreign mining and energy companies and reverse the privatisations and loss of national resource sovereignty associated with a neoliberal economic development model that has increased inequality and created a society in which corruption, criminality and violence have reached unprecedented levels.

But how far he will actually go on resource extraction issues remains to be seen. The new congress is sworn in in September. Amlo takes office as president in December.

This is an edited extract from Professor John Gledhill’s blog. Read the full version here.

Professor John Gledhill is a British social anthropologist who, until his retirement in August 2014, was Max Gluckman Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester.