Mexico City — On July 1, we Mexicans will choose our president for the next six years. It will be no ordinary election. During a period when democracy is being globally threatened, what may be in play is not only a change in government but also a change in the very nature of the liberal democracy that Mexico has built since the outset of the century. It would not be the first time that a democratic election puts democracy to the test. Some of the oldest and most established democracies are now facing that predicament.
A change in government is desirable. The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or P.R.I., deserves to lose the election for having yet again committed and embraced acts of corruption that we all associate with the party’s usual behavior through the 20th century. We who were part of the struggle for democracy during the final decades of the last century know that history well.
In 1928, President Plutarco Elías Calles had declared that the age of revolutionary caudillos was over. Mexico was no longer to be “the country of a single man” but was beginning an “era of institutions.” And the P.R.I. was born. All aspirants to power were to renounce any call to arms in exchange for the possibility of gaining the presidency merely through choice by the departing president. It was an absolute monarchy in republican clothing, with a new king every six years. The term limit was the only limit.
This orderly transfer of power prevailed in Mexico for 70 years. There were other parties, but it was the government that organized the elections, counted the votes and dispensed thousands of federal and local appointments. There was no division of power and little freedom of expression. Although, until the late ’60s, some of the economic and social results of the regime were acceptable, corruption was a constant stain: Every presidential term produced a brood of multimillionaire politicians.
The final decades of the 20th century were scarred by economic and political crises. Liberalization in both areas could not be postponed. And it occurred. In 2000, the victory of Vicente Fox, candidate of the center-right National Action Party, or P.A.N., put an end to the P.R.I.’s long reign. And the democratic experiment that we are living through at present began.
There has been alternation in power. The P.A.N. won again with Felipe Calderón in 2006, and in 2012 the presidential power returned to the P.R.I. with Enrique Peña Nieto. In today’s Mexico, the president is not an absolute monarch nor does he designate his successor. In the Congress, various parties are represented and influential, not only the P.R.I. And the Supreme Court is independent. Key autonomous entities — among them the central bank and the National Electoral Institute — operate professionally. Although it is still somewhat limited, freedom of expression has revealed cases of corruption that would have remained hidden in the 20th century.
Mexico is now a democracy but there is profound discontent with its results. Most Mexicans resent, and rightfully, the meager economic growth of the past few decades and the persistence of poverty and inequality. And four terrible problems complicate this situation: violence, insecurity, impunity and corruption. In the face of this desolating balance sheet, the natural reaction in any democracy is to punish the government in power.
José Antonio Meade, candidate of the P.R.I., has suffered the consequences, falling well behind in the polls. If the present prospects do not change, the fight for the presidency will probably be resolved between Andrés Manuel López Obrador — candidate of the Morena Party, who is leading by 11 points in the polls — and Ricardo Anaya, candidate of the P.A.N. in alliance with the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution and Movimiento Ciudadano. Voters thus far have no way to judge Mr. Anaya because he has not presented a detailed program. The current P.R.I. government has responded to the decline in popularity of its candidate by using the attorney general’s office for political purposes and creating a media campaign against Mr. Anaya for a purported case of graft. If he survives that onslaught and arrives at the formal beginning of the campaign on March 30, he will have shown resolve and may become a competitive candidate.
Other independent candidates will also appear on the ballot but have no real chance of victory. All of them, however, beyond their political differences and except for Mr. López Obrador, share a respect for democracy.
Mr. López Obrador has promised “a change of regime.” Mexican voters should carefully consider what he means, given the precedents.
To begin with, he has said that he does not believe in the existence of Mexican democracy, though it has been in the context of its rules, institutions and freedoms that he has gained the likelihood of power. Nor does he trust in the National Electoral Institute. After losing the 2006 election by a wafer-thin margin (0.58 percent), he declared the election fraudulent and led his followers in occupying the Paseo de la Reforma, the central artery of Mexico City, an action rejected by the public. Defeated by a larger margin (6.63 percent) in 2012, he again claimed fraud. He has continued to show disdain for the institutions of liberal democracy. “To hell with their institutions,” he famously said in 2006 and has not disavowed his assertion. And he recently accused the Supreme Court of being an instrument of the oligarchy used to dominate the people.
There is a genuine linkage of religious fervor (which it seems just to call messianic) between Mr. López Obrador and his followers. Confident in that connection, he has shown an unbending intolerance toward criticism from the media and intellectuals. He has a disqualifying adjective for every group that doubts or opposes him: “fakes,” “conservatives,” “sellouts.” He has called the press “fifí” (bourgeois). He has proved to be incapable of self-criticism and shows a significant tendency to divide the country between “the people” who support him and all the others, who support “the mafia in power.”
Mr. López Obrador trusts so much in the sheer force of his charisma that he has promised to “bring Trump to his senses.” He wants to bring peace to Mexico by exploring the possibility of granting amnesty to drug traffickers and producers. “Only I can fix corruption,” he has stated, and he recently announced that he will call for the drafting of a “moral Constitution” that can inaugurate a “loving republic.”
Mr. López Obrador has surrounded himself with politicians and union leaders formerly of the P.R.I. who were directly involved in gross acts of corruption. He shows a real concern for alleviating poverty though is as yet insufficiently specific in his proposals. Many liberal Mexicans fear that he will reverse the opening to private and foreign investment in Mexican oil production and will choose to protect the domestic economy from international competition.
My own major concern, however, is his attitude toward our still fragile democracy. In his defense, his supporters point to his record as mayor of Mexico City (2000-05), but that position did not remotely involve the power that would accrue to him as president. Were Mr. López Obrador to choose to incite popular mobilizations and plebiscites, his government could call for a Constituent Assembly, and move toward annulling the division of powers and subordinating the Supreme Court and other autonomous institutions after restricting the freedom of the media and silencing any dissenting voices. In such circumstances, Mexico could once again become a monarchy, though messianic and in the style of a caudillo without republican costuming: “the country of a single man.”
It is to be hoped that the legitimate discontent of Mexicans and the urgent need for change does not lead to the demise of our fledgling but genuine democracy.
An earlier version of this article misstated the size of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s loss in the 2006 presidential election. He lost by 0.58 percent of the vote, not 0.62 percent.
Enrique Krauze is a historian, the editor of the literary magazine Letras Libres and the author of “Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America.” This essay was translated by Hank Heifetz from the Spanish.Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for the Opinion Today newsletter.