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Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador waves as he arrives at the swearing-in ceremony for Mayor-elect Claudia Sheinbaum in Mexico City on Dec. 5, 2018.

Moises Castillo/The Associated Press

You will be seeing a lot of Mexico’s new left-wing President in the next years. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador likes to get noticed, usually with big gestures that tend to defy expectations.

Indeed, in the week since his inauguration in Mexico City’s Zocalo, Mr. Lopez Obrador has managed to confound both his ultraloyal followers and his fearful critics.

Mexico, unlike any other Latin American country, has never had a socialist government – a fact that has created a huge popular appetite for Mr. Lopez Obrador’s appeals to dramatic change and economic justice, but also fears that he could collapse Mexico’s hopeful economy if he follows through on speeches (mostly made early in the campaign) suggesting he’d end NAFTA, re-nationalize the oil industry and shift to an isolated economy such as Cuba’s or Venezuela’s.

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He showed his populist side this week by dismissing the fripperies of presidential office including mansions, limousines and immunity from prosecution, by giving a fiery anti-capitalist speech and by welcoming a series of referendums. But he has also reassured Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump that he will stick with NAFTA, he has promised central-bank independence and a private-sector role in energy, he has pledged a free-trade zone with low corporate taxes along the border.

To understand Mr. Lopez Obrador, it’s worth looking at his only other governing experience – his eventful five-year term as mayor of the 20 million citizens of Mexico City and its surrounding region.

The extraordinarily hard-working Mr. Lopez Obrador transformed both the appearance and the inner workings of North America’s largest city, changing its historic centre from a hodgepodge of private buildings into an attractive museum district, driving new transit lines and smog-spewing double-decker freeways through the city, filling former slums with cultural institutions and universities and handing out a lot of cash to a lot of poor and elderly people, for which they reciprocated with votes.

His Mexico City political machine, often likened to New York’s 19th-century Tammany Hall Democrats, became the key alternative to Mexico’s other political behemoth.

For 77 of the past 89 years, Mexico has been governed by the all-powerful Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) – a paternalistic, corruption-riddled party that has been far more institutional than revolutionary, most often as a de facto dictatorship. From 2000 to 2012, a conservative opposition party governed, and then the PRI returned under Enrique Pena Nieto, whose florid corruption, bumbling mismanagement of crime and poverty crises and bizarre kowtowing to Donald Trump virtually guaranteed Mr. Lopez Obrador the presidency.

It was in Mexico City that Mr. Lopez Obrador turned his decades of experience within the PRI into a new kind of big-party politics. And it is from that Mexico City experience that we can learn four important lessons about his approach to government.

First, he is not especially attached to democratic institutions. He often bypassed Mexico City’s legislature and governed by decree; he sometimes ignored courts and oversight bodies. As President, he has borrowed his favourite tool – the rubber-stamp referendum, in which citizens are asked to approve his favoured policies in optimistically crafted language (they always vote Yes), thus sidestepping democratic process. His party plans to hold more.

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Second, he is extraordinarily effective at getting resources to the poor – though with their votes in mind. He turned Mexico City into a municipal welfare state, to the great benefit of many. But it was his political operatives who oversaw it. “Citizens are attracted to the party by the ‘goodies’ its members hand out,” Concordia University political scientist Tina Hilgers wrote in a 2005 study. “Social housing, subsidies for senior citizens, school supplies for children, computers for schools, scholarships, food packages, and t-shirts are among the resources used by [Mr. Obrador’s] politicians and caudillos [operatives] to bring in votes.”

Third, he is not a pacifist. The city’s poor and marginalized residents told Mr. Lopez Obrador they wanted him to be tough on crime, and he delivered. He brought former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani (not yet a Trump acolyte, but already a notorious right-winger) to his city to set up a brutal zero-tolerance policing program, which he combined with neighbourhood policing. As President, he has said he’ll continue to use the military to crack down on crime and drugs, in defiance of supreme-court orders.

Fourth, his far-left rhetoric disguises an enthusiasm for working with the private sector. His rebuilding of central Mexico City, his big housing and transit projects were done with the enthusiastic encouragement of business leaders, including billionaire Carlos Slim, to enter lucrative public-private partnerships – because, it seems, they got things done in ways the public sector didn’t.

In other words, Mexico will be governed by a unique figure, a left-wing politician who deeply distrusts the Mexican state. It’s worth watching closely.

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