Is this Mexico's next president?

Andrés Manuel López Obrador may take Mexico’s July 1 election — he has polled far ahead of his competitors for months. David Agren reports on what the left-wing, populist candidate stands for and what’s in store for the country.

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June 28, 2018
Supporters attend the closing campaign rally of Mexican presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at the Azteca stadium, in Mexico City, June 27, 2018. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

One day not too long ago — an afternoon in late April, when Mexico’s presidential election campaign was in full swing — Pedro Soria took time away from his plumbing business to attend a political rally in the town plaza of Atizapán de Zaragoza, a northern Mexico City suburb. He brought a long list of grievances to the campaign event headlined by populist presidential frontrunner Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Soria raged to a journalist and a crowd of bystanders about corruption, especially in Mexico state, which surrounds Mexico City on three sides and has long been a bastion of the country’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Crime has reached such alarming rates that Soria said he’d been routinely robbed while riding public transportation. Others lowered their voices, speaking of abuses suffered at the hands of the police  — such as being shaken down for bribes — who kept an eye on activities that day from afar.

Then there is what Soria considers a stagnant economic situation, in which prices rise and salaries stagnate. He pulled out an orange 100-peso note (worth about $6.25) to make his point. “In 2001, with 100 pesos, we could eat for a week with dignity,” said Soria, a father of two children aged 16 and 24. “How far does that money go now? Three or four [bus] fares and that’s it.”

Soria sees hope in the form of López Obrador, a left-wing populist who promises to cut poverty, combat crime and corruption and return Mexico to robust economic growth.

Mexicans seem to share Soria’s fatigue with the status quo — and his hope for change. A survey in a leading newspaper Reforma shows a staggering 79 percent of Mexicans wanting a “change in the party in government,” while 64 percent say their personal economic situation has deteriorated in recent years and 82 percent think Mexico’s security situation has worsened.

Most polls put López Obrador — commonly called AMLO — 20 points ahead. A sense of inevitability has enveloped the race as the July 1 election nears, with speculation focusing less on whether AMLO will win the presidency on his third attempt and more on his electoral coalition possibly claiming Congressional majorities.

Third time a charm?

The slow-speaking, silver-haired 64-year-old from swampy Tabasco state in Mexico’s southeast got his political start as a local delegate for the National Indigenous Institute. For five years he lived in a Chontal Maya community, rather than a posh neighbourhood in the state capital. In the early 1980s, he led the state-level PRI and butted heads with mayors for trying to implement a system of citizen auditing. He lost, and left the party as a left-wing coalition challenged for the presidency in 1988.

After losing a scandalous election for governor in 1994, in which his opponent spent more than 50 times the legal limit, he led protest marches to Mexico City — where he would later relocate and become mayor in 2000.

He presided over a popular and populist administration in the capital — so popular his preferred candidates have won electoral landslides ever since. López Obrador introduced stipends for seniors and single mothers, subsidized subway fares and constructed elevated freeways. Opponents panned it as “populism,” but promptly copied it — “badly,” according to López Obrador.

He has subsequently cut a controversial course through Mexican politics, especially when he refused to accept the results of a close 2006 election and shut down parts of central Mexico City with protests for six weeks. He cried foul again in 2012 after Enrique Peña Nieto — the current president — led the PRI back to power on an agenda of economic reforms and modernizing Mexico.

López Obrador’s history of convening protests and willingness to put issues to plebiscites disquiets opponents. “Andrés Manuel has the advantage of being able to cast aside what’s legal [in order to convene] the masses,” said Gerardo Priego, a former regional National Action Party (PAN) candidate in Tabasco, who professes a personal fondness for AMLO in spite of fundamental differences (support rarely seen when it comes to AMLO’s opponents).

AMLO
Leftist frontrunner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) is greeted by supporters during a campaign rally in Mexico City, May 24, 2018. REUTERS/Ginnette Riquelme

López Obrador’s time out of elected office and 12 years of building a political movement appears set to pay dividends.

He has quixotically circled the country since 2006, twice visiting each of Mexico’s more than 2,400 municipalities. He has also overcome irrelevance, having been written off and mocked as a provincial hick for his costeño accent and for not speaking English. 

López Obrador has been ignored often, and at other times been the subject of unhinged attacks in publications plied with government advertising. His tone has ranged from angry to loving and quasi-religious to statesman-like. He has railed against the “neoliberal” policies guiding the country’s economic geopolitics for the past quarter century, condemned his opponents as the “mafia in power” and compared opening the oil industry to treason.

His presidential aspirations this time around seem less tied to past success or policy proposals. López Obrador’s hopes are riding on discontent with the status quo, Peña Nieto’s unpopularity and anger at elites, who “haven’t done any good, even in the most minimum of terms,” Federico Estévez, a political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, said in an interview.

“His exclusion from government and this continual drumbeat of business and political criticism of him have positioned him to be a credible alternative, even if not one with a lot of [specifics],” Estévez said.

“It’s hard to build up fear for a guy who hasn’t affected the country at large for the worse.”

López Obrador’s proximity to power spooks economic and political elites, who accuse him of wanting to take Mexico down the same disastrous path as Venezuela — charges AMLO discards.

Such accusations stuck to López Obrador in the past. Attack ads calling him “a danger for Mexico” and comparing him to the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez sunk his 2006 campaign.

But such scare tactics are barely registering in 2018 as the murder rate races past grim milestones, the decade-long drug war drags on, corruption scandals corrode the credibility of the political class and the economy expands at too slow a pace for an impatient population.

“Fear has diminished,” Diego Petersen Farah, a columnist at the Guadalajara newspaper El Informador, said in an interview. “There’s now more fatigue than fear.”

Additionally, he says, “Andrés has also sent clear signals of being a conservative candidate.” This is something Petersen Farah attributes to López Obrador attracting support in conservative, Catholic corners of the country, especially in the west.

Pitching as a moderate

López Obrador speaks of values and faith — previously verboten in Mexican politics as church and state were estranged until 1992 and politicians avoided public appearances with high-ranking members of the clergy.

He has promoted the creation of a “moral constitution,” christened his party MORENA (another name for the country’s patroness, Our Lady of Guadalupe) and formed an electoral alliance with the Social Encounter Party (PES) — which was founded by Evangelical pastors, pushes socially conservative policies and whose leader called same-sex marriages in Mexico City “a fad.”

His advisors defend López Obrador’s deal with PES (which projections show could claim 10 percent of the seats in the lower house of Congress) as a pragmatic attempt to create a big-tent party — so big that it can include everyone from religious conservatives to two former presidents of the right-leaning PAN to members of Mexico’s LGBTQ community.

“If you don’t add, you’ll never get there,” Olga Sánchez Cordero, a former Supreme Court justice tapped as interior minister in an AMLO cabinet, said in an interview.

She brushed off suggestions that PES would roll back rights such as same-sex marriage and access to abortion — measures approved in Mexico City and which she ruled as constitutional during her term on the high court — saying, “the laws that are there will remain.”

López Obrador has taken steps to moderate his image on economic issues, too. He campaigned on putting “the poor first” in 2006, but now speaks more to issues aggravating the middle classes, such as corruption and cronyism (accusations of which have been rife during the Peña Nieto administration). López Obrador also supports the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and promises no expropriations or attacks on the business class (members of which he has accused of getting rich off government connections).

“Andrés wants to go ahead with the free trade deal, of course, because it benefits the three countries,” Sánchez said.

Jesús Seade, López Obrador’s proposed lead NAFTA negotiator, told Bloomberg June 26, “fundamentally we are in complete agreement” with the positions of the current negotiating team and that a deal could be achieved in a few months.

"López Obrador's foreign policy will likely return Mexico to the “Estrada Doctrine,” in which Mexico doesn’t opine on the internal affairs of nations — as it has with Venezuela — but expects the same of others.

Pundits — often outside Mexico — have posited López Obrador would usher in an anti-American administration. It’s a charge Sánchez rejects, saying López Obrador admires much about the United States, especially the way businesses and fortunes “are not made in the shade of political power” — a reference to a culture of crony capitalism in Mexico.

But his views of the US are unsurprisingly mixed. He has promised to get along with President Donald Trump, while vigorously defending Mexican migrants. López Obrador has also pledged to not “do the dirty work of any foreign government,” comments made in reference to Mexico detaining and deporting Central American migrants transiting the country.

His foreign policy will likely return Mexico to the “Estrada Doctrine,” in which Mexico doesn’t opine on the internal affairs of nations — as it has with Venezuela — but expects the same of others.

López Obrador has his skeptics, who question his unwillingness to disavow an increasingly tyrannical Venezuelan regime and wonder if he will review oil contracts (the first ones signed under the energy reforms approved in 2013 open up Mexico’s petroleum sector to private players.) The energy reforms excited international investors, but left many Mexicans cold, especially as the government promised people would pay less for petrol (something that hasn’t happened and that López Obrador has capitalized on, promising to freeze prices at the pump).

He has also promised to review a reform in education that subjected teachers to evaluations. López Obrador speaks of making Mexico “self-sufficient,” raising workers’ salaries and bringing back an active role for government in the economy, starting with reviving southern Mexico, where NAFTA had a negligible impact.

López Obrador often stokes nostalgia, too, for the pre-NAFTA Mexico, when the economy was so closed that smuggled candy was sold in transient markets, but the economy grew by six percent annually between 1940 and 1970.

“If it were certain that [NAFTA] only benefitted Mexico, our economy wouldn’t stay stuck and there wouldn’t be immigration,” he said at his campaign kickoff rally in the border city of Ciudad Juárez — rebutting a frequent assertion from Trump, who has been a non-issue in Mexico’s election, in spite of his rude rhetoric.

Critics compare López Obrador with PRI presidents the 1970s, whose populist economic policies led the country to an unpleasant reckoning. López Obrador promises fiscal prudence and has tapped an economic team not known for radicalism. He also may inherit public finances leaving him little room to maneuver.

“He’s going into a first year of government with fairly tight public finances…low growth in revenues for government, [and] a soft ceiling for new debts because Peña Nieto indebted [the country],” said Estévez.

“He has never been future-oriented. It’s always been about solving problems that have come to a boil, that are too intense and been festering,” Estévez added. “You can’t close the economy anymore. The private sector has too much power.”

Still, the lack of details in López Obrador’s policy proposals — such as his idea of offering an amnesty for those in the illegal drugs business — causes disquiet in some circles. Critics condemned it as forgiveness for drug cartel kingpins, killers and kidnappers, but advisors later defended it as an exit from illegality for poor Mexicans trapped in criminal activities, such as growing opium poppies.

Sánchez says the proposed amnesty targets the many Mexicans inadvertently working in the illegal drugs industry in the absence of other economic opportunities: campesinos cultivating opium poppies, mules hauling illegal cargos and kids acting as lookouts.

López Obrador first pitched the amnesty idea in Mexico’s heroin-producing heartland of hyper-violent Guerrero state, but didn’t offer details, leaving it to surrogates to nuance his ideas. It wasn’t the only issue in which his statements were left to others for interpretation.

“He says something, then his advisors say something completely different,” Valeria Moy, director of the think tank México ¿Cómo Vamos?, said in an interview. “So we have no idea what is going to happen.”

Critics also condemn López Obrador as “messianic,” someone promoting the idea that his mere arrival in office will change the country and cure its ills. And MORENA has increasingly attracted politicians with checkered pasts. This doesn’t appear to worry AMLO, who has insisted, “there’s going to be an honest president and therefore the governor and mayors are going to be honest, too.

“We’re going to abolish corruption in the country.”

Many voters seem ready to give López Obrador the benefit of the doubt — such is the desperation.

“Purchasing power has fallen every year since 2009. The minimum wage is in real terms below where it was in 1995. The percentage of people who cannot acquire the basic food basket is much greater than it was in 2005,” Viridiana Ríos, a Mexico scholar at the Wilson Centre in Washington, DC, wrote in the newspaper Excélsior. “There’s nothing left to lose.”