Mexican firebrand on brink of historic win
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s populist socialism is about to sweep away the old order.
Originally published June 28, 2019 - The Times of London.
Standing in Mexico’s biggest football stadium as the crowd roared around him, Javier Perez-Ramirez shook with emotion as he spoke of the candidate promising to transform the country.
“He is a man who has fought for us for so many years,” he said of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the frontrunner in the presidential election. “He inspires trust and hope in the people.”
The 65-year-old metal worker had travelled for an hour and a half to see Mr Lopez Obrador address his final campaign rally. Despite the clouds above he felt more inspired than ever.
“We’re tired of so much oppression, so much hunger and so much corruption,” said Mr Ramirez. “But I feel excited and my hope is growing that Mexico can change.”
This kind of fervor has become common at Mr Lopez Obrador’s rallies, but with days until the election, the excitement around Amlo, as he’s known, has reached fever pitch: as he entered the packed 80,000-seat Azteca stadium, the crowd erupted into a deafening roar which morphed into chants of: “It’s an honour to be with Obrador”.
“Among the people, among all of you, there is a joy that is contagious and vibrant,” Mr Lopez Obrador, 64, told his supporters. “Because both the mood of society and the polls show that we are going to win the election next Sunday.”
Ebullient though he was, his claims were no exaggeration: polls suggest that the left-wing firebrand goes into polling day more than 20 points ahead of his nearest rival, Ricardo Anaya, a conservative. Barring a catastrophe Mexico could soon have its first truly left-wing president in over 70 years.
For his most ardent fans, like Mr Ramirez, it has been a long time coming: Mr Lopez Obrador has been campaigning for president for over 12 years, and lost his 2006 attempt by less than a percentage point amid claims of electoral fraud. Now it seems that his time has finally come.
Tapping into the kind of anti-establishment fervor that vaulted Donald Trump into the White House, the former Mexico City mayor has travelled the country talking about Mexicanismo, his version of “Mexico first,” and promised to fight what he calls a “mafia of power,” the political elite that has embroiled Mexico in one corruption scandal after another.
Given the country’s economic and political woes, it is not difficult to see why his message, honed and drilled into the public for a decade, has finally found its mark.
Although Mexico is among the world’s top 15 richest countries by GDP, more than 40 per cent of its citizens live in poverty. According to Transparency International it is also among the world’s most corrupt countries, ranked behind Ukraine and Honduras.
Violence too has gripped the nation: 25,000 people were murdered last year, the highest rate in 20 years, and during this campaign more than 100 politicians have been assassinated.
The departing president, Enrique Peña Nieto, barred by law from seeking re-election, has done little to persuade voters on the merits of the ruling class.
While his administration has seen unemployment drop to its lowest rate in nearly ten years, economic growth remains sluggish and wages have stagnated: according to a study from National Autonomous University of Mexico (Unam), the purchasing power of average Mexicans fell 11 per cent during Mr Peña Nieto’s term.
Corruption too has plagued his presidency. From awarding the construction of a multi-million dollar mansion for his family to a government contractor, to the unsolved disappearance of 43 students four years ago and links to the Odebrecht bribery scandal that started in Brazil, it is little wonder that Mr Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which held power from 1929 to 2000, has languished in the polls.
Mr Lopez Obrador has vowed to cut his salary as president in half and said that he would remove pensions for former presidents. He has also promised to sell Mr Peña Nieto’s $218 million dollar jet, tapping a deep resonance with Mexicans tired of political excess and government corruption. “The country will be cleansed,” he told the rally.
As well as voting for a new president, Mexico’s 88 million voters will also choose 500 MPs and 128 senators, as well has hundreds of local officials in the country’s biggest election.
John Ackerman, a law professor at Unam and a supporter of Mr Lopez Obrador, said: “The country is foundering. We’re taking on water and if we don’t change course, it’s going to sink completely.”
Mr Ackerman, whose wife has been named as part of Mr Lopez Obrador’s cabinet, says that Amlo is a revolutionary figure, capable of transforming the country’s democracy. “He’s the only hope to break apart the regime of impunity and open the doors to a new era for Mexico.”
Mr Lopez Obrador’s manifesto, which includes proposals to double the minimum wage, subsidise farming and make Mexico less reliant on foreign imports, has found particularly strong support among the working classes who feel forgotten by the political elite.
To his opponents however, these are the promises of a populist determined to create a socialist haven. “His proposals are anachronistic, his nationalism is extreme,” said Jesus Ortega, a former president of the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution which has formed an unlikely alliance with Mr Anaya’s centre-right National Action Party.
“He is promising paradise, but his ideas are absurd. It’s the same thing that happened with Peron in Argentina or Chavez in Venezuela — it’s an autocratic vision of power.”
But for political analysts, Mr Lopez Obrador is neither a dictator in waiting nor a messiah: what has propelled the firebrand towards such a substantial lead in the polls is his promise to rupture the establishment and return Mexico to its leftwing roots after decades of corrupt, right-wing governance.
“In no way do I see him as an incarnation of Chavez,” said Francisco Panizza, professor of Latin American politics at the London School of Economics. “Mexico is simply not Venezuela. What he represents is a rejection of the current political system.”
As far as solving Mexico’s many problems, however, Professor Panizza says that it will take a lot more than effective campaign rhetoric. “There is no magic remedy, no silver bullet,” he said. “These problems have deep local roots. So while some of the proposals may be interesting, for them to be the cure to those issues is much more complicated.”
Still, there is no denying that Mr Lopez Obrador has come a long way since his first 2006 defeat, after which he commanded supporters to block Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma for weeks, a move which angered residents and stoked claims that he was anti-democratic.
Having formed a new party, the National Regeneration Movement (Morena) in 2014, Mr Lopez Obrador has slowly built alliances across the political spectrum, and his proposed cabinet of eight men and eight women includes a former interior minister for the PRI, a former supreme court judge and a US-educated economist as finance minister.
He has also moderated his tone when it comes to the economy, promising to encourage foreign investment and committing to review rather than rescind key economic policies such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and Mr Peña Nieto’s recent energy reforms which ended government monopoly over oil production.
This evolution in his rhetoric has helped win over former critics in the financial world, including Alfonso Romo, a businessman from the northern city of Monterrey who joined the campaign as one of Mr Lopez Obrador’s advisers, and is set to become chief of staff.
“It’s a centrist plan,” said Mr Romo of the campaign’s economic strategy. “If we focus our attention on the parts of the county that have been abandoned, tackle insecurity as he did in Mexico City and create a greater sense of confidence so the private sector will keep investing, we can grow at an unimaginable rate.”
Another key to Mr Lopez Obrador’s success has been a social media strategy that has appealed to younger voters.
His campaign is led by Tatiana Clouthier, known as Aunt Tati to her many fans, has become known for her ability to wield humorous memes and light-hearted tweets in an otherwise divisive and violent campaign.
“People are angry,” she said. “But this campaign has managed transform the anger of the people into hope.”
Whether that hope can be translated into the concrete policy changes that Mexico needs to tackle inequality, corruption and violence, time will tell.
But for now, as far as supporters like Mr Ramirez, the metal worker, are concerned, Mr Lopez Obrador’s victory alone will be reason enough for celebration: “I’m confident that he’s going to win,” he said. “And when he does I will weep with joy.”