Is Mexico Ready for a Populist President?

Andrés Manuel López Obrador's ascension seems like an increasingly good bet.

Mexican presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador at a rally in Tijuana, Mexico, on Jan. 30. (Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images)
Mexican presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador at a rally in Tijuana, Mexico, on Jan. 30. (Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images)
Mexican presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador at a rally in Tijuana, Mexico, on Jan. 30. (Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images)

With the July 1 presidential elections approaching, Mexican voters will soon take their turn to vent their anger at the established political order. Like previous disruptive long shots — Brexit, Emmanuel Macron’s election in France, and Donald Trump’s election in the United States — the ascension of a populist to Mexico’s presidency is an increasingly good bet.

But the leading candidate is not exactly a breath of fresh air. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, 64, has been active in partisan politics for over 40 years. Despite a successful tenure as mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005, he lost two successive bids for president in 2006 and 2012. Largely, this was because he was unable to shake the image of a left-wing, populist rabble-rouser with Hugo Chávez-like tendencies. López Obrador himself reinforced this perception when he had himself sworn in as the “legitimate president” in the aftermath of the 2006 election, a stunt that caused him to lose credibility with many Mexicans.

This time around, however, he has maintained a disciplined focus on the two issues that overwhelm all others in the current electoral season: corruption and out-of-control violence. In the last four years, nine of 32 state governors have been imprisoned, indicted, or are under investigation for money laundering, fraud, or racketeering. Last August, the former head of the state oil company (and a top campaign aide to President Enrique Peña Nieto) was shown to have accepted $10 million from the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht. In 2014, Peña Nieto himself was indirectly tainted by charges that a government contractor had paid for a $7 million home for the first lady. Somehow these frequent allegations tend to go nowhere, leading to a pervasive disgust among Mexicans and a feeling that politicians from the two major parties — the Institutional Revolutionary Party and the National Action Party — can get away with nearly anything.

With the July 1 presidential elections approaching, Mexican voters will soon take their turn to vent their anger at the established political order. Like previous disruptive long shots — Brexit, Emmanuel Macron’s election in France, and Donald Trump’s election in the United States — the ascension of a populist to Mexico’s presidency is an increasingly good bet.

But the leading candidate is not exactly a breath of fresh air. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, 64, has been active in partisan politics for over 40 years. Despite a successful tenure as mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005, he lost two successive bids for president in 2006 and 2012. Largely, this was because he was unable to shake the image of a left-wing, populist rabble-rouser with Hugo Chávez-like tendencies. López Obrador himself reinforced this perception when he had himself sworn in as the “legitimate president” in the aftermath of the 2006 election, a stunt that caused him to lose credibility with many Mexicans.

This time around, however, he has maintained a disciplined focus on the two issues that overwhelm all others in the current electoral season: corruption and out-of-control violence. In the last four years, nine of 32 state governors have been imprisoned, indicted, or are under investigation for money laundering, fraud, or racketeering. Last August, the former head of the state oil company (and a top campaign aide to President Enrique Peña Nieto) was shown to have accepted $10 million from the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht. In 2014, Peña Nieto himself was indirectly tainted by charges that a government contractor had paid for a $7 million home for the first lady. Somehow these frequent allegations tend to go nowhere, leading to a pervasive disgust among Mexicans and a feeling that politicians from the two major parties — the Institutional Revolutionary Party and the National Action Party — can get away with nearly anything.

Meanwhile, Mexico just completed its most violent year since at least 1997, when the government began tracking murders. Homicides topped 29,000, with cartel executions driving the numbers. Add to that, however, increases in other types of crimes, and Mexicans feel under siege. Many blame the violence not solely on the cartels, but on failed government strategies and outright collusion between senior government officials and cartel leaders.

Consistently leading in the polls by double digits since last fall, López Obrador faces uninspiring opponents from the main parties and a handful of independents. His campaign message is relatively simple. Everyone else is corrupt or craven, while he is not. Sensitive to criticism that he is a radical in waiting, he has highlighted policy proposals of austerity, low taxes, transparency, and nonintervention. The ruling party has done its best to depict him as sympathetic to, and longing for, authoritarian government, but there is little evidence that this strategy is working.

If elected, López Obrador is likely to change Mexican policy towards the United States in at least three areas: energy exploration, security cooperation, and support for democratic norms in the region. On energy, he said he would review existing contracts, and continues to view the opening of Mexico’s oil industry to foreign investment as treasonous. A López Obrador administration could slow down or halt bidding on new oil and gas finds in the Gulf of Mexico and refuse to approve new cross-border natural gas pipelines.

Similarly, he could freeze existing security cooperation with U.S. agencies to fight heroin production in Mexico and capture cartel leaders. “Problems of an economic and social nature cannot be solved with coercive measures,” he wrote last year. “It’s not military assistance, or intelligence work, or deliveries of helicopters and arms, that will solve the problems of insecurity and violence in our country.”

Finally, López Obrador, who has never uttered an unkind word about the Castro brothers, Chávez, or Nicolás Maduro (but named a son after Che Guevara), would be likely to withdraw Mexican diplomats from the mediating role they have played in the region on Venezuela, and refuse to participate in international resolutions concerning Iran, North Korea, or Syria.

What about the personal chemistry between López Obrador and Trump? Shortly after Trump was inaugurated, López Obrador undertook a speaking tour of the United States, during which he repeatedly compared Trump to Hitler. Recently, López Obrador vowed to put Trump “in his place.” What could go wrong?

Richard G. Miles is the director of the U.S.-Mexico Futures Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. From 2007 to 2008, he handled Mexican affairs on the U.S. National Security Council staff.

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