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Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Mexico’s new populist president

Pedro Pardo, AFP | Newly elected Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at the Zocalo in Mexico City on July 1, 2018.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador rode to victory in Mexico’s presidential election on Sunday by appealing to voters with a promise to end corruption by fighting poverty.


“I won’t lie, I won’t steal and I won’t betray the Mexican people”, Obrador – who won Sunday’s presidential election with 53 percent of the vote – pledged before cheering crowds on the campaign trail.

In a country blighted by corruption and organised crime, Obrador has promised to bring about change by redistributing Mexico’s wealth and ending impunity. He campaigned heavily in small towns and villages so he could be closer to “the people”, a strategy that earned him the label of “populist” from his political rivals, Jose Antonio Meade Kuribrena, of the centre-right PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), and Ricardo Anaya Cortes, of the conservative PAN (National Action Party).

Political veteran

Obrador – who is popularly known as AMLO, an acronym of his first initials – first launched his political career in the mid-1970s after joining the PRI, which has ruled Mexico almost without interruption since 1929.

Shortly afterwards, he was appointed head of the Indigenous People’s Institute in his home state of Tabasco. Born to humble beginnings, Obrador became a fervent member of the PRI’s left-wing. His political views led him to join what would later become the Party of Democratic Revolution (PRD), a social democratic splinter group, which Obrador presided over from 1996 until 1999.

In 2000, he was elected mayor of Mexico City. During his time in office, Obrador created a number of ambitious social programmes to help poorer populations, especially senior citizens. At the end of his six-year term, he had a 90 percent approval rating.

The same year, he ran as a presidential candidate for the PRD under the slogan: “For all Mexicans, but primarily for the poor”. Although he was a favourite to win in the polls, he lost by 0.5 percentage points to PAN candidate Felipe de Jesus Calderon Hinojosa.

But Obrador refused to concede defeat, denouncing the election as fraudulent. His supporters swarmed the Zocalo, Mexico City’s main square, demanding a vote recount. Although the result was later upheld, Obrador still declared himself Mexico’s “legitimate president”.

Obrador supporters swarm the Zocalo in Mexico City after his presidential election defeat in 2006.
Obrador supporters swarm the Zocalo in Mexico City after his presidential election defeat in 2006. Eunice Adorno, AFP

A vocal member of the opposition throughout Calderon’s administration, Obrador ran again for the presidency in 2012. He lost, this time to Enrique Pena Nieto by more than six percentage points. Obrador again rejected the results, accusing his opponents of buying votes. Although the Federal Electoral Institute uncovered some evidence of irregularities, the vote was confirmed and Nieto declared the winner.

In the wake of the election, Obrador announced he was leaving the PRD, which had become tainted by infighting and allegations of corruption. He launched a new party, the Movement for National Regeneration, or MORENA, which was firmly anchored on the left, with a non-hierarchical vision of leadership and an emphasis on the environment.

Youth appeal

Since then, Obrador has travelled across Mexico, rallying support. He boasted of visiting all of the country’s 2,446 municipalities, and said that this campaign would be his last – a promise he has kept.

Part of Obrador’s success came from his ability, at the age of 64, to incarnate the spirit of a new Mexico. “The country will be cleaned!” he declared before a full crowd at Mexico City’s Azteca stadium, which has a capacity of 87,000, at the end of his campaign.

A skilled orator, Obrador railed against the elite, pledging to get rid of what he has labelled the “power mafia”. This includes the PRI, which ruled Mexico uninterrupted from 1929 until 2000, and then again from 2012 until now.

The rampant inequality affecting many North American countries was at the heart of his campaign: an estimated 50 million Mexicans, or almost half of the population, live beneath the poverty line, while two-thirds of the country’s wealth is owned by 10 percent of the population.

His populist rhetoric appealed particularly to young voters, a key demographic in Mexico. As of election day, there were 14 million first-time voters, or the equivalent of 17 percent of the electorate. Of this group, 36 percent said they identified with Obrador’s MORENA party.

War on drugs

Chastened by his past presidential defeats, Obrador sought to present himself this time around as a benevolent patriarch. He campaigned on the platform that fighting social inequality will also reduce organised crime in Mexico. “Becarios! No sicarios!” (or “Funding! Not contract killers!”), he was fond of saying on the stump, arguing that young people would be less likely to fall into the clutches of cartels if they had other prospects.

While his opponents vowed to continue Calderon’s war on drugs, Obrador opted for a different approach: “Amor y paz” (or “Love and peace”). He hopes to reintegrate low-level employees of the drug trade – such as poppy farmers and drug mules – into society, while bringing those with blood on their hands to justice.

The site InSight Crime, which studies organised crime, applauded Obrador’s proposal, but deplored its lack of specificity.

In essence, Lopez Obrador is pushing a massive revolution of the federal security bureaucracy without any idea of which problems it will solve or what new tools it will create. At best, pursuit of such poorly thought-out plans represents wasted effort; at worst, it would be a step backwards,” the site concluded.

Social conservative?

Obrador’s brand of leftist nationalism has led his opponents to make unflattering comparisons with other Latin American leaders, such as Venezuela’s late president Hugo Chavez, or even his successor, Nicolas Maduro.

Obrador has said he will halve his salary and give the Pinos presidential palace back to the “people” by turning it into a public museum.

He has sought to quiet criticism of his populist platform by sitting down with the country’s main business leaders during a meeting on June 5. “We’re going to have a cooperative relationship between our public and private sector,” he said.

Juan Pablo Castanon, president of the main employer’s union CCE, echoed Obrador, evoking an “open and sincere dialogue”.

Obrador also came under fire on the left after announcing that he would hire the millionaire businessman Alfonso Romo as his chief-of-staff.

Yet Romo’s nomination is not the only criticism of Obrador among liberal Mexicans. His stance on social issues has also raised questions. A self-described “faithful secularist”, he has declined to comment on same-sex marriage or the legalisation of abortion in Mexico City, which was passed the year after he left the mayor’s office. His close ties to the evangelical Christian Social Encounter Party (PES) is another area of concern for many supporters, who fear Obrador may be more conservative than he appears.

Yet that did not stop the left from voting overwhelmingly for him on election day. The presidency now his, Obrador’s next challenge will be to secure a majority in parliament that will allow him to govern Mexico unfettered.

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