Mexico's 'AMLO' still popular after 100 turbulent days


Mexico City (AFP)

It has been a frenetic first 100 days for Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, though his sometimes chaotic attempts to deliver on his promise of "radical transformation" have not dented his massive popularity.

Widely known as "AMLO," the anti-establishment leftist swept into office on December 1 with a powerful mandate, having dethroned the two parties that ruled Mexico for nine decades -- and winning 53 percent of the vote and strong majorities in both houses of Congress along the way.

Since then, the anti-corruption, pro-austerity crusader has overhauled the Mexican presidency -- giving up the presidential mansion, jet, bodyguards and 60 percent of the salary -- all while lunging frantically from one sweeping reform proposal to the next.

The results have been limited. But that does not seem to matter to voters, who are hungry for change in this country long plagued by deep-rooted corruption, inequality and violent crime.

As he marks his 100th day in office Sunday, Lopez Obrador, 65, has a 78 percent approval rating, according to a recent poll by newspaper El Financiero.

"Obviously the Mexican people love his message," said Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington.

But tougher challenges lie ahead, he warned.

The honeymoon is sure to wear off.

Also, the central bank has reduced its economic growth forecast for the year, amid policy uncertainty and rocky relations between Lopez Obrador and the business sector.

Then there is the crucial relationship with the United States.

Lopez Obrador has a surprisingly warm rapport with Donald Trump, despite the US president's border wall obsession and attacks on immigrants.

But "there is ample opportunity for conflict heading into the US elections" next year, Wood told AFP.

- Successes, setbacks, chaos -

The folksy populist and his team have sometimes shot themselves in the foot.

A crackdown on fuel theft -- a huge criminal industry that costs Mexico $3 billion a year -- led to gasoline shortages in January, forcing drivers to wait in line for hours, sometimes days, to fuel up.

Lopez Obrador meanwhile slashed the government bureaucracy to fund a raft of social programs, but infuriated public servants whose salaries he cut, leading to numerous lawsuits.

The president has also jeopardized his own promise to deliver four percent economic growth this year -- double the central bank's most optimistic forecast -- by antagonizing investors, including with the cancellation of a new $13-billion Mexico City airport.

Its top backer was Mexico's richest man, Carlos Slim.

"He has to keep investors' confidence up, and that's where he has really fallen off," said Pamela Starr of the University of Southern California.

"He's not assuaging their concerns as effectively as he needs to."

Some criticize the president for trying to do too much too fast.

"He wants to transform everything, and feels he has little time," said Mexican political analyst Jose Antonio Crespo.

"The problem is, that rush leads to a lack of planning.... He's making changes with a machete when he needs a scalpel."

But the president has also shown a knack for turning missteps around.

During the gasoline shortages, he took his case to the people, explaining he had to close pipelines temporarily to fight fuel theft gangs and the corrupt officials in bed with them.

His popularity rose 10 points, to 86 percent, in El Financiero's next poll.

Lopez Obrador has also scored one major legislative success: passing a constitutional amendment to create a military-civilian National Guard.

It is his plan to end Mexico's bloody and widely criticized "drug war," launched in 2006 when the government deployed the army to fight drug cartels.

- 'The AMLO Show' -

Above all, Lopez Obrador is a master communicator.

He gives a press conference every weekday at 7:00 am.

Jokingly known as "The AMLO Show," the daily briefing has come to dominate the news landscape as he has centralized power in the presidency.

"Andres Manuel is spectacularly good at communicating with the Mexican people," said Wood.

"The fact that he gives daily press conferences... the fact that he is seen in public with Mexicans, walking out there, hugging them... that is something that Mexicans aren't used to."

Lopez Obrador's fans -- known as "AMLOvers" -- worry for his safety, given his close contact with crowds and refusal of bodyguards.

"The people will protect me," he regularly replies.

With five years and 265 days to go in his presidency, most Mexicans appear ready to forgive Lopez Obrador's errors and be patient -- for now.

"Change is like house cleaning. A lot of dirt is going to come out," said Sergio Lopez, 42, a Mexico City designer.

"There will be things that emerge that we have to keep working on, so that they get better."