Who is Mexico's likely next president?

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

On July 1, Mexico votes for a president to serve a six-year term, bringing the scandal-plagued Enrique Peña Nieto era to a close.

A major poll with just a week to go shows leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO as many call him in Mexico, with double digit leads over his nearest rival. Incredibly, he's held this commanding lead for about a year now. The polls have hardly budged.

Unlike many countries in Latin America, there is no runoff system in Mexico – one candidate simply needs to beat all other rivals on that day – so it would be surprising, if not outright shocking, if AMLO were to lose.

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But who exactly is AMLO? The FT and the Economist have likened him to Donald Trump: an anti-establishment populist tapping into discontent and nostalgia for a vague idealized past. His opponents, José Antonio Meade, of the governing PRI party, and Ricardo Anaya of a left-right coalition, have likened him not to Trump but instead to the late Venezuelan firebrand Hugo Chávez.

He's really neither. A career politician, AMLO is now 64, and comes across as a prickly uncle with neatly parted white hair. (The excellent John Oliver called him "Bernie Sanders with a better haircut.")

When asked whom he admires, AMLO mentions Lázaro Cárdenas, the general turned president of Mexico from 1934 to 1940, best known for nationalizing the oil industry.

AMLO was born in Tepetitán, a village in the state of Tabasco. He studied political science at UNAM and rose to be mayor of Mexico City, where he enjoyed high approval ratings. Today, though he speaks slowly, deliberately, his campaign speeches enjoy fevered receptions.

This is the third time he is running for president, making him one of the best known political figures in Mexico. Even still, his campaigning – all 14 years of it – feel short on policy. What exactly will he do should he take office?

Corruption has been his major theme, as it has been across Latin America for years now. He says he wants to end impunity and the privileges enjoyed by the elite. As a sign of this, he's suggested he won't live in Los Pinos, instead will offer the presidential palace as a space for families to spend the day. But we know little else.

"Corruption is one of the major elements of his campaign platform," says Duncan Wood, the director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington DC. "And yet there is almost no detail there. What he has said is that as an honest president, he would have no dishonest people working for him." Hardly a concrete policy proposal.

He has said at various stages in the past and in differing ways that he would scrap or halt the energy reform, be tough on NAFTA, tinker with the telecommunications reform, and cancel the new airport in the capital. But each of these comments have been tempered in the lead-up to the election by members of his team, who seem to want to send a message of calm.

"One of the extraordinary things about [AMLO] at this point in his life is he has recognized explicitly the importance of sending a message to financial markets, a message of stability and continuity," says Wood.

AMLO has repeated throughout his rallies that he is not against business: "We're not against private initiative." Still, some change to the economic status quo will occur; and his government will be able to get things done with a majority in the lower house and perhaps a majority in the senate.

But Peña Nieto's economic reforms are not what is holding Mexico back, and AMLO knows this. Corruption and violence are.

To the latter point, AMLO has suggested offering amnesty to drug lords. This probably shouldn't be taken literally, but as a sign he is willing to try something new, because Mexico remains one of the bloodiest places on earth. Homicide rates actually rose in Mexico under Peña Nieto. In the nine months leading up to this election, 48 politicians running for office have been killed. It's an unfathomable stat.

Out-of-control violence (with corruption) then is the biggest threat to Mexico's economic and social progress as a nation, and where AMLO must leave his mark.