Telling voters what they wanted to hear worked out well for Donald Trump. As Mexico shifts into election gear in 2017, another populist, anti-establishment figure will be hoping to follow in the US president-elect’s footsteps.
Like Mr Trump, Andrés Manuel López Obrador is a love-him or loathe-him figure with a message that resonates with the underprivileged and the angry.
In the case of Amlo, as the maverick leftist is widely known, that message includes: promises to stamp out corruption, sweep out the ‘mafia of power’, give the elderly better pensions, cut fat cat government salaries, create jobs and roll out a huge infrastructure programme. He pledges to bring “real change” to Mexico.
Many voters have heard it all before. It is Mr López Obrador’s third try at the presidency, after losing by a whisker in 2006 to conservative Felipe Calderón in elections Amlo said were stolen. In 2012, Mr López Obrador was a close runner-up to President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Now 63, he has come a long way from the months-long occupation of Mexico City’s main square and thoroughfare he staged to protest over the 2006 election result. Mr Peña Nieto’s historically low approval ratings, fuelled by corruption scandals, a worsening economy and mounting insecurity, plus disarray in the opposition, have played straight into Mr López Obrador’s hands.
. . . I understand why people say it’s his election to lose, but in 2006, he managed to squander a 30 per cent lead
Mr Peña Nieto started his term in 2012 as a breath of fresh air — a can-do reformer with a bold vision to put Mexico on a new path. But the still unsolved disappearance of 43 students at the hands of corrupt police, his widely slammed royal treatment of Mr Trump in Mexico, a slowing economy and rising inflation, have convinced many that he is little more than a lame duck now — right when Mexico is facing crisis.
Uncertainty over Mr Trump’s plans for the North American Free Trade Agreement, his policy towards immigrants and his border wall pledge have rattled investors, but Mr López Obrador has preached calm, saying Mexico is a sovereign nation and “there’s nothing to fear. We’re moving forward”.
For Mexico’s business and political establishment, Mr López Obrador — who says Fidel Castro was a giant of the stature of Nelson Mandela — is a terrifying prospect because of his opposition to the structural reforms that Mr Peña Nieto has implemented, especially opening up the energy sector to private investment.
But just as Mr Trump managed to defy the US political odds, Mr López Obrador’s prospects no longer look unthinkable, in part because he has positioned himself as standard-bearer for the fight against Mexico’s ingrained corruption. “Amlo is the default option” for the 2018 presidency, the chairman of one of Mexico’s most prominent companies told the FT.
The coming year will be pivotal in the electoral race. Mr Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary party is likely to wait until after a key gubernatorial election in the State of Mexico, the president’s home and bastion, in June before picking a candidate. Once it does, the race will be on, and Mr Peña Nieto will be reduced to a figurehead for his final year in office.
The opposition National Action party has not decided whether its leader Ricardo Anaya, or Mr Calderón’s wife, Margarita Zavala, should be its candidate. While Mexico’s two main parties dither, Mr López Obrador, who suffered a heart attack three years ago, has been touring the country.
A poll published by Reforma newspaper in December found 29 per cent would vote for Mr López Obrador compared with 26 per cent for the former first lady. Jorge Castañeda, a former foreign minister, says “everything appears to indicate” an Amlo victory.
But there is still a long way to go to the June 2018 elections and Mr López Obrador cannot simply rely on “the angry vote” propelling him to power as it did Mr Trump, says Denise Dresser, a political analyst. “I understand why people say it’s his election to lose . . . but in 2006, he managed to squander a 30 per cent lead” by radicalising his message and failing to tap into the centrist vote, she said.
To win, he needs to “tread the path of other leftists who have won” — toning down some of his radical rhetoric and appealing more to centrists, she said.
He has started to do this, latterly vowing to respect the independence of the Bank of Mexico and to put the future of energy, tax, education and labour reforms to a referendum. But many remain unconvinced. “He promises more than he can deliver. He’s a bit of a fake,” said Angel Bates, a watch repairman.
Unlike Mr Trump, Mr López Obrador has held office before, serving — it is widely acknowledged, successfully — as mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005. Valeria Moy, head of think-tank México ¿cómo vamos?, says his appeal boils down to “telling people what they want to hear — and people are so fed up, I think he has a chance”.
Maripaz Sánchez Colin, a domestic worker, says everyone in her poor neighbourhood of Mexico City has always voted for Amlo, and she plans to do so again because of his support for the underprivileged and the elderly.
“He’s always lost,” she said. “But I think this time he’ll do it.”