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Mexico's man of the people – with an ego

The hot-button issues between the US and Mexico – immigration, trade, the border wall – will shift when a new president is elected July 1. Front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador is leading with a 'Mexico first' approach.  

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Presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador addresses supporters during a rally in Pátzcuaro, Mexico, ahead of the July 1 election.


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The sun has been beating down on the crowd for nearly 3-1/2 hours before Mexico’s three-time presidential candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, takes the stage, calmly talking over the chants of “presidente, presidente.”

“There have only been three true transformations in Mexico,” he bellows, straight-faced, to wildly cheering supporters at a recent rally. He ticks off red-letter moments in Mexico’s past: gaining independence from Spain; the presidency of Benito Juárez, an indigenous leader sometimes referred to as Mexico’s Abraham Lincoln; and the 1910 revolution that ousted a dictator. “Very soon we’ll see the fourth transformation of this country,” Mr. López Obrador says, referring to his projected win.

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With more than 3,400 officials and a president to choose, Mexico’s July 1 election is one of its largest ever. But what sets this vote apart is front-runner López Obrador, commonly referred to by his initials, AMLO. His unlikely rise after two failed presidential bids underscores a deep-seated desire for radical change in a nation plagued by drug violence, corruption, and inequality.

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Polls through mid-June show his lead has been increasing all year, and that he’d have twice as many votes as the closest challenger. But there’s uncertainty around which version of AMLO will show up if he indeed wins.

That has to do with the pendulum-like swings of his career, a political identity built upon religious and historical “savior” references that conjure up comparisons to leaders like Venezuela’s former President Hugo Chávez, and a reputation as someone who is baited easily by criticism and provocation. The implications of the “wrong” AMLO taking office depend on where one stands in the debate: It could mean more of the same problems, or the crumbling of Mexican institutions entirely. That vast difference underscores the polarization around his candidacy.  

Voters look beyond parties in power 

Early on, AMLO proved to be a fervent defender of the poor, living in a home with a dirt floor while he oversaw construction in indigenous villages. Two decades later, he was the picture of a pragmatic leader when he was mayor of Mexico City, as a leftist teaming up with one of the nation’s wealthiest businesspeople to revitalize the city's historic center. His mayorship is his only experience in elected office.

Then in 2006, after losing his first presidential bid by a razor-thin margin, he seemed to fulfill the negative prophecies that he would act egotistically and irrationally and would drive a nascent democracy into the ground. He blocked traffic for more than a month in the capital and held a parallel inauguration, naming himself the “legitimate president.”

But nearly a decade and a half after that first presidential bid, Mexico has changed. Democratic institutions have strengthened, although corruption and deadly violence are on the rise. The election also comes at a time when Mexico’s stable relationship with the United States has devolved, leaving many tired of the country being the punching bag of its northern neighbor. 

Presidential hopefuls (l. to r.) Jaime Rodríguez Calderón, Ricardo Anaya, José Anto- nio Meade, and Andrés Manuel López Obrador attend a debate in Tijuana, Mexico, in May.

After the presidency of the historically unpopular Enrique Peña Nieto, damaged early on by corruption scandals and an inability to quash violence, Mexicans are actively searching for something new, observers say, even if there’s a large element of the unknown. 

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“I am sympathetic with colleagues and friends who say they will vote for López Obrador because ‘we’ve tried everything else and let’s try someone who hasn’t been in power,’ ” says Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. “There is some reason to worry [about an AMLO victory], but there’s some reason to at least give someone else a shot.” 

 Austerity vows 

Born in the southern Mexican state of Tabasco, López Obrador was the oldest of eight children in a lower-middle-class family that ran a small store. His family nicknamed him “the rock” for his headstrong personality and the way he bristled at perceived criticism. That modest upbringing and determined character are evident in how he’s functioned as a politician. It’s also at the base of his approach to tackling corruption, a scourge he estimates costs Mexico about $25 billion annually. His central proposal is to lead by example: He won’t be corrupt, and thus the politicians beneath him won’t take bribes or skim off the top, either, his logic goes.

López Obrador says he won’t live in the presidential palace, a space he labels as corrupted by bad spirits of former leaders and chupacabras, creatures in Latin American folklore that suck blood. He’ll sell the president’s fleet of aircraft and cut presidential pensions and salary to fund proposed social programs. “We’ll offer the [presidential] plane to Trump,” he says at the rally, a jab at the US president whom AMLO promises to stand up to as the top Mexican leader. 

“I do think it’s important for leaders to make an example, leading with austerity and honesty,” says José Luis Chicoma, executive director of Ethos Public Policy Lab, a think tank that works on a number of anti-corruption initiatives here. But “it worries me that he doesn’t have a plan beyond this,” he says, adding that many in the anti-corruption world worry he could do significant damage – for example, by dismantling out of spite or ego the national anti-corruption system, whose implementation has faltered after being created under President Peña Nieto. Mr. Chicoma notes that only Ricardo Anaya, who’s polling a distant second to AMLO, has anything close to a concrete anti-corruption plan.

 Eye on the presidency

In 2000, as Vicente Fox’s election halted the 71-year hold on the presidency by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), López Obrador was mayor of Mexico City, living in a modest apartment. He launched monthly subsidies for elderly residents and focused on the first infrastructure projects in nearly two decades, like bus rapid transit and elevated highways. His popularity shot through the roof. 

By 2006, López Obrador looked like a shoo-in for president. But a series of blunders, combined with a campaign likening his leftist policies to those of Mr. Chávez, Venezuela’s socialist leader, compromised his lead. After his loss, he cursed Mexico’s governing institutions, seemingly confirming the fears of critics who believed his plans would drive a burgeoning democracy and economy into the ground. 

Now, ahead of the July 1 election, part of AMLO’s popularity stems from his ability to paint himself as a man of the people. During his first presidential campaign, he visited every municipality in Mexico at least once. This year he’s held as many as four rallies a day, often in multiple states. And despite more than 100 politicians at all levels and from all parties being killed so far this election season – one of the deadliest on record – he has no visible security detail. 

Moreover, López Obrador is emerging as much more pragmatic, reaching out to prominent businesspeople to join his cabinet and politicians to come into his camp. In 2012, says Chicoma, “he had the message, but you didn’t actually see it in practice. He seemed still really [angry] with people,” he says. “AMLO Version 2018 seems to finally be putting that idea of inclusion into action.”

 More mature or just the same?

But not everyone is convinced. “Sadly, I think he is exactly the same man,” says leading Mexican historian Enrique Krauze, who coined the term “Tropical Messiah” during the 2006 campaign. 

“He genuinely believes, and many millions of people believe, [AMLO] is going to save Mexico from all its many illnesses and problems,” Mr. Krauze says. “Mexicans are very drawn to mythology and history.... He taps into it and speaks the language of the people.”

Although he agrees with a lot of AMLO’s social policies, Krauze is concerned his cult-of-personality approach could pull Mexico back into the 20th century. It’s an opinion many share: that he’ll undercut democratic institutions to save the country and put it back on a “moral” path, disband programs launched by opposition politicians before him out of spite, or come up with nationalistic, populist policies that make it impossible to do business here.

There’s also concern that AMLO is too inward looking, when global economies are so deeply intertwined. “What worries me ... is that we’re going into this period where neither the US or Mexican governments will particularly care about their relationship with each other,” says Dr. Selee of the Migration Policy Institute, who recently published “Vanishing Frontiers,” a book about US-Mexico relations and their close-knit history and culture. 

But after Peña Nieto came into office pledging to put Mexico on the global map – only to get it there for scandals like the disappearance and murder of 43 students from a teachers college – focusing on Mexico from the inside could be a welcome approach. 

When it comes to US-Mexico relations – particularly around hot-button topics like migration – AMLO has promised to drastically change his approach from that of Peña Nieto. Although Peña Nieto has scoffed at Trump’s promises of a border wall, his administration has taken big steps, like a 2014 security reform on Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, to lend the US a hand in halting mostly Central American migration to the United States. AMLO said in the final presidential debate that he’ll stop doing the US’s “dirty work” on its southern border, and move it’s immigration headquarters to Tijuana on the northern border, the first stop for most Mexicans deported from the US.

Standing up for would-be Mexican emigrants is also key to the changes he’s hinted at making as president, suggesting a bilateral plan similar to the 1960s-era Alliance for Progress that would help make it possible for more Mexicans to stay put in their homeland instead of migrating to the US for economic opportunities in the first place. 

 Concerned business elites

In a leaked letter earlier this spring, businessman Germán Larrea pleaded for employees and shareholders to “vote with intelligence and not with the anger we all share.” The president of Grupo Mexico, the country’s largest mining company, voiced the concerns of many economic elites without naming López Obrador. He warned that proposals such as “nationalizing companies and the repeal of energy and education reforms” could put Mexico on track to become the next Venezuela, Cuba, or Soviet Union. 

“Everyone says AMLO is a socialist who is going to turn our country into the next Venezuela,” says José Martinez Pelaéz, a young volunteer at a recent rally. “Why does it have to be Venezuela?” he asks. “Maybe he will turn Mexico into the next France.” 

Part of the worry stems from AMLO’s potential mandate: winning the presidency as well as a majority in Congress. He’s increasingly focusing time on encouraging votes for the entire National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) alliance ticket. Aside from the president, this election includes nearly 130 senators, 500 deputies, and 8 governors across the country. 

But Selee is adamant there’s no going back to pre-democracy Mexico. “I think he may run into some of the same problems that Peña Nieto did in thinking that you can restore an imperial presidency. The difference is that AMLO has many more feelers out to society at large,” Selee says, referring to the shoe leather he’s put into talking to constituents across the country. “López Obrador has a more granular understanding of how Mexicans think. He may think it’s possible to be, if not imperial, then [to] restore a centralized government again, but he will realize that that’s hard to do in modern Mexico.”

At the rally, vendors hawking straw hats and sugary churros weave their way through the crowd, focused more on profits than on political promises. Noemi Gomez, a lawyer, and her son, Eli, who just graduated from college, linger in a shaded corner. “I know he won’t be able to achieve all of his promises,” says Ms. Gomez, ticking off his pledges, such as undertaking education reform, raising wages, ending violence by concentrating on youth employment and education, and canceling a $14 billion airport project. “He can’t complete all his plans, but his victory will be a start. To me, he’ll do something just by getting elected.”