By Guillermo Osorno
Mr. Osorno is a cultural activist in Mexico and a López Obrador supporter.
Mexico City — With Mexico’s presidential election less than a month away, Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s victory seems inevitable. People are not arguing about whether he will win, but about the size of his victory.
One reliable poll says he will get 54 percent of the vote in a contest with two other major candidates, and another suggests that his coalition, Juntos Haremos Historia, will sweep the Congress. Such a complete victory would transform Mexico’s political map, not unlike the way Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Carlos Salinas de Gortari of Mexico realigned political alliances and national priorities.
After 18 years of trying, and trying again, Mr. López Obrador, widely known as AMLO, may have a historic opportunity. He has said that his presidency will signal the start of Mexico’s fourth revolution, following independence from Spain in the early 19th century, the liberal reforms later that century, and the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century.
He promises an austere, nationalist government that will fight corruption and inequality. He has said he will push constitutional amendments to change Mexico’s energy policy, eliminate immunity for government employees and allow for mechanisms of direct democracy, such as presidential referendums. He has repeatedly compared himself to Mexican leaders like Benito Juárez, Francisco Madero and Lázaro Cárdenas, which is like an American candidate comparing himself to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Many Mexicans sincerely want to see change, believing that the country cannot endure more inequality, corruption and violence. But they also have serious reservations about his posturing and his dubious alliances, and wonder if he has what it takes to grasp the complexity of Mexico’s biggest issues.
The fears that Mr. López Obrador, in lacking a political counterweight, may become too powerful are well founded. But his diagnosis of what Mexico needs — a stronger domestic economy and an end to corruption — and his strategy to deal with violence, including a vast program to support the young people who have been caught up in the in the war against drugs, are on target.
AMLO started out as a delegate of the National Indigenous Institute in the state of Tabasco. He took a leadership role in the party’s local office, but when he tried to democratize the organization he was pushed out. In 1988, he joined the political movement against the candidacy of Mr. Salinas de Gortari, which led to the founding of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or P.R.D. As president of P.R.D. in Tabasco, he gained national notoriety when he led marches to protest electoral fraud in his state.
Mr. López Obrador eventually rose to the head of the P.R.D., and under his leadership the party secured several governorships and seats in the Senate and Chamber of Deputies.
In the 2000 elections, which ended 70 years of P.R.I. dominance, Mr. López Obrador was elected mayor of Mexico City. This was a crucial period and role, allowing him to push financial discipline and austerity policies, while starting a wide variety of social programs, the most famous of which extended monetary aid to senior citizens.
By 2003 he had become one of Mexico’s most popular politicians, with approval ratings close to 80 percent. In 2006, his presidential bid was as obvious as it was unstoppable.
In terms of style, Mr. López Obrador stands out against the more technocratic candidates, like José Antonio Meade, of the center-left P.R.I., and Ricardo Anaya Cortés, of the conservative P.A.N. His message resonates with all kind of voters: the working class, and also young, highly-educated Mexicans.
Mr. López Obrador champions certain traditional leftist values: a concern for inequality and poverty and the belief that government should be a key player in the economy. He is a Christian who is not particularly concerned about gender politics, reproductive rights or sexual minorities, and a nationalist who is skeptical of political and economic formulas imposed from abroad. He has firmly stated his belief that the answers to Mexico’s problems lie in Mexico’s history, rhetoric that makes him something of a myth-weaver. Like most populists, he frequently invokes his connection to the Mexican people.
This is his third run for the presidency. In 2006, he also led the polls, but in addition to making his own mistakes, his opponents framed him as a dangerous candidate, comparing him to Hugo Chávez, the late Venezuelan president. The trick worked and when Mr. López Obrador lost by a tiny margin, he refused to accept the result and accused the political and economic elite of rigging the election.
For several weeks, he led protests that paralyzed Mexico City as he proclaimed himself to be Mexico’s rightful president. This gamble cost him a significant amount of political capital, with many Mexicans regarding him as self-serving and disrespectful of the democratic process.
In 2012, following his defeat by Enrique Peña Nieto, the photogenic P.R.I candidate, he left the P.R.D. to form the National Regeneration Movement, known as Morena. In less than three years, Morena has emerged as a viable alternative to the entrenched P.R.I. and P.A.N. parties.
With a fierice persistence, he has forged yet another path to the presidency.
To broaden his political reach, this time around Mr. López Obrador has allied himself with a range of political players: corrupt union leaders and representatives of the far right.
Mr. López Obrador’s campaign has also been helped along by the current government’s dismal approval ratings. Fed up with corruption, the slumping economy and the surge in violent crime during Mr. Peña Nieto’s six-year term, many Mexicans tend to view Mr. López Obrador as the only alternative for real change.
In the quest to win over Mexico’s business sector, AMLO has positioned himself as a political moderate. In an effort to assure they will not fall into the kind of deep debt that plagues so many leftist governments in Latin America, his advisers promise sound fiscal policy, to control foreign debt (which ballooned in 2017), and to slash a third of the country’s highest-paid government jobs.
Hovering over this election are the candidates’ strategies for confronting the bully in the White House, defending the rights of Mexicans living in the United States, while maintaining the economic relationship with our northern neighbor that is vital to the Mexican economy. Mr. López Obrador and his team have issued a categorical defense of Nafta.
During the second presidential debate on May 20, which focused on foreign affairs and United States-Mexico relations, Mr. López Obrador reiterated that the best foreign policy is domestic policy: deal with solving the many problems inside Mexico before attempting to solve regional problems. He also suggested that Mexico’s relationship with the White House would naturally improve under his stewardship because of the renewed moral authority he would bring to the presidency following Mr. Peña Nieto’s corrupt government.
Not long ago some prominent business leaders confronted him on his decision to halt the construction of Mexico City’s new airport, a $13 billion venture, if he is elected. Mr. López Obrador insisted that it was an exorbitant project plagued with corruption, and claimed to have a less expensive solution up his sleeve.
Though later on he backpedaled, saying that the suspension of the project was not yet final, his position ignited a fiery round of accusations from many business organizations. In his characteristic tone of moral superiority, Mr. López Obrador announced that a certain clique of businessmen are part of a “mafia of power” who feel that they own Mexico. In retaliation, these business groups have published newspaper inserts protesting his treatment, and a few moguls have started open campaigns to dissuade Mexicans from voting for him.
Recently, Mr. López Obrador has made his way back to the path of moderation. One of Mexico’s main television stations visited him at home and presented him as a no-frills Christian man with an intelligent and charming wife.
Judging by his track record as the mayor of Mexico City, it seems likely that as president he would maintain a shrewd, responsible fiscal policy, to fight corruption and expand social policies. But it also seems likely that if he secures absolute power he would mobilize his ground troops to fight his enemies, divide the world into good guys and bad guys, and use strategies such as popular referendums to avert legal obstacles.
Mr. López Obrador must understand that he will rule for all. He is right to stress that Mexico suffers from crony capitalism, and that many public institutions have been kidnapped by private interests. But he clouds the atmosphere when, during his rallies, he calls businesspeople predatory and Supreme Court judges gangsters, or when he belittles the efforts of the civil society as a mask to advance personal interests. And if he will fight corruption, he should also aim toward some of his own clique.
If he wins the presidency, and takes a majority in the Congress, his proposed constitutional amendments will be fast-tracked. And his success will revive the nagging question in the mind of many Mexicans these days: Will he be an agent for change, or the strongman of yet another Mexican revolution?