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Mexico: López Obrador’s Presidential Bid

López Obrador’s Presidential Bid at a Time of Doubt for Mexican Politics

• Popular Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador still maintains a sizable but diminished lead in the polls for next year’s presidential election.

• Fox’s failed attempt to impeach López Obrador only served to increase the mayor's popularity.

• López Obrador received acclaim by pursuing a populist agenda as mayor – establishing social programs that benefited Mexico City’s disadvantaged.

• Concerns among Mexico’s business and political elites about a potential López Obrador presidency have caused the mayor to move toward the political center, softening his populist image and radical rhetoric.

• Mexican political analysts, noting that López Obrador will face many of the same challenges as Fox endured during his failed presidency, question if repositioning himself politically is necessary to secure an electoral victory, or if a more aggressive campaign strategy might guarantee him a victory in his soon-to-be hard fought campaign.

After surviving an impeachment challenge earlier this year, the popular mayor of Mexico City, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has emerged as the frontrunner in Mexico’s 2006 presidential election and has since announced that he will resign his post at the end of July to formally seek the presidency. At a time in which Vicente Fox’s legacy is being pessimistically assessed as he finds himself knee-deep in a lame-duck presidency, López Obrador’s candidacy offers an interesting narrative on some components of contemporary Mexican politics.

López Obrador as Mayor
López Obrador has been heavily involved in Mexican politics for decades. At first, he was a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which, with generous doses of corruption and violence ruled Mexico for 71 years, until he defected from it in 1988 to help form the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), of which he became president in 1996. In December 2000, López Obrador was elected mayor of Mexico City and populist policies have since become his hallmark. As mayor, he has provided $70 monthly stipends for the elderly and single mothers, built new high schools and slashed the city’s other expenditures in order to provide more social assistance to the underprivileged. These policies have brought him immense popularity with Mexico’s economically disadvantaged and have helped to establish him as the frontrunner in the 2006 election, where currently 32 percent of the Mexican populace say they would vote for him, down from 42 percent a month ago, in a multi-candidate field.

Fox’s Action Against López Obrador
President Fox, who leads the National Action Party (PAN), and his former attorney general, Rafael Macedo de la Concha, feared that López Obrador’s popularity and his mounting presidential ambitions signalled doom for the PAN in the next presidential election. Fox claimed that the PRD’s candidate was in contempt of court for ignoring a court order not to build an access road across public land to a private hospital and proceeded to strip him of the political immunity that Mexican politicians routinely enjoy – a move that in effect would have barred him from running in 2006. Fox’s legislative action against López Obrador’s immunity was enacted by congress, as the result of a shift of votes against the Mexico City mayor by the PRI and PAN, in a clearly politically motivated move. However, Fox’s blatant maneuvering put him under mounting political pressure – over one million marched in Mexico City’s main plaza in support of López Obrador – and the resulting huge embarrassment persuaded Fox to drop the charges against him as well as force Macedo to resign as attorney general. Having survived the impeachment challenge, López Obrador’s popularity further increased, making him more likely than ever to be the next president of Mexico.

López Obrador Interpreted
While López Obrador’s candidacy and commitment to create jobs gives some hope to the millions of disadvantaged Mexicans, prospects of his victory are deeply troubling to Mexico’s business and political elite. Critics fear that if elected, President López Obrador would pursue both squeaky clean and radical populist politics, spending vast sums of money to finance social programs while blocking moves to privatize Mexico’s state-owned energy company – which they claim would lead the country into bankruptcy as well as result in high rates of inflation. But his defenders insist that he should be likened to a Mexican version of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva – heavy on the rhetoric but cautious with his economics.

Aside from comparisons to Lula and sometimes Venezuela’s firebrand Hugo Chávez, critics have raised concerns over López Obrador’s inexperience in foreign relations. The fiery populist openly brags that he does not hold a passport, and some question if it is good for a regional leader the stature of the president of Mexico, to be so parochial about embracing the world, much less proud of it. However, he has announced plans to travel to the U.S. and other nations in the fall in order to gain a better understanding of the international system and to address what is perceived as one of his main campaign weaknesses.

López Obrador the Candidate
In recent weeks, López Obrador has softened his somewhat hard populist image and often his radical rhetoric and has moved somewhat toward the political center in response to fears in conservative circles that his election would spell economic doom for Mexico. In a recent Newsweek interview, he even seemed to prefer U.S. style capitalism over the Brazilian or Venezuelan economic models, saying: “There’s been a campaign against me that compares me with Chávez, with Lula, that accuses me of being a populist.” Despite the inevitable change in his policy emphasis, the PRD candidate has been careful to remember what originally gave him his visibility, explaining that he wants Mexico to be a country “in which the poor, the weak, and the forgotten find protection against economic uncertainties.” But these moves have been enough to raise the eyebrows from Mexico’s more leftist and economically disadvantaged tendencies who fear they may be sacrificed out of expedience. This has included, subcomandate Marcos, the charismatic leader of the indigenous Zapatistas in southeastern Mexico, who authored a strong moral attack on López Obrador’s presidential aspirations, stating: “We believe there are the seeds of authoritarianism and a personal project that goes beyond a single term.”

While López Obrador has to an extent succeeded in reorienting himself toward the center while not noticeably weakening his traditional leftwing support base, some wonder if the ideological shift is necessary for him to prevail at the polls, or whether it will be too costly. Mexican political analysts believe that he could have a winning strategy if he at least is able to maintain the eight percentage point lead he currently enjoys in a multi-candidate field. Still, others strongly question his move toward the center. This moderation placates the concerns of international investors who, at best may not leave Mexico even if he pursued more aggressive populist polices; and at worst it could endanger his political base among the disadvantaged. Citing noticeable gaps between the intrinsic nature of Lula’s left-leaning political candidacy and the nature of his presidency later, analysts note that the manner in which a candidate campaigns is not always an accurate barometer of how he or she will actually govern.

Fox’s Failures
López Obrador’s purported repositioning comes as Mexico and much of the outside world increasingly view the Fox presidency as mainly a failure. In 2000, Fox campaigned as a champion of sometimes liberal policies that eventually would break the PRI’s 71 year rule and put an end to corruption, create millions of jobs, improve the economy and seek a better immigration deal with the U.S. Stuck without an electoral majority or even a plurality in Mexico’s congress and unable to achieve an alliance with the PRI, Fox faced formidable odds almost from the beginning. Meanwhile, Mexico’s economy grew at a robust annual rate of 4.1 percent in 2004 but the millions of jobs that Fox promised were never created. Lastly, Fox fatally failed to achieve a new immigration accord with the U.S. and is unlikely to do so before the end of his presidency.

Questions and Doubts
Fox’s failure to achieve his reform goals has to be of great interest for López Obrador, who shares with him a number of similar objectives. Most notably, both men want to create jobs and expand a dynamic middle class, although through different means: the incumbent as a result of simplifying Mexico’s tax and labor codes; and his would-be successor through social programs aimed at lifting the disadvantaged. The outgoing Mexico City mayor, who is likely to run well ahead of his party in congressional elections, will likely face the same set of problems as Fox has during his tenure: a hostile PRI-led congress and doubts over the best strategy as to how to play the game of coalition politics. What this means is that López Obrador might be just as likely to fail in achieving his agenda as Fox, thus begging the question: why move to the center and emply moderate rhetoric? This approach would seem to bring few, if any, tangible benefits, comared to taking a more aggressive approach. Torrid campaigning for a PRD plurality in the congress might reward him with better odds than Fox ever had to successfully enact his agenda.

It is common for politicians to soften their image in attempt to broaden their appeal as an election approaches. Yet in López Obrador’s case – given the constellation of Mexico’s presidential political forces – this does not seem necessary. The mayor already enjoys sufficient support to win a plurality. Subscribing to a wimpish strategy of broadening his appeal, when doing so could possibly threaten his ability to gain office, not only undermines his potential for effective rule once in power, but it could be precisely the wrong road to follow.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Hampden Macbeth.

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