Mexico’s presidential election is just around the corner, and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the left-leaning nationalist on his third presidential run, has cemented what looks like a decisive double-digit lead in the polls.
This has many people in Mexico, and here in Washington, worried. For years, members of Mexico’s business and political elites have referred to López Obrador, 64, as the most dangerous man in Mexico. AMLO, as he is known among his supporters, says the elites who disparage him are all part of the “mafia of power,” influence traffickers wielding their money and clout to derail his perennial presidential aspirations.
The movie-theater mogul Alejandro Ramírez, the leader of a prominent business organization in Mexico, recently called out López Obrador after the candidate accused him and others of not only profiting from corruption but also secretly meeting with one of López Obrador’s opponents to rig the result of the election against him.
Although this kind of conspiratorial thinking only adds to the concerns about his judgment, López Obrador has good cause to be suspicious. In 2006, when he was also leading the polls in the weeks before the election, AMLO was the target of a coordinated effort to paint him as Mexico’s Hugo Chávez, the dictator blamed for destroying democratic order in Venezuela.
The comparison was ill-founded at best, but AMLO’s defiant tone and rough political style played right into his detractors’ narrative. López Obrador lost one of the closest and most disputed elections in Mexico’s history to conservative candidate Felipe Calderón, igniting a series of protests around the streets of Mexico City that many thought marked the end of AMLO’s political career. That certainly looked to be the case six years later, when López Obrador lost his second presidential bid to Mexico’s current president, Enrique Peña Nieto.
But unprecedented levels of violence and corruption have catapulted López Obrador to the top of the polls ahead of the vote on July 1.
Through all of this, he has remained the same candidate; it’s Mexico that has changed for the worst. This is what goes over the heads of those who caution that López Obrador will lead Mexico into the abyss: For the overwhelming majority of Mexicans, the country is already there.
AMLO’s harshest critics warn that the rule of law and Mexico’s democratic institutions will be at risk if he becomes president. They fear his policies will devastate a rising middle class by resorting to a populist economic model based on government handouts. They project a weak peso and low foreign investment that will drive even more Mexicans into poverty. The doomsday scenarios fail to recognize the extent to which impunity and the abuse of power have eroded trust in Mexico’s legal and political systems. Embezzlement and conflict-of-interest scandals have involved more than a dozen former governors, cabinet members and Peña Nieto himself. And most importantly, they ignore widespread outrage over the more than 200,000 violent murders accumulated during the past two administrations, and the more than 36,000 people missing as of April.
In a country filled with rich politicians and powerful government contractors, voters justifiably feel betrayed by an establishment that has consistently proved either incapable of or uninterested in helping the more than 50 million Mexicans living below the poverty line.
The problem is that AMLO simplistically diagnoses the system as hopelessly broken while casting himself as the only remedy, a Mexican translation of President Trump’s “I alone can fix it.” AMLO’s messianic approach resonates with a massive following that thinks their candidate can do or say no wrong. Even if that means offering amnesty to violent drug traffickers. Or questioning the value of supreme court justices. Or inviting some of the most toxic characters in Mexico’s political class to join his team while building alliances with a party that thinks same-sex marriage is just a fad.
But calling him the most dangerous man in Mexico is not only myopic; it’s a facile take that undermines otherwise fair criticism of a man who has been running for president for more than a decade without concrete proposals to combat the insidiously complex issues Mexico is facing. If he wins, López Obrador will have to prove his opponents wrong and govern for all Mexicans, not just his devoted base.
Enrique Acevedo is the anchor of “Noticiero Univision” late-night edition and a special correspondent for the Fusion Media Group.