Why Mexico Is Swinging Left

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, here speaking in Mexico City, has a substantial lead in surveys as the July 1 presidential election approaches.CreditCarlos Jasso/Reuters
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, here speaking in Mexico City, has a substantial lead in surveys as the July 1 presidential election approaches. Credit Carlos Jasso/Reuters

In this arid farming town in central Mexico, a crowd packed the plaza under a punishing sun to hear the leftist presidential hopeful Andrés Manuel López Obrador promise to end the corruption that plagues the nation.

“They have even said that corruption is part of Mexican culture,” he said to a chorus of supportive shouts. “That is a falsehood. A big lie. In our people, there is a great reserve of values, cultural, moral, spiritual, in the families, in the pueblos, in the communities.” He pointed upward. “The problem is above. The rulers always set a bad example.”

Mr. López Obrador went on to promise cuts in government expenditures, including a reduction in the president’s salary and the selling of the executive air fleet. He said he would redirect money to the poor through pensions, scholarships, apprenticeships and free fertilizer for small farmers, a vow greeted with raucous cheers.

His message — that he will overturn what he calls “the mafia of power” and replace it with an austere bureaucracy that invests in communities — is proving appealing as the July 1 election nears. According to the Bloomberg Poll tracker, Mr. López Obrador has the support of over 50 percent of voters, twice that of his rival Ricardo Anaya, of the center-right National Action Party. If these numbers translate to votes, it will give the 64-year-old Mr. López Obrador the most decisive victory in a Mexican presidential election since 1982.

The colossal lead comes as a surprise, considering that in his previous two bids for president, in 2006 and 2012, Mr. López Obrador won no more than 35 percent of the vote. His message has changed little over the years — some of the phrases I hear at his rallies are almost identical to ones that I wrote down when I covered his speeches 12 years ago. What has changed are his expressions: He looks happier, more relaxed, less angry.

Back in the 2000s, leftist politicians were sweeping Latin America. Now, conservative-leaning leaders have made a comeback in countries like Argentina and Peru. Mr. López Obrador appears to be bucking the trend.

So why is he finally surging? The main reason is that confidence in Mexico’s established parties has nose-dived in the last five years amid rising prices and brutal crime alongside horrendous corruption scandals. In this environment, his message resonates louder. For many who are struggling, his words promise hope.

“We are tired of the same people in power, the same dinosaurs — we want them out,” said José Sampedro, a 52-year-old builder at the Actopan rally. “We want it so Mexican citizens don’t have to go to the United States to work, so they don’t have to be mistreated” by the Trump administration’s policies. Mr. Sampedro, like many in this area, has traveled north for work — in his case, construction jobs in Florida.

Anger against the Mexican establishment is especially focused on the ideologically nebulous Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, which ran the country for most of the 20th century and is the party of the current president, Enrique Peña Nieto. The PRI has been plagued by dishonesty, with a handful of its former state governors facing criminal charges. In the most high-profile case, the former governor of Veracruz, Javier Duarte, is in jail accused of skimming up to $3 billion of public money. Meanwhile, Mr. Peña Nieto was himself caught in a conflict of interest scandal when journalists discovered his wife in a $7 million mansion provided by a company with government contracts.

Mr. Peña Nieto oversaw a series of reforms aimed to modernize the economy, including opening up the oil industry to private foreign investment. But while these moves were hailed by investors, they produced only minor short-term growth in a time of soaring prices; inflation was officially 6.8 percent last year, with the cost of fruit and vegetables rising 18.6 percent. Mr. Peña Nieto’s approval rating plummeted and the PRI’s presidential candidate is languishing in third place, polling at 21 percent.

In these circumstances, promises of more government help for the poor are applauded. A huge chunk of PRI voters — especially in poorer states like Hidalgo, where this town is situated — appear to have migrated directly to Mr. López Obrador. They are the biggest bloc of voters pushing him into the lead.

Mr. López Obrador has also made inroads in wealthier northern states, where the center-right National Action Party, known as the PAN, has historically been strong. A likely reason is that former President Felipe Calderón, of the PAN, waged a military crackdown on drug cartels during his tenure, from 2006 to 2012, that led to an explosion of violence in the north. The bloodshed has continued under Mr. Peña Nieto, with 2017 being Mexico’s most homicidal year in decades.

Mr. López Obrador blames both parties for the violence, and has pledged that he will bring peace to Mexico, even floating the idea of an amnesty for some criminals and inviting the pope to oversee a reconciliation process. His rivals denounce these proposals, but many here find it hard to see how violence could get any worse and are open to new ideas.

The rise of President Trump could also be helping Mr. López Obrador, convincing people that a stronger, more nationalist figure could better defend their interests against threats from the north. But this is probably a minor factor; most people I talk to at rallies are far angrier with their own rulers than those over the river in the United States.

Critics retort that Mr. López Obrador is himself a member of the establishment he rails against. He began his career in the PRI in the 1970s, then left to help found the Democratic Revolution Party in 1989; he founded his new party, National Regeneration Movement, or Morena, in 2014. When he was mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005, his minister of finance was caught on camera as a regular in a Las Vegas casino and subsequently imprisoned for embezzlement and money laundering. Many PRI and PAN politicians have switched to Morena as it surges in the polls.

But while Mr. López Obrador may indeed be another career politician, his style and discourse contrasts with those who have governed this nation the last few decades. This is enough of a signal of change to attract the votes of millions of people who are struggling to provide for their families, to escape violent gangs, or to recover from being deported from the United States. Time will tell if it is enough to really solve Mexico’s fundamental problems.

Ioan Grillo is the author of Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America and a contributing opinion writer.

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