Andrés Manuel López Obrador: A Mexican Donald Trump?

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Mexico is set to vote in left-wing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador in its election on Sunday, who has been likened to Donald Trump by some observers.

Mexico’s federal elections, scheduled for July 1, comes at an important moment for the nation. The incumbent Industrial Revolution Party (PRI) are struggling in the polls and are long odds to retain power. The lead-up to the Mexican elections has been exceptionally violent. More than 100 politicians, including 43 candidates, have been murdered in the past few months. Hundreds more candidates, having been either threatened with violence or fearing violence, have stepped down from running for election. The violence toward candidates highlights the broader problem Mexico faces with violent crime: 2017 saw a record level of violence in the country.

The extremely high homicide rate in Mexico is one of the main reasons why the Industrial Revolution Party (PRI) are viewed so poorly among Mexican voters. Despite his pledges in 2012 that violent crime in Mexico would be halved, the figure has instead increased significantly. Nearly 3,000 murders occured in May alone, underscoring the extent of this problem and the scope of the ruling PRI party to tackle the issue. Corruption has also plagued the incumbent government and current president Enrique Pena Nieto. Several key PRI governors have been arrested or jailed for corruption. Pena Nieto’s wife was also revealed to have bought a multi-million dollar mansion from a government contractor under suspicious circumstances.

Enrique Pena Nieto

Enrique Pena Nieto (pictured left) has struggled to fulfill promises to curb violence and corruption in Mexico. Photo: Dario Lopez-Mills, AP

Entrenched corruption in the country, along with the ongoing violence has given an opportunity for leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador to become the Mexican President at the third attempt. Obrador and his newly-formed Morena party enjoy a sizeable lead over the other main candidates, Jose Antonio Meade and Ricardo Anaya. These candidates, both being centrist technocrats, have struggled to keep up with Lopez Obrador in the polling. If polling is to be believed, López Obrador is the strong favorite to be the next Mexican president. But who is he, and how might his election affect the already fractured relationship between the United States and Mexico?

Who is Andrés Manuel López Obrador?

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, often referred to as AMLO, has been an influential figure in Mexian politics for decades. His first foray into politics was back in 1976, in Tabasco, when he entered local politics for the first time. Here, he built a grassroots following which would eventually follow him into bigger roles. In 2000, he was elected as Mayor of Mexico City. During his tenure as Mayor, AMLO’s reputation as an effective politician was established. Despite his firebrand style, he was a pragmatic and effective mayor, able to work across the political aisle. His success in this position catapulted him onto the national stage with his first attempt at the Mexican presidency in 2006, under the PRI banner.

When López Obrador lost the 2006 election to Felipe Calderon, he led a series of protests, declaring the results fraudulent. The protests lasted months but failed to persuade the vast majority of the Mexican populace. Following the 2006 loss, he formed his own party, Morena, and spent the next several years travelling the country before running once again for the presidency in 2012. After his 2012 loss, he once again protested the result and called into question the legitimacy of his losses.

Critics point to López Obrador’s behaviour after losing his previous presidential bids as evidence he cannot be trusted with the presidency. They fear that he will dismantle Mexico’s fledgling democratic institutions and take the country back to its pre-democratic past. As a country that has only truly been democratic since the year 2000, this is an issue of particular concern for López Obrador’s critics. He is often compared by critics to Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s populist leftist ruler who lurched the country to the far left and into economic crisis.

Though he has a reputation as a populist, there are signs that López Obrador has moderated his approach. In contrast to his two previous presidential bids, he has taken a more conciliatory approach, reaching out across the political spectrum to build up a sufficiently large coalition of voters to win the Presidency. This task has been made considerably easier with the overriding dissatisfaction with the incumbent government. Many voters who would otherwise not consider a populist figure like López Obrador are willing to consider voting for him.

Many prominent figures in the Mexican business community are nonetheless concerned with the prospect of an AMLO presidency. Carlos Slim, one of the richest men in the world believes that a López Obrador presidency would harm the prospects for Mexico’s economy. Slim and López Obrador have clashed on plans for building a new airport in Mexico City. The project, which is set to cost around $13 billion is seen by many in the private sector as necessary to ensure Mexico can keep up with demand for flights. Slim, who holds contracts for the airports, has been among the strongest supporters of the project. López Obrador, however, believes the project to be a waste of money.

How similar to Trump is López Obrador?

López Obrador’s rise as a politician in Mexico has significant parallels with Trump. One of the central themes of his campaign is fighting corruption. In a parallel to Trump’s theme of ‘Draining the swamp’ in Washington, López Obrador has taken aim at Mexico’s establishment politicians. Decrying what he calls the ‘mafia of power’ in the establishment politicians who control Mexico, he has vowed to make Mexico more ‘self-sufficient’ if elected. He also invokes Mexican nationalism in a way that is similar to Trump’s message of ‘America First.’ Invoking what he calls ‘Mexicanismo’, López Obrador has vowed to be more inwardly focused, including being less reliably co-operative with the United States than Pena Nieto has been.

Leftist front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) greets to supporters during his campaign rally in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico April 1, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

Immigration and trade are two issues that López Obrador and Trump are likely to clash on. The Trump administration’s policies and rhetoric on immigration, for instance, is a point of contention between the two nations. López Obrador has taken particular umbrage to Trump’s insistence that Mexico pay for a proposed wall along the US-Mexican border. He has indicated that, if he wins election, he would opt for a policy emphasising jobs and development to stem illegal immigration rather than a border wall. Though he has indicated he will work with Donald Trump on the issue, any policy that does not include building a wall is unlikely to go far with the Trump administration, given the importance of the policy for him.

Trump’s deep unpopularity in Mexico, along with López Obrador’s populist streak may also make him take on positions he otherwise would not take. Enrique Pena Nieto was strongly rebuked by the Mexican public in 2016 after he invited Trump to Mexico to discuss Trump’s border wall policy, on the back of Trump’s election victory. By contrast, López Obrador has vowed to stand up to Trump. He has, at times, denouced Trump as “ racist, xenophobic and “neo-fascist.”

Another point of contention between Trump and López Obrador has been their differing positions on trade. Lopez Obrador has said to this point that he would continue NAFTA negotiations along their current track. While the United States and Mexico are renegotiating NAFTA, some believe that López Obrador will, given his populist streak, walk away from NAFTA altogether. Trump’s recent penchant for trade war rhetoric may also spell the end to these negotiations. It is not difficult to envision two populist leaders like Trump and López Obrador engaging in some form of trade war with one another.

As is the case with Trump, López Obrador does not fit the mold of a conventional politician. He is prone to lashing out at opponents, making drastic decisions with little prior consultation and often changes his mind just as quickly. These traits, more than any particular policy preference will likely cause clashes between himself and Trump. López Obrador’s record has also shown clear signs of pragmatism at times, such as his time as Mexico City’s mayor. The extent to which he governs as a pragmatic centre-left politician or reverts to his more populist leftism will be key to how he handles relations with the United States and Trump.

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About Author

Scott Davies is a freelance writer from Adelaide, Australia, with an interest in politics, history and culture. He holds a BA (Honours) in History and is currently studying a Master of Teaching (Secondary).

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