The “Trump effect” at the ballot box will get a critical test this weekend — in Mexico, where polling suggests the opposition party of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a sharp critic of the U.S. president, may capture a key state-level gubernatorial race and provide a dramatic boost for the leftist leader’s chances in next year’s presidential race.
A victory by Mr. Lopez Obrador’s National Regeneration Movement, known as Morena, on Sunday would deal a serious blow to current Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto’s centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has ruled the State of Mexico for nearly 90 years but struggled to maintain popular support there since winning the Mexican presidency in 2012.
Mr. Pena Nieto has also struggled to find his footing against Mr. Trump, whose plans to build a border wall — financed by Mexico — and revamp the North American Free Trade Agreement have sparked a popular backlash in Mexico. His popularity has also been rocked by a series of corruption scandals that have hit his administration.
Analysts say the stakes are particularly high because the State of Mexico is the most populous of Mexico’s 32 federal states, meaning a victory there would propel Morena’s aggressively anti-NAFTA agenda — as well as Mr. Lopez Obrador — to center stage ahead of the July 2018 presidential vote.
“In an environment where we’re constantly looking for bellwethers of political shifts, this will certainly be a harbinger of the contest to come for the Mexican presidency,” said Christopher Sabatini, a professor at Columbia University and editor of the analysis website “Latin America Goes Global.”
“This could be the vehicle for the rise to the presidential level of the leftists in Mexico,” Mr. Sabatini said in an interview Wednesday.
Despite the president’s struggles, polls say the race remains razor-close in what has long been a PRI stronghold. The Reforma newspaper in a poll released Wednesday gave Morena candidate Delfina Gomez 31.9 percent of the vote to 30.7 percent for the PRI’s Alfredo del Mazo, while a second poll published by El Universal gave Mr. del Mazo a slight lead. Under Mexican law, Wednesday was the last day of campaigning ahead of Sunday’s vote.
Mr. Sabatini said the vote could heighten tensions between Mexico City and Washington, giving Mr. Pena Nieto little maneuvering room to strike a compromise with the new U.S. administration.
“Right now, Mexico under Pena Nieto is clearly trying to encourage Trump to reconsider his positions on NAFTA to take a more incremental approach to changing the agreement rather than trashing it,” Mr. Sabatini said. “If you throw into the mix an infamously hot-headed opponent of NAFTA it definitely changes the dynamics.
“Any sort of moderate positive constructive change on NAFTA would probably be out the window.”
But it could well be that Mr. Lopez Obrador’s own outspokenly anti-Trump and anti-NAFTA rhetoric has propelled the perennial leftist presidential challenger to new prominence during recent months.
Washington’s foreign policy establishment has long viewed the former Mexico City mayor as a Ralph Nader-esque outsider — an antagonist who represented the oppressed in Mexico but was too far to the left to garner the broad support needed to win the presidency.
Mr. Lopez Obrador, 63, drew global attention in 2006, when, as the candidate of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), he nearly brought the nation to its knees with massive street protests after narrowly losing that year’s presidential contest to Felipe Calderon of the center-right National Action Party (PAN).
He was back again in 2012, coming in second to Mr. Pena Nieto, who led the PRI’s return to the single-term, six-year presidency after 12 years of PAN rule. Some say Mr. Trump’s rise in Washington could be just the catalyst to propel Mr. Lopez Obrador to victory this time around.
“The latest polls show that Trump’s Mexico-bashing has had the predictable effect of creating a nationalist backlash in Mexico, which is helping” Mr. Obrador, Miami Herald opinion writer Andres Oppenheimer wrote in a recent column. “Trump’s false claims about an alleged upsurge in illegal immigration from Mexico and other untrue assertions about Mexico have given Lopez Obrador the perfect ammunition to cast himself as the only one who can save Mexico from its aggressive northern neighbor.”
In March Mr. Lopez Obrador blasted Mr. Trump’s “campaign of hatred” against Mexican immigrants, called the plan for a border wall “propaganda” and said he couldn’t wait to handle the renegotiation of NAFTA.
“Pena is too quiet. And Donald Trump speaks very loudly,” he told Bloomberg News in an interview at the time. “One doesn’t beg for liberty, one seizes it.”
He said he supports free trade and asserted that Mr. Trump’s threat of inserting tariffs into NAFTA makes no sense. But he also embraced a nonchalant tone toward the 23-year-old trade agreement, saying that while it “didn’t hurt” Mexico, it’s “not our salvation” either.
Adding insult to injury, Mr. Pena Nieto’s political base was the State of Mexico, where he served in various posts, including governor of the state from 2005 to 2011. The ruling PRI is already reeling from the loss in 2016 of four other governorships.
Iberoamerican University political scientist Ivonne Acuna told The Associated Press that the State of Mexico has long been a key source of the PRI’s so-called “voto duro,” or hard vote — voters it can count on year after year, most of them from a lower socioeconomic status, less educated and many older than 50.
A Morena victory would give Mr. Lopez Obrador “an immense advance in his quest for the presidency in 2018,” Ms. Acuna said, although she added the opposition vote will be shared among several candidates, which will make it difficult to overcome the PRI’s deeply rooted organization.