- - Wednesday, October 4, 2017

MEXICO CITY — Despite four decades in politics and a resume that includes a stint running the country’s capital and largest city, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador still views himself as the ultimate outsider in Mexican politics.

Widely expected to win the Mexican presidency in July, the 63-year-old populist known as AMLO — his initials — could prove as big a shock to the system in Mexico City as Donald Trump has to the one in Washington.

On the stump, Mr. Lopez Obrador claims that a “mafia of power” controls his country’s politics. He points to billions of dollars lost to corruption and a weak justice system that gives drug traffickers free rein while ordinary people suffer.

“It’s not a hunger for power or money that drives us, but the transformation of Mexico,” Mr. Lopez Obrador, the leader of the National Regeneration Movement, or Morena, said recently before several thousand supporters in downtown Mexico City.

Mexicans will vote in presidential and congressional elections on July 1, but politicking is already in full swing as drug-fueled crime and corruption dominate headlines and the government of center-right President Enrique Pena Nieto limps to the end of its six-year term.

Polls show Mr. Lopez Obrador as the clear front-runner. While some hail him as a savior, others view him as a populist in the mold of Venezuela’s late anti-American leader Hugo Chavez, one who could reverse 30 years of market-oriented reforms and fiscal stability in Mexico.

“AMLO stands apart from the other politicians because of his honesty and integrity,” said Maya Alvarez, a housewife and former shopkeeper who attended the Mexico City rally. “They have tried to rip him down. But we, his supporters, have never given up.”

Not everyone agrees.

“He’s an egomaniac driven by personal ambition, and his authoritarian tendencies should frighten Mexican voters,” said Felipe Quesada, another citizen watching the rally.

Since Mexico transitioned to democracy in 2000 and implemented free market economic reforms, growth has been disappointing and drug-related violence has soared.

Mr. Pena Nieto’s center-left Institutional Revolutionary Party was the country’s dominant political force for decades, but his administration implemented a string of major free market reforms at the outset of his term, such as breaking up monopolies and liberalizing the energy sector.

More recently, however, he has been dogged by corruption scandals and human rights abuses, crystallized by his failure to bring drug cartels to justice for the disappearance of 43 student protesters in Ayotzinapa three years ago.

Mexicans’ dissatisfaction with their political class is high. Only 8 percent believe the country is on the right track, an Ipsos Public Affairs survey found last month.

Third run for president

A former Mexico City mayor, Mr. Lopez Obrador is making his third bid for the presidency. After a narrow loss in 2006, he denounced what he claimed was a rigged vote. His supporters blockaded the capital’s principal avenue for three months. Yet the country’s electoral tribunal found no evidence of wrongdoing, and opponents quickly painted him as a radical danger to Mexican democracy.

“As with Bernie Sanders in the U.S., AMLO has a following that is much more radical than he is,” said Rodolfo Soriano, a Lopez Obrador supporter and sociologist in Mexico City. “There are die-hard AMLO supporters who sometimes take things too far, but they do it of their own volition.”

Stories of Mr. Lopez Obrador’s closeness to the socialist Venezuelan regime haven’t helped. While there is no evidence that AMLO personally has ties to Caracas, his supporters are a mix of moderates and the far left. The Venezuelan Embassy in Mexico City once tweeted a message thanking the Morena party for its support.

The Trump administration has taken a hard line on the Venezuelan government, accusing leftist President Nicolas Maduro — a Chavez protege — of undermining democratic liberties while running the economy into the ground. Questioned during a public appearance in Washington last month, Mr. Lopez Obrador said he supported only dialogue with Caracas.

Mr. Lopez Obrador favors a leftist approach to the economy, proposing massive spending on education, infrastructure and other economic developments to revive Mexico’s sluggish economy, which has averaged less than 1 percent growth since 1993. Like Mr. Trump, he is a skeptic of free trade and a sharp critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Mr. Trump wants to renegotiate.

Critics argued that his economic policies are unrealistic given Mexico’s reliance on international trade and the lack of revenue to finance Mr. Lopez Obrador’s social welfare programs.

“He’s inspired by a superficial reading of FDR’s New Deal,” said Alberto Fernandez, a political scientist at the New School. “It’s incompatible with the Mexico of today because the government doesn’t have a way of financing public programs of the magnitude AMLO proposes.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Fernandez didn’t believe that Mr. Lopez Obrador is a clone of Chavez, and his record running Mexico City proved unexpectedly pragmatic. He left office in 2005 — a year before his ill-fated first presidential run — with sky-high voter approval levels.

“His achievements as Mexico City mayor weren’t bad in terms of public security, investment and genuine public warmth for him,” Mr. Fernandez said.

With each Mexican president serving a single six-year term, the July election will be the first national test of voter sentiment since Mr. Trump’s stunning rise to the White House north of the border. With the U.S. still the critical economic market for Mexico, Mr. Trump’s accusations of cheating the U.S. on jobs and trade, labeling of Mexican immigrants as “criminals and rapists,” and threats to build a border wall are sure to be big themes in the race.

Most Mexicans viewed Mr. Pena Nieto’s response to Mr. Trump’s rhetoric as insufficiently forceful. Mr. Lopez Obrador, in contrast, has traveled to the U.S. to campaign for the rights of immigrants. He recently published a book defending Mexico titled “Oye, Trump!” or, roughly, “Hey, Trump!”

“I’ve come to appreciate AMLO after being very skeptical about him, because he’s developing a sense of purpose among his followers that I am unable to find in any other political party,” said Mr. Soriano.

While many view Mr. Lopez Obrador’s victory as a done deal, the number of independent candidates — permitted to run for president for the first time next year — is still to be determined.

But many voters disillusioned by Mexican politics are flocking to Mr. Lopez Obrador’s banner.

“I’ve had my differences with him in the past based on policy,” said Miguel Casillas, a chemistry student at the Mexico City rally who described himself as middle class, “but I’m so tired of the establishment that this time I may gamble.”

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