- - Sunday, June 24, 2018

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has been riding the presidential merry-go-round for the past two decades, and with a commanding lead in the polls, the big question for Mexico — and the United States — is what lies ahead if the left-wing populist seizes the brass ring in Sunday’s presidential vote.

The charismatic but polarizing Mr. Lopez Obrador, known widely by his initials AMLO, is promising on the campaign trail to revitalize Mexico’s farm sector, combat poverty and eradicate corruption by ensuring that “nothing and no one will be above the law.” With center-right President Enrique Pena Nieto limping to the finish line and widespread voter unhappiness with the more conventional parties, the 64-year-old Mr. Lopez Obrador seems poised to triumph in his third — and likely final — bid for a six-year term in Los Pinos, the Mexican White House.

Many see him as a lifelong leftist ideologue determined to reverse Mexico’s moves toward freer markets, scare off badly needed foreign investment and pick fights with the populist American president in Washington. Defenders say the onetime Mexico City mayor has a pragmatic streak but will bring hope and a new focus to parts of Mexican society too long ignored by the political establishment.

“I am going to dedicate this triumph to Mexico’s poor,” Mr. Lopez Obrador told supporters last week in a typically fiery address delivered from a dirt-bare soccer field. “We are going to respect everyone. But the poor come first.”

Even longtime Mexico watchers say it’s not clear which version of Mr. Lopez Obrador will take the oath of office if he finally realizes his dream of winning the presidency, starting with the dominant issue of public safety and the power of criminal cartels. Mr. Pena Nieto’s hard-line plan to shut down the cartels is widely seen as a failure.

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank focused on Latin American issues, said Mr. Lopez Obrador has not proposed a concrete plan of action to deal with Mexico’s security issue.

“He seems to have backed off a bit on his call for amnesty for cartel bosses,” Mr. Shifter said in an interview. “At the same time, there is no indication that he has a sound policy proposal to deal with Mexico’s serious security problem.”

Last year, Mr. Lopez Obrador proposed granting amnesty for drug kingpins, a move that earned staunch condemnation from members of the political and business elite.

“If it is necessary we will talk about granting amnesty so long as the victims and their families are willing,” Mr. Lopez Obrador told reporters in December.

Early challenges

Mr. Shifter believes that Mr. Lopez Obrador’s plan to tackle Mexico’s soaring violent crime rates may face early challenges.

“He seems to suggest that attacking poverty and generating jobs will be enough to reduce high levels of violence.” Mr. Shifter said. “That view is simplistic and problematic and ignores available evidence on crime and violence. It overlooks the scale and complexity of the challenge.”

Relations with the United States, strained by President Trump’s calls for a Mexico-financed border wall and a rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement, will also await Mr. Lopez Obrador should he win.

But Roderic Ai Camp, a global fellow for the Wilson Center Mexico Institute, said there are signs the predictions of a blow-up between the conservative populist Mr. Trump and the leftist populist Mr. Lopez Obrador could be exaggerated.

“AMLO and his supporters represent a left-of-center view of Mexican politics, and that is always relied upon to be a predictor of more difficult relations between U.S. and Mexico,” said Mr. Camp, “but he has demonstrated during the campaign that he can be a responsible leader.”

“He realizes that to achieve some of the goals he wants, most notably in terms of economic policy and expanding poverty reduction programs, he needs to have a strong collaborative relation with the U.S.,” he said.

Mr. Lopez Obrador, who has criticized NAFTA in the past as a bad deal for Mexico, has said he is committed to negotiations on trade and immigration with the U.S.

He has been likened to Mr. Trump with his unapologetic “Mexico first” rhetoric and frequent attacks on his establishment critics, leading some to speculate that the two men may find unexpected common ground. But Rafael de Castro Medina, director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, said he does not see a comparison.

“Yes, [Mr. Lopez Obrador] is a bit nationalistic, but he has discipline, and I have never seen that type of discipline in Trump,” Mr. de Castro said.

Mr. Lopez Obrador has sharply criticized Mr. Trump’s push for a border wall, arguing that the illegal drug flow from Mexico is fueled by U.S. consumption and won’t be solved by tougher security measures.

“This problem needs to be addressed from the demand sides in terms of consumption in the United States,” Mr. Lopez Obrador said in a speech in Washington in September.

He has sent mixed signals on the economy — and the critical question of the future of Mexico’s troubled energy sector. During the campaign, he has reached out to business groups and investment firms to affirm his support for trade and free markets, but has reiterated his fierce criticisms of the plan to liberalize and sell off part of the state-owned oil company. He promises major spending on social programs and the poor but insists he will not bankrupt Mexico’s treasury to do so.

Political fixture

The front-runner has been a fixture in Mexican politics for the past quarter-century. Serving as mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005, Mr. Lopez Obrador earned an impressive approval rating of 84 percent, largely a result of expanded social programs for the poor. This year’s election is his third attempt at the presidency, having unsuccessfully run twice before, once in 2006 and again in 2012.

After his defeat in the 2006 election, Mr. Lopez Obrador organized protests that drew hundreds of thousands of supporters in Mexico City to demand a recount. In an act of civil disobedience, Mr. Lopez Obrador and his supporters blocked nearly 5 miles of the historic avenue Paseo de la Reforma, causing huge losses for local businesses.

His reluctance to accept the results of the 2006 election proved costly, with many writing him off as a grandstanding sore loser. In 2012, Mr. Lopez Obrador, then running as the candidate for the Party of the Democratic Revolution, again failed in his quest for the presidency, narrowly losing to Mr. Pena Nieto.

But the political winds seem to have shifted in Mr. Lopez Obrador’s favor. Voters say their top concerns are the heightened levels of violent crime and corruption that arose during Mr. Nieto’s tenure, two issues at the heart of Mr. Lopez Obrador’s platform.

Mr. de Castro said the outgoing president, blocked by Mexico’s constitution from seeking another term, essentially handed Mr. Lopez Obrador the election this year.

Mr. Pena Nieto “has done a wonderful job for AMLO,” the analyst said. “There was huge corruption and scandals during his six-year term, [scandals] that even touched him and his wife. Also, he never came up with a solid strategy against violence, so the violence skyrocketed during his last year.”

That same political environment has left Mr. Lopez Obrador’s rivals struggling for electoral oxygen.

Ricardo Anaya, the 39-year-old candidate of the right-left National Action Party (PAN), trails Mr. Lopez Obrador by about 7 percentage points, according to internal polls. A congressman at 21 and a rising star in his party, Mr. Anaya has portrayed himself as the moderate counterbalance to Mr. Lopez Obrador, and part of his platform focuses on reforming Mexico’s manufacturing-based economy into more high-tech areas.

Jose Antonio Meade, 49, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party labels himself a “common man, but he has not been able to overcome voter disenchantment with his party and the record of Mr. Pena Nieto.

With a steady lead in the polls, Mr. Lopez Obrador appears intent on keeping his options open and his critics guessing.

“What we want to do is to carry out the transformation that this country needs,” he told a group of businessmen on a campaign swing through the state of Sinaloa, according to a New Yorker profile. “Things can’t go on as they are.”

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