The first time that Andrés Manuel López Obrador ran for President of Mexico, in 2006, he inspired such devotion among his partisans that they sometimes stuck notes in his pockets, inscribed with their hopes for their families. In an age defined by globalism, he was an advocate of the working class—and also a critic of the pri, the party that has ruthlessly dominated national politics for much of the past century. In the election, his voters’ fervor was evidently not enough; he lost, by a tiny margin. The second time he ran, in 2012, the enthusiasm was the same, and so was the outcome. Now, though, Mexico is in crisis—beset from inside by corruption and drug violence, and from outside by the antagonism of the Trump Administration. There are new Presidential elections on July 1st, and López Obrador is running on a promise to remake Mexico in the spirit of its founding revolutionaries. If the polls can be believed, he is almost certain to win.
In March, he held a meeting with hundreds of loyalists, at a conference hall in Culiacán. López Obrador, known across Mexico as amlo, is a rangy man of sixty-four, with a youthful, clean-shaven face, a mop of silver hair, and an easy gait. When he entered, his supporters got to their feet and chanted, “It’s an honor to vote for López Obrador!” Many of them were farmworkers, wearing straw hats and scuffed boots. He urged them to install Party observers at polling stations to prevent fraud, but cautioned against buying votes, a long-established habit of the pri. “That’s what we’re getting rid of,” he said. He promised a “sober, austere government—a government without privilege.” López Obrador frequently uses “privilege” as a term of disparagement, along with “élite,” and, especially, “power mafia,” as he describes his enemies in the political and business communities. “We are going to lower the salaries of those who are on top to increase the salaries of those on the bottom,” he said, and added a Biblical assurance: “Everything I am saying will be done.” López Obrador spoke in a warm voice, leaving long pauses and using simple phrases that ordinary people would understand. He has a penchant for rhymes and repeated slogans, and at times the crowd joined in, like fans at a pop concert. When he said, “We don’t want to help the power mafia to . . . ,” a man in the audience finished his sentence: “keep stealing.” Working together, López Obrador said, “we are going to make history.”
The current Mexican government is led by the center-right President Enrique Peña Nieto. His party, the pri, has depicted López Obrador as a radical populist, in the tradition of Hugo Chávez, and warned that he intends to turn Mexico into another Venezuela. The Trump Administration has been similarly concerned. Roberta Jacobson, who until last month was the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, told me that senior American officials often expressed worry: “They catastrophized about amlo, saying things like ‘If he wins, the worst will happen.’ ”
Ironically, his surging popularity can be attributed partly to Donald Trump. Within days of Trump’s election, Mexican political analysts were predicting that his open belligerence toward Mexico would encourage political resistance. Mentor Tijerina, a prominent pollster in Monterrey, told me at the time, “Trump’s arrival signifies a crisis for Mexico, and this will help amlo.” Not long after the Inauguration, López Obrador published a best-selling book called “Oye, Trump” (“Listen Up, Trump”), which contained tough-talking snippets from his speeches. In one, he declared, “Trump and his advisers speak of the Mexicans the way Hitler and the Nazis referred to the Jews, just before undertaking the infamous persecution and the abominable extermination.”
Officials in the Peña Nieto government warned their counterparts in the White House that Trump’s offensive behavior heightened the prospect of a hostile new government—a national-security threat just across the border. If Trump didn’t modulate his behavior, the election would be a referendum on which candidate was the most anti-American. In the U.S., the warnings worked. During a Senate hearing in April, 2017, John McCain said, “If the election were tomorrow in Mexico, you would probably get a left-wing, anti-American President.” John Kelly, who was then the Homeland Security chief, agreed. “It would not be good for America—or for Mexico,” he said.
In Mexico, remarks like Kelly’s seemed only to improve López Obrador’s standing. “Every time an American politician opens their mouth to express a negative view about a Mexican candidate, it helps him,” Jacobson said.