UPDATE, 7/2/2018, 2:22 a.m.: Andrew Manuel Lopez Obrador won Mexico’s presidential election on Sunday night with at least 53 percent of the vote, more than 30 points ahead of the second-place candidate.
A sure way to try the patience of Tatiana Clouthier, campaign manager to the man expected to be Mexico’s next president, is to rope her in to the American argument over civility in politics.
Clouthier works for Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the maverick leftist whom recent polls suggest has a lead of as many as 25 points on his nearest rival in Sunday’s presidential election. In Mexican politics, of course, there is no such thing as a comfortable lead. One party, the PRI, has ruled the country for 77 of the previous 89 years, and has resorted to electoral shenanigans and outright fraud in the past to remain in power.
Still, Lopez Obrador’s rise suggests he’s benefitting from a zeitgeist that eschews decorum, diplomacy and, yes, even civility—a fervor not unlike the one that put Donald Trump in the White House.
“There is no depth to such comparisons,” Clouthier said. “Trump puts children in cages, Andres Manuel doesn’t.
“The two men have nothing in common, right down to the color of their skin.”
Chalk it up to the law of unintended consequences. By insulting and bullying Mexico and Mexicans, starting when he announced his run for president in 2015, Trump has helped antagonize millions of Mexican voters into electing his mirror image, a tenacious ideologue and unabashed proponent of the working class with a fervent base of millions of supporters.
Truly, as a herald of the process of polarization in which the outer margins of left and right are crowding the center of world politics, the surprising election of democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Congress pales in comparison to the presumed election of Lopez Obrador as president of Mexico.
Though Lopez Obrador has grown more cautious after narrow defeats in the presidential elections of 2006 and 2012, the 64-year-old former mayor of Mexico City remains a throwback to a previous era, a champion of the working class in Mexico and a diehard apostle of a notion unfashionable in a globalist era, that of Mexican national sovereignty.
At a rally last week at Mexico City’s immense Estadio Azteca, Lopez Obrador told a crowd of tens of thousands of supporters imbued with sense that victory was imminent: “We are at the point of beginning the fourth transformation in the history of Mexico, and of converting into reality the dreams of many Mexicans before us and of our time.”
Lopez Obrador has equated his presumed election to president with the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20. He has linked his rise in the polls to the sacrifices of activists and revolutionaries who preceded him—including the scads of student protesters killed in a military massacre in 1968.
Lopez Obrador “is not a quote-unquote normal politician,” says .Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and former agent of the Mexican intelligence agency known as CISEN. “He sees himself as a world-historic figure, a transformative figure, someone who will be remembered in history books hundreds of years from now.
“The way they still talk about Benito Juarez as Mexico’s Abraham Lincoln, that’s how he sees himself.”
One prominent opponent, the Mexican intellectual Jesus Silva-Herzog, quipped that the candidate popularly known as AMLO, seeks above all to become a statue. Alarmed at the mob of supporters who greet him on the campaign trail wherever he goes, opponents often resort to the pejorative “messianic” to account for his popularity.
Voters in Mexico are widely fatigued and frustrated with the worsening atmosphere of violence and corruption. The L.A. Times reports that Mexico recorded more homicides than at any point in its modern history, and it is on track to break that record this year. Corruption has run rampant in recent years, ensnaring Peña Nieto and his government. Mexican police and armed forces have been accused of involvement in appalling human rights violations, and the authorities have a woeful rate of solving crimes—as many as 99 percent of homicides in the country go unpunished.
Lopez Obrador lost the 2006 election to conservative Felipe Calderon by a razor-thin margin, after most pre-election polls had shown him in the lead. He claimed election fraud, and set up what he called a shadow government, leading thousands of supporters in a months-long protest encampment that occupied large swathes of downtown Mexico City.
Soon after the 2006 election, Calderon would infamously deploy the Mexican military to combat drug cartels in Mexican cities and towns, and many thousands died or disappeared amid the violence.
By labeling Lopez Obrador a “deceitful populist” and “danger to Mexico” for years, a figure supposedly in the mold of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, many of the now discredited and reviled political leaders of Mexico did Lopez Obrador an inadvertent favor. After a decade of incalculable bloodshed, he remains perhaps the lone politician with a national following in Mexico whose hands are relatively clean.
Lopez Obrador would be the first leftist elected president of Mexico arguably since Lazaro Cardenas distributed land, made loans available to peasant farmers, and expropriated and nationalized foreign-owned industries in the 1930s.
The front-runner, meanwhile, has curbed somewhat his radical rhetoric of years past in the run-up to the election, shifting the focus of his attacks from the ultra-rich to the widespread corruption of what he now calls “the mafia in power.” His picks for keys posts in his government like finance and interior seem to indicate he will attempt to govern from closer to the center.
He has put anti-corruption efforts at the center of his campaign, a move that has resonated with a Mexican electorate exhausted from the toll of countless corruption scandals. A dozen current or former governors face corruption charges, and the current government has been accused of covering up official involvement in the disappearance of 43 students at a rural teachers college in 2014. He has made assurances to the business class that he will avoid running up a deficit by paying for social spending with money saved from rooting out corruption.
Investors and analysts say tell Bloomberg they worry that, as president, Lopez Obrador will act on his long-held opposition to major investment projects like a $13 billion new airport for Mexico City and the ongoing plan to open the state monopoly on oil and gas development to foreign companies.
Reminiscent of the media speculation in the days leading up to Trump’s inauguration, the punditry in Mexico is left to wonder how far Lopez Obrador is actually willing to go once in power to back up what he says.
Of the airport, he told U.S. investors in Mexico City he’d honor bonds sold to build it. Of the oil contracts, he has said he will nullify only those shown to have been tainted by corruption—the type of enigmatic qualifier that has analysts wringing their hands and guessing at his meaning.
Lopez Obrador has been a tough critic of foreign trade deals like NAFTA, which he blames for pushing millions of rural Mexicans into poverty. Though polls suggest he has support from a broad demographic of voters, his core supporters remain small farmers and ranchers, many of whom were pushed into poverty after they couldn’t compete with U.S.-subsidized food imports. Think Trump at Carrier, only with the optics focused on the sagging fortunes of the poor Mexican farmer.
“Andres Manuel has been very clear on numerous occasions that Mexico should consume what it produces, particularly for agricultural products.” Hope said. “He will probably be more prone to have an openly nationalistic industrial policy, with protective tariff barriers on specific sectors.”
Clouthier says Lopez Obrador is willing to renegotiate NAFTA with Trump, and that he would like to insert guarantees of a minimum wage for Mexican workers. Mainly, says the campaign manager, he will seek to engage with Trump as an equal.
“Andres Manuel has said that he wants a relationship with Trump that is based on respect, a relationship between equals, not one in which one is above and the other below.”
Analysts view Venezuela as an early diplomatic test for Lopez Obrador’s presidency. The current Mexican government has demonstrated a willingness to criticize the government of Nicolas Maduro for what it has called human rights violations. Clouthier says Lopez Obrador will pursue a traditional policy of “non-intervention” in the affairs of a foreign government.
As for whether the next president of Mexico will answer the racist provocations of Trump tit for tat, or tweet for tweet, Clouthier declined to speculate. Hope said Lopez Obrador would likely avoid public spats with Trump that could distract focus from his plans for Mexico.
Nevertheless, Hope said, “I would pay top dollar to hear conversation between those two guys.”