CONTRARY TO recent expectations, Mexico has a competitive presidential election on its hands. With about two months to go before the July 2 vote, former front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the populist ex-mayor of Mexico City, has lost his lead in the polls and, most important, the aura of inevitability. Some polls show the National Action Party candidate, Felipe Calderon, 3 to 10 points in the lead.
Hubris has obviously hurt Lopez Obrador. But arrogance and disrespect for the electorate -- his refusal to participate in a debate or to address any substantive issue -- are not a sufficient explanation for his collapse in the polls. Another underlying reason for Lopez Obrador’s unexpected downturn lies in his failure to move to the center and separate himself from the more radical stances and factions of his party -- the Party of the Democratic Revolution -- his allies (including many ultra-left radical groups in Mexico City) and his foreign sympathizers (in Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia).
Mexico remains a terribly conservative country; Mexicans desire change only sporadically and in small doses, and they generally loathe stridency, confrontation and clean breaks with anything. The former front-runner has proved unable to make the move from left-wing rabble-rouser to centrist statesman; his base has simply not permitted this transformation. That base is, in a nutshell, too intent on revolution. It is a minority (no more than 15% of the electorate) but a significant one, highly concentrated in two or three regions. It admires Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, wants to repeal NAFTA, renationalize parts of the economy and spend money extravagantly.
Lopez Obrador is not part of that base and does not subscribe to many of its tenets, but he is, increasingly, its hostage. Winning an election on the extreme left of the political spectrum is difficult anywhere; in Mexico, it is almost impossible.
Another factor explaining the populist implosion is the success of his main rival -- not another candidate but Vicente Fox, the current president. Indeed, it almost seems as if instead of Calderon running for president, Fox is running for reelection. He is successfully -- so far -- transforming the July 2 vote into a referendum on his own record. And he is winning, thanks to the fact that inflation and interest rates are at their lowest levels ever; employment and foreign reserves are up; and consumer credit, anti-poverty programs, health coverage and housing are successfully expanding.
And who knows, Fox may even get immigration reform in Washington. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Fox, who is barred constitutionally from a second term, is finishing with a flourish. Logically enough, this helps his National Action Party colleague Calderon, whose merits are considerable but who could always use help from his friends.
But Lopez Obrador is not out of the running. He has 60% of voter preferences in the Mexico City metropolitan area, which accounts for a quarter of the nation’s electorate. He has immense resources available to him. He inspires devotion, at times of a fanatical nature, among the country’s poor, and they are a majority. He has shown himself to be incredibly resilient in the past, shrugging off one apparently fatal blow after another. He is not finished, despite his own best efforts.
The outcome of the election will largely depend on who can move faster and more clearly to the center -- Calderon from the right or Lopez Obrador from the left. Another question is whether Institutional Revolutionary Party candidate Roberto Madrazo deservedly continues to sink, allowing many of his followers to switch to Calderon to head off a left-wing triumph; still another is whether Fox stays on a roll.
But for now, Fox and Calderon together are making Mexico’s still-in-diapers democracy work, and Lopez Obrador is proving what many have always thought: When push comes to shove, Mexicans, despite their democratic inexperience, are not dupes. Like Cuba, the country had a revolution, but back in 1910; like Bolivia, it nationalized its oil, but back in 1938; and, like Venezuela, it lived through more than a decade of interminable populist rhetoric, but back in the 1970s and ‘80s. Once seems to be enough, on all counts.