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Mexico's López Obrador wants to take his country toward a future that looks a lot like its grim past

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s projected margin of victory was 31 percentage points — the largest in Mexico’s recent electoral history.

Mexico is united in collective delirium. El Tri, the beloved national soccer team, plays Brazil on Monday in the second round of the World Cup in Russia. Fingers of all political persuasions and socioeconomic backgrounds are crossed, hoping for a win. But first, Mexico has to elect a new president on Sunday.

Competitive elections remain a relative novelty in Mexico. It wasn’t until 2000 that an opposition party managed to dislodge the PRI from the presidency after seven decades, and it didn’t take long for democratic disenchantment to set in. Hence the opening for the man who will probably win: Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

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AMLO, as he’s known, is the 64-year-old former mayor of Mexico City, and now the leader of a new leftist party, Morena, or the National Regeneration Movement. He has held a commanding and consistent lead in polls for months in what is essentially a three-candidate race, also featuring Ricardo Anaya of the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, and José Antonio Meade of the governing PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which won back the presidency in 2012. Anaya and Meade are capable politicians with sound policy proposals to expand Mexico’s engagement with the world, but they suffer from voter disgust and exhaustion with their respective parties.

It’s difficult for Americans to appreciate the magnitude of Mexico’s transformation over the past generation.


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AMLO ran and lost in 2006 and 2012. Now voters appear to have adopted a “what do we have to lose” acceptance of his populist message for much the same reason many Americans turned to Donald Trump: They’re fed up with the status quo and its standard-bearers.

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At a glance, Trump and López Obrador would appear to have little in common: AMLO, unlike the American president, comes from a humble background. His parents ran a store in a village in the remote state of Tabasco. A lifelong politician, he openly disdains wealth. Still, the temperamental similarities between the two are intriguing: AMLO views himself as rising above the pesky norms of institutionalized politics and legal niceties because he is looking out for Mexico’s “forgotten man.” He considers that his own intuition, forceful leadership and personal example will suffice to defeat the “mafias del poder,” the power mafias, that plague Mexico with the “cancer of corruption.”

AMLO’s base and Trump’s share some qualities as well. López Obrador leans to the left, and Trump to the right, but both men are peddling nostalgia to the disaffected. They aspire to lead their nations to a better past, not a better future. They see in the world beyond their borders threats and aggravation rather than opportunities and prosperity. They face inward and backward, as if wanting to stuff a genie back in the bottle.

Their similarities will surely make them antagonists, if AMLO wins as predicted. Given his own ambivalence about NAFTA and about more recent energy reforms meant to encourage foreign investment in Mexico’s oil sector, he won’t hesitate to take a confrontational approach with Washington. It may not hurt him or Mexico as much as feared: Trump seems to relish making deals with opponents more than rewarding allies.

It’s difficult for Americans to appreciate the magnitude of Mexico’s transformation over the past generation. It went from a highly managed and closed economy to a wide open one, firmly committed to the discipline (or whims, depending on your orientation) of global markets. Both PAN and PRI presidents adhered to prudent, orthodox policies that placated international bondholders, and millions of Mexicans have appreciated the resulting access to consumer products, the global standards and norms that have spread across the private sector and the nation’s overall financial stability.

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But the economic opening that modernized Mexico also has left millions behind, exacerbating glaring inequalities. Less centralized power has rendered the once omnipotent one-party state apparatus incapable of curbing local corruption and organized crime. Mexicans are frustrated by high levels of intractable violence and the failure of the rule of law that belie their leaders’ first world pretensions.

If the polls are correct, AMLO commands a lead because he is reaching beyond his hardcore leftist base, winning over a broader segment of the middle class tired of PAN and PRI’s uneven progress. López Obrador has wooed such voters with a reassuringly vague campaign, and by softening his socialist rhetoric and even by resisting the temptation to make U.S. bashing a staple of his campaign.

López Obrador’s critics warn that as president, he would resemble Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, whose radical “Bolivarian” revolution is credited with turning that country into a desperately impoverished nation. The comparison may be overwrought; AMLO is far too much of a “Mexico First” nationalist (and pragmatist, his supporters stress) to model himself after foreign revolutionaries.

The more likely scenario, one that even his advisors acknowledge, is that AMLO will use his popularity to cement an almighty presidency in the old PRI mold — part big-city ward boss, part Aztec emperor. To some, that would be reassuring: an empowered, trusted father figure who will trade the economic liberalization wrought by recent technocratic leaders for a state that once again determines industrial policy and divvies the spoils “for the people.” AMLO talks wistfully of turning Mexico into a self-sufficient nation again.

Back at the World Cup in Russia, El Tri’s leading all-time scorer, Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, has been exhorting his countrymen to dream big, to aspire to “cosas chingonas” (a folkloric way of saying “great things”) — like beating every other nation to win the World Cup. Sadly, whatever great things might be possible on the pitch, cosas chingonas do not appear to be on today’s ballot.

Mexico’s choice is between capable men from discredited parties who missed their chance to adequately reform the nation’s governance and a candidate urging disenchanted voters to join him in a comforting fantasy about a brighter future that in reality looks a lot like the nation’s grim past.

Andrés Martinez is a professor of practice at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University and a fellow at New America.

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