Champion of poor or demagogue? Mexico’s president remains popular despite stalled economy, pandemic and crime
The Mexican economy is cratering, homicides are rising at a record rate, and the COVID-19 death toll has surged past 80,000.
For any other leader, the torrent of bad news might herald a political reckoning. Not for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Yes, protesters have been camped out in downtown Mexico City calling for his resignation and drawing outsized media attention.
But the left-wing populist saw his approval rating rise from 56% in June to 62% in September — according to polling by El Financiero newspaper — making him one of the most popular leaders in the world.
“One doesn’t want to be presumptuous,” the 66-year-old president known as AMLO — his initials — declared in a triumphant state of the union address last month. “But in the worst moment we can count on the best government.”
His enduring appeal stems in part from a kind of everyman persona, a rumpled, wise-uncle image that has helped him cast his presidency as a project to “transform” Mexico and reduce its deep social inequities.
Supporters view him as the first president to put their needs before those of the wealthy and the long-corrupt political class — and the country’s current tribulations apparently have not changed many minds.
“I wouldn’t say he is perfect, but AMLO has done something no other president has done — he has helped the poor,” said Ricardo Montesinos, 47, one of the capital’s legions of cellphone salespersons. “The politicians in Mexico only steal and have no concern for those who don’t have enough to eat.”
The president’s approach to leadership — perhaps best described as you-are-with-me-or-against-me self-righteousness — has come with a steep price: a profound sense of national polarization.
His enemies, who hail from both the left and the right, are as passionate as his supporters. They view him as a demagogue and his appeals to the poor as classic strongman paternalism, and say his brand of class warfare has built a cult of personality, blinding Mexicans to his failed leadership.
“The statistics, the unemployed and the dead aren’t enough, because his word continues to be stronger than reality,” lamented columnist Raymundo Riva Palacio in the newspaper El Financiero.
Critics say the president’s relentlessly upbeat spin on the country’s dire predicament is a facade — and that the poor will ultimately suffer most as the economy continues to sink while he refuses to consider the kind of financial stimulus that most other major nations have implemented.
In the meantime, opponents accuse López Obrador of largely buying his support.
His campaign vow — “first, the poor” — has translated into generous social welfare payments, scholarships, loan credits and bolstered pensions.
He recently boasted that 70% of Mexican households now receive some kind of public assistance, a welfare windfall that has reinforced his standing with his low-income base, even as the government made deep cuts to health spending, environmental protection and cultural funding.
“I support my president because he is helping us,” said Carmela Suárez, 39, who noted that she receives the equivalent of about $40 a month for each of her three children, aged 8, 10 and 14. “If it weren’t for him, I don’t know how we would be surviving.”
Resonating with many is an austere lifestyle — he turned the lavish presidential palace into a public visitor’s venue, travels economy class and is auctioning off the luxury presidential jet.
His signature crusade against corruption has broad backing, as does his controversial proposal — approved by the country’s top court this month — to stage a public referendum next year on whether ex-presidents should be investigated and possibly tried for wrongdoing.
Also working to the president’s advantage is the debilitated and fragmented state of the opposition in Mexico, where his bloc — known as the National Generation Movement, or Morena — controls both houses of Congress.
The López Obrador effect has steamrolled rival factions, including the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico with an iron fist for much of the 20th century.
Last month, a group known as the National Anti-AMLO Front pitched a tent encampment in Mexico City’s vast central plaza, or zócalo, vowing to remain until the president resigns.
“What country does he live in?” asked Juan Antonio Facio Flores, 71, a businessman in the protest movement. “It must be Amlolandia because here in Mexico things are not like he says.”
But the protesters, many of them middle-class or wealthy, have become subjects of ridicule: They seem to embody the privileged niche whom the president regularly mocks as los fifis, or elite.
On a recent afternoon, the encampment appeared to consist mostly of empty tents, festooned with banners demanding the president’s exit, though organizers insist that it is a broad-based movement.
“López Obrador is inept, cynical and shameless,” said Mario Robledo, 60, an engineer. “We have thousands of people marching and he laughs at us!”
The president recently offered to provide the protesters with hammocks: They might be sleeping in the rough a while before he decamps for his ranch in southern Chiapas state.
López Obrador, who won the presidency on his third attempt and regularly crisscrosses the country in perpetual campaign mode, clearly feeds off the critiques.
His daily news conferences at the National Palace — a stark contrast to previous presidents who seldom exposed themselves to close questioning — dictate the daily news agenda, providing the best window into his worldview.
During these mañaneras, the president offers up snippets of folksy wisdom, political and historic ruminations steeped in his 1970s sensibilities, and scathing attacks against “conservative” and “neoliberal” opponents.
Standard fare in the daily act of political performance art are boasts of how his administration has “dominated” the coronavirus, reduced crime, eliminated corruption and paved the way for financial recovery.
Belying his leftist pedigree, López Obrador has embraced fiscal discipline.
He regularly cites nebulous “other data” to pronounce that the country is on a glide path to recovery, despite predictions that the economy could contract this year by more than 10%, which would represent Mexico’s worst crisis in almost a century.
“That is our model and we are going to patent it, because it works,” he told reporters this month.
As for homicides — on pace to exceed last year’s record total of 34,673 — the president has blamed organized crime and stressed data showing declines in kidnappings, robberies and attacks against women.
He exudes a steadfast belief in his instincts and vilifies his adversaries, including a critical press, earning him comparisons to President Trump.
The big question is how long he can maintain his political mojo.
López Obrador still polls lower than the 71% approval rating he enjoyed in January, before the onset of the pandemic — which he initially downplayed — and well below the 80%-plus he enjoyed after taking office in December 2018 following his landslide election.
Critics had hoped recent scandals would undermine his rhetoric on transparency and corruption.
In May, the Mexican press reported that the son of a Cabinet minister had sold overpriced ventilators to the government. And in August videos surfaced showing López Obrador’s brother receiving packets of cash in 2015.
The stories faded from the media in a few days. The president denied any impropriety.
Some view Mexico’s steadily eroding economy as the key vulnerability looming for López Obrador.
“He has been very shielded since the beginning, but will be less and less so as the effects of the economic crisis are prolonged,” said Guillermo Valdés Castellanos, a pollster and presidential critic.
While his six-year term doesn’t end until 2024 — there is no reelection in Mexico — López Obrador says he plans to organize a plebiscite for 2022 asking Mexicans if they want him to remain in office or quit. He vows to respect voters’ wishes.
“If the people say I should go, then, ‘Adios!’ “ he said last week. “I arrived here to transform [society]. I fight for ideas. I fight for principles. Not for a position.”
Special correspondent Cecilia Sánchez contributed to this report.
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