His name appears on no ballot, and he holds no elected office.
But debate about this Sunday’s state elections in Mexico inevitably turns to one man: Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the twice-thwarted presidential aspirant who is poised for a third run for the nation’s highest office next year.
“In a few days, we are going to succeed in achieving the transformation of our country!” the shrill-voiced political provocateur told a crowd here last weekend. “This transformation will allow for the rebirth of our great country, Mexico!”
His oratory marked the official close of the campaign of Delfina Gomez, the candidate of his left-wing National Regeneration Movement — known as Morena — to be the next governor of Mexico state, the country’s most populous and politically significant entity.
The gubernatorial vote in this vast swath of gritty suburbs, industrial belts, high-rise enclaves, luxury vacation retreats and impoverished urban and agricultural expanses is widely viewed as a bellwether for the presidential balloting slated for July 2018.
Lopez Obrador, who dominated the campaign rally, speaking almost twice as long as his handpicked candidate, is generally regarded as the early presidential favorite — even though major parties have yet to designate their hopefuls.
The 63-year-old is riding a populist wave of revulsion against rising prices, criminality and graft. His political fortunes have also been energized by the election of President Trump, whom he has accused of mounting a “campaign of hate” against Mexicans.
A victory for Lopez Obrador’s protege in the state of Mexico — whose 125 municipalities are home to 11 million registered voters — would probably cement his front-runner status.
The election is also seen as a referendum on the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, and its standard-bearer, President Enrique Nieto Peña Nieto.
Polls generally show a two-way race for the governor’s seat between Gomez and the PRI’s Alfredo Del Mazo Maza. Other contestants include Juan Zepeda of the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party and Josefina Vazquez Mota of the National Action Party. All promise to fight crime, rebuild infrastructure and increase government aid to the needy.
For the PRI, the state also holds profound symbolic significance, having been at the core of its power since the party was founded in 1929 after the tumult of the revolutionary era. The party has never lost a gubernatorial election here.
President Peña Nieto, himself a former governor of Mexico state, was elected in 2012 in a rousing comeback and reset for the ruling party. The PRI had lost consecutive presidential elections in 2000 and 2006 to the conservative National Action Party.
But the president’s approval ratings have tanked amid a sluggish economy, escalating crime and unchecked corruption. A defeat in Mexico state could portend early doom for whomever the PRI names as his potential successor. (Mexican presidents serve a single six-year term and cannot be reelected.)
“If the PRI loses the state of Mexico, that would practically cancel its chances to win the presidency next year,” said Ivonne Acuna, an analyst at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City.
The party took a bruising in regional elections last June, losing in several key venues, including the strategic Gulf of Mexico states of Veracruz and Tamaulipas, historic PRI bastions.
Looking to stanch the bleeding, the PRI has embarked on a determined strategy and get-out-the-vote effort.
The campaign is being run directly from Los Pinos, the Mexican White House, according to media reports, and no expense has been spared as the PRI’s highly disciplined political machinery has gone into high gear. Authorities have denied opposition charges of improper use of government funds and personnel in the high-stakes campaign.
In his speech Sunday, Lopez Obrador — whose supporters shut down much of the capital in 2006 after he alleged that fraud was behind his razor-thin loss in presidential balloting — called on government workers to ignore “orders to commit fraud … because it is a social sin and will mortgage the future of your children, of your grandchildren.”
The PRI has focused much of its public ire on Lopez Obrador, depicting him as an dictatorial caudillo, a clone of Hugo Chavez — the late Venezuelan leader — who would take Mexico down a Venezuelan-like path of economic and political ruin. Ex-President Vicente Fox, who belonged to the opposition National Action Party, has also taken to the airwaves to warn that Lopez Obrador would wreak Chavez-like destruction.
“I am convinced that the great challenge for 2018 is to impede the advance of authoritarian populism in Mexico,” Enrique Ochoa Reza, national chairman of the PRI, told El Sol de Mexico newspaper, in a reference to Lopez Obrador. “The first step is the state of Mexico in 2017.”
The ruling party has assailed Lopez Obrador’s candidate, Gomez, a former teacher, as a pawn of a jailed former teachers union leader facing trial on a slew of corruption charges. Both Gomez and Lopez Obrador have condemned what they label the PRI’s “dirty war” and its campaign of “lies” and “calumnies.”
Del Mazo, the PRI contender, is in many ways an archetypal ruling-party construct: He is a trim, silver-haired, well-spoken technocrat with impeccable political pedigree who looks like he just walked in from the country club. He is a distant cousin of the president. On social media, Del Mazo has been ridiculed as uninspiring, bland and robotic, critiques regularly leveled at Peña Nieto and other charisma-challenged ruling-party luminaries.
“Everything we are, everything we have worked for, everything we have built for so many years is on the line in this election,” Del Mazo told a closing campaign rally Sunday in Toluca, the state capital. “The future of the PRI, the future of our country, depend on our triumph.”
Both Del Mazo’s father and grandfather served as PRI governors of Mexico state, a fact that the opposition has tried to exploit.
“Mexico is not a monarchy!” Lopez Obrador proclaimed in his speech last weekend.
Although long part of Mexico’s political elite, Lopez Obrador, who is a former mayor of Mexico City, endeavors to present himself as an everyman far removed from the coddled lifestyles of Mexican politicos — who regularly arrive at chic capital eateries in black SUVs spilling out high-heeled aides and thick-set bodyguards.
An ardent populist, he has a toxic relationship with the press and regularly pledges to demolish what he assails as the “mafia of power.”
“The tropical messiah” is the moniker bestowed on Lopez Obrador by Enrique Krauze, the Mexican essayist and author, for the preachy polemics emanating from the native of sweltering Tabasco state.
In Sunday’s elections, some observers say, Lopez Obrador’s obdurate nature may turn out to be his undoing.
Lopez Obrador eschewed a political coalition in Mexico state with the Democratic Revolution Party, to which he belonged before breaking ranks in 2012 — after his second presidential defeat, which he also attributed to fraud — to form Morena. An alliance between the two parties would have united the left behind a single office seeker.
Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.