Mexico's presidential election
The front-runner under pressure
Apr 20th 2006 | IGUALA
From The Economist print edition
With his opinion-poll lead wobbling, Andrés Manuel López Obrador has yet to define precisely what sort of change he stands for
THE crowd in this small town in Guerrero, one of Mexico's poorest states, is full of middle-aged men wearing traditional sombreros. It is parted down the middle by a pair of cordons, which clear a path for Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the presidential candidate of the centre-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). He turns to the left, and to the right. He is where he wishes to be seen to be—in the centre. He shakes hands and slaps backs with the smile of a practised campaigner, but not a natural one. The stump speech is competent, but it is the content rather than any oratorical flourish which draws cheers. He will cut the president's salary in half and those of other senior officials as well, he says. The elderly, children and the disabled will get monthly grants. With each pledge, the crowd cheers: “Ob-ra-dor!”.
With such promises, Mr López Obrador has topped opinion polls for many months. But with ten weeks to go before the election on July 2nd, his lead seems to be narrowing. Two of the latest polls put Felipe Calderón, the candidate of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) of Vicente Fox, within four points. In third place in most polls, hindered by scandals, is Roberto Madrazo of the formerly ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
So the long campaign is moving into its decisive phase with Mr López Obrador on the defensive. Reflecting his uncertain position, he has refused to take part in the first of two candidates' debates, on April 25th, but is expected to appear in the second.For now, at least, the election remains Mr López Obrador's to lose. Yet it is still unclear what sort of president he might be. He is reflexively supported by many poorer Mexicans, who are drawn to his populist rhetoric. That same rhetoric has inspired fear and hatred among richer Mexicans, who disbelieve the candidate's insistence that he would “respect macroeconomic norms” and their property.
His record as mayor of Mexico City in 2000-05 gets similarly mixed reviews. Several corruption scandals rocked the city government on his watch—but had little impact on his public image. That was largely because, like Mr Calderón, he is seen as personally honest. He drives a cheap car and lives in a middle-class apartment. “His austerity is sincere,” says Sergio Aguayo, a Mexican political analyst.
But he did not transform the capital, as his campaign rhetoric suggests. Crime continued in Mexico City, and if he did not know of the corruption in the city government, he should have, says Soledad Loaeza, a political scientist at the Colegio de México, a graduate school.
The central point of Mr López Obrador's campaign is that Mexico's political system needs changing. He presents this not as an ideological issue, but as a commonsense clear-out of corruption and privilege. In this, his campaign is not dissimilar to that of Mr Fox, who ousted the PRI in 2000 after seven decades in power with the slogan of “Change!” but then failed to deliver much of it.
Mr Aguayo says that rather than Mr Fox changing Mexican politics, Mexican politics changed him: “Fox became one of them. Psychologically he wanted to beat the PRI, not destroy the system.” Mr López Obrador, on the other hand, seems to want fundamentally to alter things. But how? He has reached beyond his party to set up “Citizen's Networks”. These could help turn the PRD, founded by populist renegades from the PRI and small leftist groups, into a modern social-democratic party—or they could become agents of a personality cult revolving around Mr López Obrador, says Mr Aguayo.
The candidate has assembled a respected team of advisers. But some doubt he would listen to them. According to Luis Rubio of CIDAC, a Mexico City think-tank, the problem, in a phrase coined by Winston Churchill, “is not that he is ignorant, it is that he knows too many things that are not true.” For example, cutting wages of top officials will not pay for social programmes (but might encourage corruption and mediocrity). Mr López Obrador's solution to Mexico's energy problems is to allow Pemex, the inefficient state monopoly, to spend more, rather than invite private investment. For all his talk of reform, he will avoid open government if he can, says Mr Aguayo.
Mr López Obrador's defining quality—or flaw—is a belief that he knows best and is uniquely capable of changing a system of which he is very much a product. He spent his formative political years as a PRI operative and was loyal to two of its most populist presidents. Many Mexicans believe that a López Obrador victory might presage a PRI restoration in disguise.
Others fear that it might propel Mexico along the path of Hugo Chávez's Venezuela. Mr Calderón has risen in the polls after an advertising blitz attacking Mr López Obrador as an agent of chavista chaos. The former mayor looks more of a pragmatist than an ideologue. In that, he resembles Brazil's president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Some of his goals—to tackle monopolies and the cosy links between business and politics, for example—are good ones.
But his speeches are often aggressive and divisive. He seems to have done himself no favours by repeatedly comparing Mr Fox, whom Mexicans still respect, with a chachalaca, a particularly noisy turkey-like bird. His populist demagoguery, his political origins and his patchy record as mayor are all reasons to mistrust Mr López Obrador. It is clear that Mexicans want change. As he comes under pressure in the campaign's final stretch, it may become clearer whether he represents a change for the better or for the worse.