Mexico's messiah?

The mayor who would be president

Mexico’s President Vicente Fox has been in office only three years, but the race to succeed him has already begun. The country’s constitution limits chief executives to one six-year term, so Fox-unlike his sometime amigo, George W. Bush-will not have a chance at reelection. With no incumbent to beat, the field for 2006 is already crowded. The most intriguing candidate thus far is Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the politically savvy mayor of Mexico City and a stalwart of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). Known by the public simply as AMLO, López Obrador is not your average politician; aides report that he “lives like a monk” in a postage-stamp size apartment and walks alone through gang-infested neighborhoods. He has even called for public officials to stop keeping mistresses. As of last month, the mayor was leading in the polls. If he does win, it will be an unprecedented victory for the PRD, a balkanized party that has never held the presidency.

A native of Tabasco, López Obrador began his political career as a grassroots activist with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which dominated the nation’s politics for seventy-one years until Fox won the presidency for the National Action Party (PAN) in 2000. But as the PRI moved to the right, shifting its support away from a protected welfare state, López Obrador grew disenchanted and helped the leftist-nationalist Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas launch the PRD in 1989.

Five years later, López Obrador ran for governor of Tabasco, but lost-mainly, he claims, because of PRI ballot rigging. Still, the election helped raise his profile and he was soon in the headlines again, leading marches to block access to state-run oil wells in Tabasco. The ostensible reason for the marches was to protest corruption in the PRI, but the future mayor proved his political acumen by using the publicity to obtain federal money for public projects in his home state. Emboldened by his success, he vowed to make another bid for governor in 2000. But Cárdenas-eager for a dynamic vote getter in populous Mexico City-persuaded his protégé to run for mayor instead. While Cárdenas lost the presidency to Fox, López Obrador clobbered four opponents to capture city hall.

Since taking office, the mayor has initiated sweeping social reforms. He directed the government to dole out 636 pesos ($60) a month to senior citizens and the disabled, handed out scholarships to impoverished children, and conferred tax breaks on female heads of households. He has also provided thousands of housing units for the poor, dispensed credits to small businesses, and founded the University of Mexico City, which employs a lottery rather than examinations to admit students.

López Obrador acquired his political smarts in the PRI, which organized its members in occupational “sectors,” consisting of peasants, blue-collar workers, bureaucrats, teachers, and other professionals. The mayor brought the same organizational skills to Mexico City. Professor Oscar Aguilar Ascencio, a student of Mexican politics, insists that López Obrador has a secret, computerized registry of the three hundred fifty thousand senior citizens who receive monthly payments from the government.

The mayor has tried to engage his constituents by encouraging them to phone city hall with their opinions on various issues. He has invited their views on such matters as increasing the metro fare, adopting daylight-saving time, and whether he should remain in office. Late last year, 95.3 percent of callers urged the incumbent to complete his six-year term. The mayor’s penchant for “consultations” prompted the newspaper Reforma to predict that he would next inquire whether citizens preferred “hot cakes or scrambled eggs for breakfast.”

López Obrador’s most ambitious project involves the restoration of the city’s seven-hundred-year-old historic center. With the support of Cardinal Archbishop Norberto Rivera and billionaire Carlos Slim, the mayor has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to rehabilitate the cathedral and other churches, and to renovate crumbled buildings, repave streets, repair sidewalks, and beautify parks. He is also sprucing up the Reforma boulevard that courses through the Pink Zone, a popular tourist destination, as well as avenues leading to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

How much the mayor will accomplish remains to be seen. So far, the signs are positive. The Sheraton Hotel and other international chains have taken advantage of tax incentives and of reduced water fees to build in the area. President Fox has even agreed to construct the new Foreign Relations Ministry building in the historic part of town. Meanwhile, adjacent to the Basilica, construction has already begun on “Plaza Mariana,” which supposedly will be larger than St. Peter’s Square. A terrific PR man, the mayor has christened the capital “la Ciudad de la Esperanza”-the City of Hope.

As his “consultations” indicate, the mayor is enormously popular in his adopted city. Time and again, he has presented himself as a “man of the people,” unafraid to cross swords with the city’s elite. When the affluent Saba family-one of the mayor’s largest contributors-erected a wall in a local park to protect its nearby lawn, he dispatched bulldozers to knock it down. “We don’t have to lick anyone’s boots,” López Obrador told the television cameras he summoned to the scene. “We just have to deliver to the people.”

The man who once hired a circus to perform in the Zócalo central plaza certainly has a sense of theater. His popularity springs in part from his daily press conferences, or mañaneros. Named after the crack-of-dawn lovemaking by peasants too tired for nighttime romance, the mañaneros are held at 6:15 a.m., 365 days a year. These briefings, which dominate the morning news nationwide, have helped López Obrador to woo not only Mexico City’s 8.6 million residents, but people across the country. They have even drawn the attention of foreign journalists, who seem intrigued by his unorthodox behavior.

Still, not everyone is enamored of the mayor. His expensive social reforms have plunged the capital further into debt and forced him to slash government salaries and sell public properties. Journalist Ricardo Alemán accuses López Obrador of using “Hollywood type” antics to divert attention from the black marketeering and gang wars that increasingly plague the city. Indeed, the capital’s alarming crime rate could stymie López Obrador’s march to the presidency. Since the severe recession of the mid-1990s, city residents have continuously cited the “lack of personal security” as their top concern. The mayor contends that the violence has diminished slightly, but overall his crime-fighting initiatives have had limited success. Last year, he hired former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s consulting firm to advise the city on crime control, but its 146 proposals-“zero tolerance” for minor offenses, for one-bore little relevance in a country where family rules and loyalties hold more weight than government laws.

Warring factions within his own party present another headache for the would-be president. Cárdenas, the PRD’s self-appointed “moral leader,” has been inspired by socialist Ignácio Lula da Silva’s election in Brazil and might elbow the mayor aside to make his fourth attempt at the presidency. Still, despite its strength in Mexico City, the debt-ridden PRD failed to elect a deputy in twenty-four of the nation’s thirty-one states in last July’s congressional contests. López Obrador seems oblivious to such problems. He is certain that the PRD’s rank-and-file prefer him to the tired and plodding Cárdenas; that the inept Fox will fall on his face, crippling his National Action Party; and that the PRI will hemorrhage from intramural bloodletting.

Even if the mayor parlays his carefully calibrated populism into a presidential triumph, it will be difficult to replicate his success in Mexico City. If elected, he will surely face a hostile Congress ready to deep-six his agenda. He may be able to break the logjam Fox has faced by organizing groups representing the country’s poor into a potent political force. Yet the mayor’s authoritarian, rabble-rousing style could backfire, provoking demonstrations, chilling investment, and weakening political parties and other institutions vital to advancing the country’s democratization.

Nonetheless, López Obrador has defied expectations before, and he may do so again. At the very least, he has given notice to Mexico’s self-serving elite, which seems incapable of moving key reforms through Congress, that voters have an option other than the PRI and the PAN in 2006. More important, his various social initiatives and public projects have given his constituents a sense of hope, something that neither Fox nor the PRI has been able to do. This is no small feat in a nation with a stagnant economy and a grossly unequal distribution of wealth. As political analyst Antonio Ocaranza Fernández told me: “Hope is a powerful message. If the mayor can revivify crumbling downtown Mexico City, he will project the idea that peasants in Oaxaca can do the same for their villages or average Mexicans can revitalize their own households." end

Published in the 2003-11-07 issue: 
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George Grayson, who teaches government at the College of William & Mary, has written Mexico: The Changing of the Guard, published by the Foreign Policy Association in New York.

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