Mexico's Next President?

With Mexican President Vicente Fox’s single term due to expire in late 2006, a front-runner has emerged to succeed him: Andrés Manuel López Obrador. While it’s too early to predict the winner, López Obrador enjoys a 5 point lead in the polls over other contenders. The self-described “little ray of hope” for the poor resigned as Mexico City’s mayor on July 31 in order to hit the campaign trail. López Obrador has often clashed with the ineffectual Fox, a businessman-turned-politician who has sought to cultivate close relations with the United States. In contrast, López Obrador zeros in on domestic issues, advocating more government funds for health care, housing, and education. Meanwhile, he has excoriated neoliberal initiatives like NAFTA that have “favored giant transnational firms at the expense of small and medium-sized domestic producers.” If he’s elected, what will be his priorities? What are his views with respect to Mexico’s neighbor to the north?

Many observers have incorrectly described López Obrador as a leftist. In fact, his policies most resemble those of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) before former president Carlos Salinas championed free-market reforms like NAFTA in the early 1990s. The “old” PRI, to which the mayor belonged until he was thirty-five years old, favored extensive government intervention in the economy, low taxes, and national control over Pemex, the huge state oil company, as well as subsidized food, fertilizer, gasoline, and electricity.

López Obrador’s own Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), which he helped found after leaving the PRI, endorses many of the same measures. In Mexico City the then-mayor launched dozens of ambitious public-work projects, refurbished the city’s decaying “historic center,” handed out scholarships to low-income students, and provided $60 monthly stipends to the elderly, the disabled, and single women heading households. In addition, he opened the University of Mexico City, which admits students based on a lottery, not test scores.

Still, López Obrador’s record in the capital was far from spotless. He governed in an authoritarian manner, blamed others for his missteps, and often ignored, rewrote, or vetoed legislation passed by the city council. In these ways he was not much different from previous PRI mayors. Still, López Obrador is genuinely committed to the poor, something that can’t be said about most Mexican politicians. As a young man he lived and worked with the Chontal Indians in his home state of Tabasco, and he continues to live in a spartan manner. He resides in a small home, rides in a battered Nissan, dresses modestly, and, upon entering city hall, took a 15-percent salary cut. Such “Republican austerity,” as he calls it, enhanced the mayor’s reputation among the city’s 8.5 million residents.

Indeed, the mayor’s supporters have proved to be exceedingly loyal. Earlier this year, the Fox administration tried to strip López Obrador of the legal immunity enjoyed by Mexican elected officials, charging that he had illegally constructed an access road to a hospital. In response, hundreds of thousands of citizens flooded the streets to protest what they saw as a blatant attempt to derail the mayor’s presidential bid. In the face of this massive protest-combined with stinging criticism in the international press-Fox abandoned his efforts, and the mayor declared that he had been vindicated.

Although López Obrador remains popular in Mexico City, he must appeal to voters nationwide to capture the presidency. To succeed, he will need more than the support of the PRD, a farrago of political and social tribes that have historically warred over personalities, programs, and ideologies, but whose organized presence is limited to a handful of states. To compensate for the PRD’s weakness, López Obrador and his supporters have established the Citizens’ Network, which claims to have founded hundreds of political committees from the Rio Grande to the Guatemalan border. López Obrador hopes to use these committees and the media to “connect” with the 50 percent of Mexico’s 106 million citizens who live in poverty.

Thus far López Obrador has benefited from the weakness of his opposition. PRI candidate Roberto Madrazo suffers from a divided party, an acrimonious nominating process, and a reputation for ill-gotten gains and corruption. It remains to be seen whether dark horse Felipe Calderón, the candidate of Fox’s National Action Party (PAN), can seriously challenge the ex-mayor. In a mid-October survey conducted by the Reforma newspaper, he commanded only 23 percent backing, trailing López Obrador (31 percent) and Madrazo (26 percent). Although a PAN activist for a quarter-century, Calderón is the least known of the three major candidates. This means he can sell himself to the electorate as the clean, responsible alternative to the old PRI of López Obrador and the newer PRI of Madrazo. Growing approval of Fox’s low-inflation, steady-growth policies will also help Calderón, who is extremely articulate.

As the race picks up speed, López Obrador has sought to reposition himself to appeal to a broader array of voters. Addressing the criticisms of those who condemn him as a leftist or populist, he has stressed his belief in macroeconomic stability, growth, employment, and welfare. “Inflation and instability affect the poor the most since they have no way to defend themselves,” he told the Financial Times in a statement designed to allay the concerns of the world financial community at a time when foreign investment in Mexico is declining.

So far, the former mayor has floated a few ambitious proposals to spur economic growth, but they are sketchy and problematic. For instance, he has advocated creating jobs through large development projects. He wants to generate funds for these ventures by eliminating bureaucratic waste and improving the collection of taxes. While these goals are laudable in the abstract, they will be extremely difficult to accomplish given López Obrador’s close relationship with groups like the Social Security Workers’ Union, whose high salaries and hefty retirement benefits have pushed the government to the brink of bankruptcy. Renegotiating union contracts is the first step toward saving public monies, but it seems unlikely that López Obrador would clamp down on his labor allies.

The candidate has also recommended boosting production at Pemex, which generates 36 percent of the federal budget, but it is unclear how he would do so. Awarding “risk contracts”-allowing private companies to keep a portion of the oil and gas they discover-would help, but López Obrador has strenuously opposed such a measure. He would also have to raise taxes, something that politicians are loathe to do. Yet higher taxes are necessary if López Obrador truly wants to do something to aid the country’s have-nots. Mexico’s current tax collections account for only 14.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product-less than half the figure for Brazil, which is hardly a paragon of fiscal virtue.

López Obrador must also do a better job of explaining how he would fight lawlessness. He has proposed combating crime by attacking its “root causes”-poverty, illiteracy, and joblessness. That’s fine for shoplifters, pickpockets, and pimps, but he needs to devise a more compelling plan to deal with the drug cartels that now control major cities on the U.S.-Mexico border and have erected parallel governments in a half-dozen Mexican states.

If elected, López Obrador could have a contentious relationship with the United States. Although his informal envoys to Washington are portraying him as a moderate, he will seek to influence American immigration policy, which certainly would not sit well with the Bush administration. As president he may even travel to San Antonio or Chicago to urge Mexicans immigrants to demand amnesty for unlawful aliens residing in the United States. Relations between the two countries will also be strained by the flood of immigrants crossing the U.S. border, which will continue unless Mexico sees major economic and social reforms. López Obrador may be able to ride to victory on the shoulders of the poor, but it is doubtful that his wooly-headed economic plan will transform the country into a place where the poor can make a living.

Published in the 2005-12-02 issue: 

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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