Who is Lopez Obrador, Mexico’s new socialist firebrand president?

The election of the former Mexico City mayor sets the nation on a new and uncertain course.

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As thousands of his supporters thronged the streets of Mexico City on Sunday night, the left-wing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador promised that his election to president would bring about “profound change” to a country beset by violence, corruption and widespread poverty. López  Obrador had run for president unsuccessfully twice before, but this time he won by a landslide. He was the anti-establishment candidate, a fiery rhetorician who compares the political elite to the mafia, and his victory represents a break from the two parties that have dominated Mexican politics for over a century. López Obrador’s election sets Mexico on a new and uncertain course.

For his opponents, his victory raises fears of an authoritarian, socialist revolution in the style of Hugo Chavez, who has led Venezuela to economic catastrophe. The hope and devotion he inspires among his supporters is seen by his critics as a mark of his dangerousness. He has been described disparagingly as “The Tropical Messiah”. But in his victory speech he struck a conciliatory note, promising to preserve economic and civil freedoms, and as a former mayor of Mexico City he has proved himself a capable pragmatist able to cut deals with big business.

López Obrador ran under a three-party coalition lead by the leftist National Regeneration Movement or Morena, the party he founded in 2014. It is a broad coalition that includes conservatives and religious evangelicals, as well as leftists, which raises further questions as to how López Obrador will fulfil his policy ambitions. His campaign offered bold promises – to expand state welfare, to end the gang-related killings, to stamp out corruption and put Mexico First – but few details.

López Obrador was born in rural Tabasco state to a family of shopkeepers. He studied politics and public policy at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the country’s leading state university, and on graduating joined the PRI, the party that has dominated Mexican politics for over a century. He rose through the party ranks quickly, working with indigenous villagers in his home state, but in the late-80s he broke from the PRI to join a leftist party and began leading protests against oil corruption.

It was as mayor of Mexico City in 2000 that he first acquired national prominence, becoming known by his initials: AMLO. His partnership with the telecoms billionaire Carlos Slim to revitalise the city’s historic downtown revealed a certain business-mindedness, while his expansion of social welfare and his habit of driving around the city in his old Nissan car confirmed his populist touch.

He has run for the Mexican presidency twice before, in 2006 and 2012. After he lost by a tiny margin (0.56 per cent) in 2006 his supporters suspected widespread election fraud and held protests that blocked traffic in the capital for months. López Obrador even held a rival inauguration ceremony, in which his supporters swore him in as president.

López Obrador’s approach to politics is not dissimilar from that of Donald Trump. Like the US president, he has positioned himself as a political outsider and a populist nationalist who promises to stand up for working class people against the political elites – “the power mafia”, López Obrador calls them. He’s also thin-skinned and prickly, and prone to lash out at critics and the media. But while Trump spends ostentatiously and upholds his personal wealth as evidence of his superior business skills, López Obrador practices austerity. His rivals often travelled the campaign trail by helicopter and with large security details, but López Obrador flies commercially and has said he plans to sell the presidential jets and helicopters to Trump.

After Trump’s inauguration, López Obrador published a book titled Oye, Trump (“Listen Up, Trump”) and has described the US president as “racist” and “irresponsible”. Yet in his victory speech, he struck a conciliatory note, saying he would “pursue a relationship of friendship and cooperation” with America “in defence of Mexicans who live and work honourably in the country”.

López Obrador must tread a difficult path when it comes to US-Mexican relations. His predecessor Enrique Peña Nieto was widely scorned for failing to stand-up to Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and insistence that Mexico will pay for a border wall to keep Latin Americans out. But Mexico is currently renegotiating the Nafta free trade treaty with Canada and the US, and the outcome of these talks will have a huge impact on the Mexican economy: the US accounts for 80 per cent of its exports.

An even greater challenge will be how López Obrador can make good on his campaign pledges to fight corruption, end violence and lift Mexicans out of poverty. The war on drugs waged by his two predecessors failed to stem the country’s murder rate, which last year rose to a record high. Over 136 candidates and campaign officials were killed during the election campaign. López Obrador has promised a softer approach – saying there would be “abrazos, no balazos” (hugs, not shoot outs) – but he has offered few details. Equally, although he has pledged to revisit oil contracts signed under Nieto, it remains unclear how he intends to root out rampant corruption.

He has said he will not nationalise private industry and has pledged to be fiscally responsible and not to raise taxes, even on the richest. Which calls into question just how he will fund his proposed pension increases for the elderly, public sector wage increases and new education and employment opportunities for the young. He has said he will fund these using the proceeds of his anti-corruption drive, which sounds fantastical.

“AMLO is like an abstract painting, you see what you see in him,” Luis Miguel González, the editorial director of the newspaper El Economista, told the New Yorker. This might have served him well during the campaign, but when he enters office the high expectations that buoyed him in the polls will start to weigh heavily.  

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 06 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, England in the age of Brexit