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Missionary zeal: ‘Amlo’ promises to shake up Mexico

Vladimir Ramos, a Harvard-educated political consultant, is advising on gubernatorial and congressional campaigns for candidates from all three of Mexico’s main political parties in the July 1 elections. But, a native of Chiapas, the country’s poorest state, his own vote for president is going to Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
“It’s time,” he says, simply. “People are fed up.”
With three weeks to go, an air of inevitability has overtaken Mexico. Opinion polls give Mr López Obrador, a self-styled stubborn radical who is feared by some in the private sector as a dangerous leftist, more support than his rivals put together. He looks unstoppable. Or as he puts it in his trademark, folksy way: “This rice is cooked.”
Why it should prove third time lucky for Amlo, as the silver-haired, perennial presidential candidate is widely known, owes as much to Mexicans’ terror at escalating violence, disgust at endless corruption scandals and rage at a discredited political class as it does to his stump message that he alone can transform an underperforming country in which over half the population lives in poverty.
“What he is saying hasn’t changed that much, but people are hearing it differently,” says Marcelo Ebrard, an erstwhile political protégé who, like Mr López Obrador, served as mayor of Mexico City and is now organising his campaign in the country’s northern states.
The likely election of Mr López Obrador raises an important question in a world that has witnessed one startling political upset after another over the past two years: is it a sign that Latin America’s second-biggest economy simply wants to turn more to the left with greater emphasis on social issues? Or will Mr López Obrador be the latest charismatic leader to pursue a populist agenda that descends into unsustainable spending and weakens democratic institutions?
In a country where the median age is 27, young people especially are lapping up Mr López Obrador’s holy trinity of promises: honesty, security and prosperity. “It’s incredible to see his vision and such hope,” says Iván Rudar, a 23-year-old artist, after a rally in the central Mexican town of Jiutepec. “Something different could really bring big change.”
“Amlovers”, as they style themselves, see in Mr López Obrador a champion of Mexico’s poor and middle class, a man of integrity and honour with a mission to eradicate corruption and rewrite an otherwise stagnant future.
Yet not everyone is gushing about the potential new president. Mr Ebrard concedes that, in talks with thousands of business leaders, “many thought Andrés was a communist”. Indeed, rattled at the prospect of him plunging Mexico into populism, the country’s business elite  has lectured staff in letters, videos and compulsory meetings about the hyperinflation and debt crises of the 1970s and 1980s.
Many of his opponents will never be persuaded that he is not the same firebrand who cried “to hell with their institutions” and had himself invested as “legitimate president” in Mexico City’s main square after claiming the 2006 election had been stolen from him. Their vision of Mexico under Amlo is a Venezuela-style socialist wreck run by a nationalist implementing obsolete policies that will hit growth, stability and investment.
Mr López Obrador, 64, who cut his teeth in politics in the ruling Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI) in the 1970s in the southeastern state of Tabasco, shucks it all off as the desperation of a “mafia of power” whose wings are about to be clipped.
Keenly aware that victory is now within reach, he appears to have learnt to bite his tongue. “Love and peace,” he intones, beatifically at rallies and to opponents, instead of shooting from the lip with self-sabotaging outbursts. It is part of a mellower, less dogmatic image of a leader willing to welcome former foes, forget past transgressions, extend a hand to the private sector and drop the reform-bashing rhetoric.
His poll numbers have been swelled by voters disgruntled at both his rivals — Ricardo Anaya, who is leading a right-left coalition, and José Antonio Meade, the ruling PRI candidate. The latest poll of polls by, a specialist electoral website, gives him 49 per cent, although polls show nearly 30 per cent of voters have yet to decide how, or even whether, to vote on July 1.
Both Mr Anaya and Mr Meade champion the technocratic, market-friendly approach that has dominated Mexico since the mid-1980s, but has failed to deliver the promised growth while violence has skyrocketed. Their poll numbers have fallen in recent weeks, while Mr López Obrador has extended his lead, even as many question how much he has changed as a politician.
“Deep inside, he’s the same López Obrador,” says Alejandro Schtulmann at Empra, a consultancy. “He might not be as bad as some people think, but we’re not sure.”
Three things are central to Mr López Obrador’s political style: his tropical roots, his combative spirit and his almost divine sense of calling.
In a new biography, José Agustín Ortíz Pinchetti, who served in the candidate’s cabinet for part of his 2000-05 tenure as Mexico City mayor, paints a picture of a political animal who grew up in Tabasco just as the state was enjoying an oil boom and the national economy was expanding by 6 per cent a year, in what came to be dubbed the “Mexican miracle” of rapid urbanisation and industrialisation that would last until the 1970s.
He likens Amlo to a fighting cockerel and quotes him as admitting that he has always struggled to reconcile passion with reason. “First off, I’m a Tabasco native, and that’s my weak spot,” Amlo said. “I’m a high-risk politician.”
Mr López Obrador exploits his provincial roots with a homely, slow speaking style peppered with regional colloquialisms that paints Mexico’s problems in black-and-white terms.
“No one should be worried if I use the word ‘radical’,” he told the crowd in Jiutepec, talking about his policy platform. “I use radical in the sense of coming from root. Because I want to uproot corruption and injustice.”
“In their desperation, the mafia say that what I am proposing is populism,” he went on. “If cutting top [officials’] salaries and increasing wages at the bottom is populism, sign me up!”
Nonetheless, he makes no secret of his admiration for the late Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro. He named the youngest of his four sons Jesús Ernesto as a tribute to Ernesto “Che” Guevara, is a friend of UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and regularly promises a peaceful revolution to transform Mexico.
Mr López Obrador, a baseball fanatic and history buff, grew up the eldest of seven children in Tepetitán, a small town where his parents ran a shop. After studying political science in Mexico City, he returned to Tabasco, the site of Mexico’s most brutal anticlerical purges and the setting for Graham Greene’s The Power and The Glory.
At a time when Mexico was sliding towards economic crisis and the US was introducing free-market policies — the “neoliberalism” against which he now loves to rail — Mr López Obrador spent five years living in a mud-floored hut in a steamy backwater in Tabasco running the Chontal Indian community co-ordination centre. He introduced a swamp drainage system to foster agriculture, built hospitals and schools and granted credits, or as he puts it in a brief autobiography released for the elections: “There, I trained as a social fighter.”
He threw himself into the tough life with a “missionary zeal”, writes Mr Ortíz Pinchetti. Enrique Krauze, one of Mexico’s most prominent historians and a fierce critic of Mr López Obrador, famously branded him a “tropical messiah”.
“Amlo thinks he’s here on a mission, to transform Mexico,” says Raymundo Riva Palacio, a journalist and commentator who knows the candidate. “He has always had a theological logic, ever since he was in Tabasco. Good versus evil, it’s very binary.”
So what, exactly, does Mr López Obrador want to do? His chief pledge is to eradicate corruption, though he is vague on how he will achieve that beyond a combination of zero tolerance and personal honesty to sweep it out “from top to bottom like cleaning the stairs”.
Using the money rescued from backhanders and a tight grip on government purse-strings, he plans a host of infrastructure projects in partnership with the private sector, especially a rail link across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, to spark economic growth in Mexico’s depressed south. To prevent young people falling into the clutches of organised crime, he pledges bursaries and apprenticeships. To the elderly he promises pensions while scrapping millionaire stipends for past presidents. In keeping with his own humble standard of living, he envisages a shoestring administration, slashing top bureaucrats’ salaries and no fancy presidential plane.
Similar recipes worked when he was mayor: he built a second tier to Mexico City’s urban highways, worked in partnership with telecoms tycoon Carlos Slim to pull off a successful facelift of the city’s historic centre, instituted an old-age pension and is credited with doing a competent and fiscally responsible job.
But he has spooked many voters by talking vaguely about an amnesty for drug lords. He has threatened to suspend a landmark energy reform, which scrapped an eight-decades-old national oil monopoly and allowed private investment in the sector, while contracts already awarded are inspected. He also pledges to build at least one oil refinery — a proposal many in the industry consider is nationalist madness — and to make Mexico self-sufficient in food.
His talk of the government driving economic policy alarms many investors who fear a lurch towards inefficient central planning. However, he has quietly courted investors including Larry Fink, head of the world’s biggest asset manager, BlackRock. According to Mr López Obrador’s team, the two men clicked at a recent meeting in Mexico City.
“I am worried by what I see as superficiality in his ideas,” says one executive in the business capital, Monterrey. Or as one chief executive puts it more bluntly: “He is pragmatic, but ignorant.”
Alberto Gavazzi, a Brazilian who runs Latin American operations for drinks group Diageo, says he would be more worried about Mexico lurching left had he not lived through Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s first term in Brazil, when the real tanked initially but the leftist president surprised many by pursuing a tight fiscal policy. “I don’t believe there will be radical changes regarding the way Mexico is run,” he says.
“He’s moved from being against-the-system more to the centre,” says Antonio Solá, a Spanish publicist who worked on a 2006 campaign that branded Mr López Obrador “a danger for Mexico”. Gustavo de Hoyos, head of the Coparmex business confederation, says he is “worried about the contradictions, but we have gradually seen some, still timid, steps in the right direction”.
Critics fear that an autocratic leader, imbued with a divine sense of power, as Amlo is perceived by many, might be tempted to undermine Mexican institutions. But Mr López Obrador insists: “I have my feet on the ground.”
Winning on July 1 could be the easy part: delivering on voters’ high hopes will be more challenging. Mexico feels on the cusp of something very different — potentially the biggest shift in its economic model since the early 1980s.
As Carlos Urzúa, his pick for finance minister, puts it: “Expectations are just so, so big at the moment, we’re going to have to get a lot done as fast as possible.”

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