The outcome of Mexico’s presidential election this July could radically change not only Mexico but its relationship with the United States. The elected president will govern for six years, time enough to affect NAFTA and other economic policies and to establish new norms for security.
Of four contenders for president, polls find the most popular is former Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, often described by foreign news media as a leftist firebrand. From what I’ve observed, he’s less of that and more of a pragmatist with a persistent political strategy. He narrowly lost a presidential bid in 2006 and turned his defeat, for which he blamed election fraud, into Mexico’s most powerful political party, Morena.
Lopez Obrador had been a moderate mayor who worked with billionaire Carlos Slim to rebuild Mexico City’s downtown. His refutation of the presidential election resulted in harsh criticism from his then-leftist party (PRD) and he lost control of it. As adversaries took over, Lopez Obrador turned to a grassroots strategy. For the next five years, from 2006 to 2011, he visited all of Mexico’s 2,438 municipalities to plant the seeds for his Morena party.
At first he established Morena as a non-government organization (NGO) with the intent to push his policies. The NGO proved robust enough to convince Mexico’s three left-wing parties to back Lopez Obrador for a second presidential bid in 2012. By that time, I had been elevated to a national leader of one of those parties — the Citizens’ Movement. Lopez Obrador had secured a strong base for himself, which included support of one of the left-leaning parties.
If we in Citizens’ Movement did not endorse him, he’d still run for president and our divergence would fracture and weaken the entire left-wing coalition. So I met with Lopez Obrador in 2011 and found him to be mild-mannered and funny, far different from the firebrand image I had formed.
Lopez Obrador lost his second bid for president to Enrique Pena Nieto, who held onto the support of Mexico’s elites. Pena Nieto had fashioned a fantastic narrative for himself and topped it with marriage to one of Mexico’s favorite telenovela stars. But Lopez Obrador secured positions for his loyalists in Congress, and in 2014 they elevated Morena from an NGO to a formal political party.
Lopez Obrador’s third bid for the presidency this July may be the lucky charm. His Morena party also leads in most polls for majority representation in both houses of Congress, and in four of nine governorships, including the crown jewel, Mexico City.
This rise can’t be explained only by low approval ratings for the current government. Lopez Obrador adeptly increased his popularity in this race with the help of businessman Alfonso Romo, who drafted Morena’s pro-business platform. It includes support for NAFTA. Lopez Obrador also toned down his rhetoric enough to secure an alliance with the conservative Social Encounter Party. And he added to his team two right-wing PAN former national committee chairmen. One of them, German Martinez, served in President Calderon’s cabinet and now competes for a Senate seat under the Morena banner. The other, Manuel Espino, was PAN’s leader during the Calderon campaign but now promotes the Morena party in conservative states such as Yucatan.
Lopez Obrador’s main competition for president is former PAN leader and House speaker Ricardo Anaya. A skillful debater and political operator, he runs on a right-left coalition composed of the PAN, the PRD and the Citizens’ Movement. The incumbent PRI party’s candidate, Jose Antonio Meade, polls third and the fourth candidate lags far behind him. Should by some fluke Lopez Obrador not win the presidency this time, he’ll remain a dominant figure who shapes the Morena party for years to come.
Roberto Velasco-Alvarez, a lawyer based in Washington, has over a decade of experience in the Mexican federal, state and local public sector. He presided over the Youth Movement of the Citizens’ Movement party in Mexico from 2011-2012. Follow him on Twitter @r_velascoa.