Third time's a charm for leading presidential candidate in Mexico

Third time's a charm for leading presidential candidate in Mexico
© Getty Images

There is no doubt that Mexico’s July 1 election will be historic. More than 3,000 public posts are at stake across the country, including an entirely new Congress, nine governorships and, of course, the presidency.

Most polls suggest that the Morena party, led by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), will score a big victory across the country.

Given that Mexico is the United States’ third-largest trading partner, its second-largest export market and an essential partner for our homeland security, the impact here will be significant.


This is AMLO’s third bite at the presidential cherry: His newly created party is currently expected to win up to five governorships, will come close to or could obtain a majority in both chambers of the congress, and AMLO himself holds what appears to be an unassailable lead of 15 to 20 percent in the presidential vote polls.


This huge wave of support for AMLO and his party reflects two primary tendencies in Mexican politics. The first is that Mexican voters have become increasingly disillusioned with their leaders.

The constant stream of corruption scandals, the elite’s failure to resolve poverty and inequality and the alarmingly high levels of insecurity, epitomized by a record 25,000 violent homicides in 2017, have led voters to seek a big change.

There is evident disillusionment with Mexico’s democratic experience this century and frustration that Mexico’s economic policies have not delivered prosperity to nearly 50 percent of the population.

The second is AMLO’s capacity to reinvent himself. He began his career with Mexico’s dominant PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) and climbed the ranks quickly before leaving to join and eventually become the leader and presidential candidate on two occasions for the left-wing PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution).

AMLO then left to form Morena (National Regeneration Movement) in 2013. In previous elections, he portrayed himself as a “firebrand radical," willing to bring about a revolution in the country.

He famously identified with the poorest of the poor in 2012 and has changed his position on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) multiple times. 

In this election, he has campaigned as a left-of-center but middle-class AMLO, someone who wants to bring diverse groups and individuals together to oppose the excesses and errors of the last 15 years, very much occupying the same center ground on many issues as his competitors from the PRI and the right-of-center PAN (National Action Party).

For example, he has expressed support for NAFTA (though not at any cost) and has dispatched advisors to reassure international investors that they will be welcome. 

AMLO’s message has been one about unity and conciliation, while at the same time railing against what he calls the “power mafia” in Mexico who have deprived Mexico’s “good people” of prosperity and security. Whereas in 2006 and 2012, the other parties successfully cast him as a danger to Mexico, this time around many voters see him as the candidate of hope. 

Tatiana Clouthier, his campaign chair who comes from a family with deep ties to the PAN party, put together a near flawless campaign. When mistakes were made, they were quickly remedied.

Employing methods and messages that resonate with the Mexican electorate, AMLOs campaign is very much “on the ground” focused on connecting with the average voter. He is the leading candidate by far across every demographic, both genders and the country.

On most issues, a majority of Mexican voters say that he is the best equipped to provide good leadership. The electorate has not focused on the specific proposals, however: It is more about a rejection of the status quo and desire for change.

Many pundits now accept the likelihood of an AMLO and Morena victory so the question has become, “What kind of president would he be?” Would he stick with his moderate tone and continue to bring people together, or would a more divisive, authoritarian figure emerge unwilling to listen to advice?

Would he stick to his promises of economic orthodoxy and fiscal austerity, or would his be a “spend and borrow” administration? Would he continue to maintain a relatively measured attitude toward the United States and President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump goes after Cassidy after saying he wouldn't support him for president in 2024 Jan. 6 panel lays out criminal contempt case against Bannon Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Agencies sound alarm over ransomware targeting agriculture groups MORE, or would he take a more strident, nationalistic attitude and fight fire and insult with the same?

On these questions and more, Mexicans are divided: His supporters take an optimistic approach; his opponents present apocalyptic scenarios, claiming that he will bankrupt the country and endanger Mexican democratic practice. It is in these two spheres that AMLO will face his biggest tests should he win.

The long transition period in Mexico (the new president does not take office until Dec. 1) will give us clear signals about how well the president-elect and his administration are prepared to govern. 

The transition period will also give us signals if AMLO has been bluffing on fiscal austerity and economic orthodoxy. He is aware that international markets will punish moves that divert Mexico from its current course of openness or that overly inflate the deficit to pay for social reforms.

AMLO faces a challenging situation as the debt increased significantly under the current Mexican administration, reducing further the very little “wiggle room” in Mexico’s budget.

The U.S. approach to Mexico after the election will be important. Will the U.S., Mexico and Canada find a way to agree on a mutually acceptable NAFTA or will AMLO face very difficult choices on trade with Mexico’s most important economic partner?

Will the U.S. seize the opportunity to build cooperative relations with a new president whose cooperation is vital on fighting drug trafficking, dealing with Central American migration and providing security against potential terrorists? 

With less than two weeks before Mexico’s election, we will soon start seeing answers. There is still time, of course, for a last-minute surprise, but there are few signs that that will happen.

Instead, it looks likely that AMLO will finally get his chance to show if he can govern effectively and bring hope to millions of Mexicans seeking a better, more secure life. The impacts for the United States will certainly be significant and could be enormous.

Duncan Wood is the director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center and has been researching Mexico and Mexico-U.S. relations for over 20 years.  

Earl Anthony Wayne is a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, among other diplomatic positions.