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President AMLO? Leftist Populism Smells Triumph In Mexico

Leftist presidential candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is Mexico's answer to Trump. AMLO's details are vague, but his poll numbers are rising.

AMLO, the presidential candidate at one of his rallies across Mexico.
AMLO, the presidential candidate at one of his rallies across Mexico.
Luis Rubio

-Analysis-

MEXICO CITY - Mexico's general election, set for July 1, is becoming clearer every day. The fight is between two very different perspectives on life and government's role in development and daily life. Arrogance is facing redemption. A vast number of citizens are now sick and tired of business as usual in this country: the threat of crime, government corruption, unfulfilled promises and the clash of promises by politicians (of all stripes) and the harsh, daily reality. The offers made by all the candidates save one, sound frivolous if not banal. Each is implicitly offering "just what" Mexico needs, but for the average voter, they sound false after similar vows have been made for decades.

The success of the one candidate standing out in the polls, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, usually referred to as AMLO, is in offering something radically different: returning to a quiet life where the only promise is redemption. As with Donald Trump, he has managed to penetrate the people's subconscious, because quite simply he is not operating in the real world but in the world of voter disgust, wherein a good many Mexicans seem to be. When those of us who would fancy ourselves as living in the 21st century see him avoiding serious questions, evading answers or promising absurdities, we comfort ourselves thinking he lives in another world and that nobody in his right mind would vote for him. But the numbers say otherwise: his Messianic discourse is proving to be "redemptive," and assuring his success.

López Obrador has a grandiose vision of himself and his abilities, and of his presence, which he believes is enough to transform reality. In normal conditions, that is in a context of social peace, economic progress and reasonable optimism about the future, his political message and presence could hardly prosper. Everyone would see the absurdity of his proposals and especially his lack of realism. But like Trump, so many in Mexico are seeing in him a tool with which they can give those who have kept making false promises a slap in the face.

López Obrador's offer clashes with objective reality. But nobody cares, and the level of exasperation in Mexican society is such that for many voters anything is better than the standard fare. Anyone who cares to see the figures will see enormous advances in quality of life, longevity, healthcare, consumption and in many other objective indices, but none of these is relevant when voters are offended by government arrogance. This is nothing new in Mexico of course, but it seems to have ballooned out of proportion in this particular presidency. At least the previous governments understood that Mexicans were anxious for improvements and devoted their discourse to mitigating these annoyances. The present one is so cocksure it even lacks the ability, never mind humility, to understand that the main problem is its attitude.

He touts himself as the incarnation of "the people."

What sensible politician anywhere would think of mounting a media campaign based on complaining about citizens? That is precisely what this government has been doing through the six-year presidency, with propaganda clips like "That's enough complaining," or the more recent "Let's get our figures straight." With this evident arrogance and indifference to the public sentiment, it is not hard to see why AMLO is leading in polls.

Living as he does in a different world, AMLO makes proposals that are both cut off from history and dangerous for ignoring the contemporary world. His position on the new Mexico City airport is revealing, and like Trump's with his wall, essentially symbolic. Obviously, the existing airport is saturated, but like his famous "to hell with the institutions," it is a deliberate affront to all those he has accused of being arrogant and making money at the public expense. The posture (and strategy behind it) is impeccable.

Protests outside the Mining Palace in Mexico City before the presidential debates — Photo: German Eluniversal/ZUMA

Significantly, AMLO never refers to citizens because in his vision, there is no citizenry. He touts himself as the incarnation of "the people" because only he understands and represents it, ergo, his presence alone is enough to sweep away corruption and the "power mafia." In his world, checks and balances are bad (and unnecessary) and the institutions, instruments a powerful president can use to impose his vision. In other words, his project is essentially to curb personal liberties, the free market, trade treaties, an independent press and social (not to mention, business, union and civil) organizations, because all these curtail more or less, the president's ability to act as he pleases.

AMLO is touching a sensitive nerve in people and will only be thwarted with an equally arresting counter-proposal. And that must start with calling for change to the status quo, because therein lies the obstacle to the country's development. Unless we have this, the promise of "redemption" will continue to triumph.

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Cfoto/DDP via ZUMA
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