MEXICO CITY — He has been a staple of Mexican politics for decades, having twice sought the presidency. The message is always the same: the moneyed classes must be taken down. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a hardline leftist rabble-rouser, has come close twice to clinching the top office in a country dripping with oil, wealth and corruption.
But now, less than six months ahead of general elections in July 2018, the man known throughout Mexico as AMLO may be closer than ever. Polls put him comfortably ahead of other candidates, raising the prospect of a left-wing populist heading a Latin American powerhouse economy and the United States' southern neighbor.
Some of López Obrador "s campaign appointments are meant to suggest he has moderated his socialist zeal, and he has vowed that this would be his last run for the presidency. If he fails, he said recently, he would go the Chingada, his estate, which is also a wordplay for "getting lost."
Polls, of course, are just polls, and more than anything the leftist's popularity suggests a broader anger at establishment politicians, which include the other leading aspirants. One is Ricardo Anaya, heading an unlikely alliance of conservatives, a "civic" party and the traditional Left, and the ruling party candidate José Antonio Meade, a competent former finance minister lagging for his toxic association with the much-loathed Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) of outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto, who can't run because of term limits.
AMLO's strength is the public disgust with, well, so much here: crime, corruption, vast income disparities and the conduct and arrogance of politicians. He has vowed he would "go crazy" on corruption in the institutions. He has said he could not "do miracles' but was "the only one" able to curb corruption. The other candidates are saying much the same, and probably not the first time in Mexico.
Anger is an opportunity.
López Obrador's main weakness is a certain distrust that hangs over him. Is he going to strike at the prosperous middle class with tax and labor laws? When he speaks in vague terms, he is suspected of hiding his true intentions. Clear proposals can be worse. He recently suggested that the state should negotiate with crime bosses. Still, part of the leftist establishment has been suggesting this for some years now, particularly with the failure of a hardline approach of the conservative PAN party and its last president, Felipe Calderón, whose war on crime in the early 2000s echoed President George W. Bush's war on terror. The present government has fared worse, moderating state violence but failing to reap a corresponding rise in security.
Leo Zuckermann asked in the national daily Excelsior if voters should take the risk of handing him the country to find out if he has moderated with age. One former education official recently said López Obrador had a "similar" leadership style to one of the biggest trade unionists, jailed for massive corruption, the former head of the national teachers' union Elba Esther Gordillo.
López Obrador's election would be expected to impact Mexico's foreign policy stances. The country is traditionally non-aligned but began markedly to harmonize positions with the West and the United States at the turn of this century, with the election of conservative presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón. In spite of a return to a more "neutral" stance under Peña Nieto, it has had verbal spats with countries like Venezuela. That would probably stop with López Obrador. Precisely, it was accusations that he would turn Mexico into a Bolivarian state in emulation of the late president Hugo Chávez that may have proved his undoing in the 2006 elections. Chávez had to tell one interviewer he had "never met the gentleman," which was akin to helping him by omission. Today, there is a new Venezuela in town, called Russia, and the only candidate it could possibly favor is López Obrador.
Perhaps if fears that Russia would try somehow, somewhere, to help López Obrador into office, were entirely unfounded, the Russian ambassador in Mexico would not have bothered to recently insist he "is not acquainted" with him. The coming months will tell Mexican voters' fury with the state of their institutions is a stronger motivator than their dislike of a "meddling" power that is not traditionally seen in negative terms here — unlike the United States.
Perhaps the difference with López Obrador's candidacy this time is the economy. Hundreds of millions have lost jobs and income gaps have widened. States seem to be helping the rich, not the poor. People are angry, and for someone like López Obrador, that is an opportunity.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that there are two rounds of voting. In fact, Mexico's presidential election system assigns victory to the candidate who gets the most votes, even if it is less than 50%.