A confrontational, manipulative populist? No, I am not referring to Donald Trump. While these words certainly apply to Mr. Trump, you may be surprised to learn that they also apply to the frontrunner in the current Mexican elections, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, commonly referred to as AMLO. Many believe that Obrador’s election would create a similar effect in the Mexican system as Donald Trump’s election created in the United States. Like Donald Trump, Obrador garners very mixed reviews from the Mexican people. Some people consider him a savior and are drawn to his honest and raw oration, whereas others are offended and fearful of both him and his rhetoric, quite often comparing his narcissistic and authoritarian tendencies to Hugo Chavez.
Obrador was the former Mayor of Mexico City from 2000-2005. He proceeded to run for the presidency in 2006 and 2012. Obrador returned to the political sphere as a result of Trump’s election in 2016. Trump’s overwhelming anti-Mexican immigration plans and threat to abandon NAFTA have caused the Mexican election to turn into a contest of anti-Americanism. Realizing the threat Trump’s United States posed on Mexico, Obrador quickly began campaigning, traveling and holding rallies around Mexico and the United States. Obrador lost in his two previous campaigns for president. But this time seems different. Presenting himself as the only politician who can and will stand up to Trump, Obrador is convincing many people to buy into his plan. Trump’s threatening language towards Mexico is, ironically, empowering Obrador, another vociferous populist. Many Mexican voters are drawn to the idea of having their own alpha male on Mexico’s side of the border.
Obrador’s strategic populist rhetoric gives him an iron-grasp on Mexico’s poor. The more ignorant population is deceived by his impractical promises and view Obrador as their savior. It is simple. He makes people believe him. Obrador uses the democratic inexperience of poorer Mexicans to his advantage. His evident conviction and accommodationist language draws a huge following. His presence creates an electric pandemonium and his promises inspire excitement for the future among his followers.
To his supporters, he is eternally the hero who gave pensions to the desperate elderly and helped address Mexico City’s traffic problems as the mayor of the city. They are willing to turn a blind eye to his more questionable actions, such as refusing to accept the outcome of the 2006 election and declaring himself the “legitimate president” of Mexico.
One rally attendee stated that he rarely even voted in Mexican elections let alone participate in a rally. He further states that he firmly believes that Obrador is the only person who can protect Mexico. His belief harkens back to the “savior” element of populists. During the 2006 election, Obrador made promises to cut government waste, and expand welfare programs, promises which appealed to the millions of Mexican who live on less than $5 per day. While Obrador’s strength is definitely this connection to the poor, his weakness lies in his lofty promises and utopian plans. These could spell his downfall.
Obrador promises new schools, roads, hospitals, oil refineries, improved electricity, clean water, health subsidies for the poor, scholarships for the young and most importantly jobs. Yet Obrador is completely incapable of explaining how he will make good on his commitments. Does this remind you of a certain plan for a wall? Critics find his economic plans unrealistic as the magnitude of funds Obrador would need to finance his programs simply do not exist. To the informed eye, Obrador’s economic program is clearly too ideal and optimistic. But his millions of supporters do not all possess this “informed eye.”
Ultimately, some Mexicans are enchanted by Obrador, while others remain disillusioned and scared. While poorer Mexicans tend to be excited by Obrador’s promises to improve their lives, wealthier Mexicans hear this message as a threat to enterprise, institutions and the elite business class. To some, he is the champion of the common man. To others he is an arrogant, power-hungry threat to Mexico. Obrador is currently the favorite to win the election. If he does finally prevail, it will set up quite an interesting showdown. It all comes down to July 2018.