WORLD

Viva Obrador!

Mexico looks to be next in line to elect a socialist president

ISABEL VINCENT April 3 2006
WORLD

Viva Obrador!

Mexico looks to be next in line to elect a socialist president

ISABEL VINCENT April 3 2006

Viva Obrador!

Mexico looks to be next in line to elect a socialist president

ISABEL VINCENT

This week, Canadian

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President George W. Bush are flying to the Mexican resort town of Cancún to meet with their Mexican counterpart, Vicente Fox. Although the North American leaders’ summit will touch on important issues facing the three countries—everything from fixing conflicting regulations that are still getting in the way of the North American Free Trade Agreement, energy, and the potential economic effects of a disease pandemic—the most critical issue for the future stability of the region will likely not be on any official agenda.

Unofficially, some policy-makers have been worried for months about what now seems to be the likely outcome of Mexico’s presidential election this summer. After six years of steady economic growth under the conservative Fox, what will become of Mexico if it is ruled by the current front-runner, a leftist populist who seems to have an authoritarian bent and little time for relations with Canada and the United States?

It’s a question many are now asking. Recent polls have shown that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, 52, the maverick former mayor of Mexico City who has compared himself to Jesus Christ and railed against the excesses of big business, seems poised to become the next president when Mexicans go to the polls on July 2. The left-wing widower and father of three, who began his political career campaigning for the rights of the country’s im-

poverished indigenous populations, is wildly popular with Mexico’s poor. Polls put him at least 10 percentage points ahead of his closest rivals, Felipe Calderón of Fox’s National Action Party, and Roberto Madrazo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

In folksy speeches, López Obrador, who is known by his initials AMLO and heads the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), has promised to cut senior government salaries, including his own if he becomes president. He has promised to invest in health care, infrastructure, food subsidies for the elderly, free education through college, and aid for single mothers and the disabled. A fierce Mexican nationalist, AMLO has also indicated that he wants to renegotiate the free trade agreement to protect farmers and other workers who have been displaced since NAFTA came into effect in 1994.

His opponents worry that his plans will only end up isolating Mexico on the world stage, and fuel inflation. AMLO, they fear, will return their country to a state-controlled economy—something Fox sought to dismantle when he broke the PRI’s 71-year stranglehold on Mexican politics in 2000.

AMLO, himself a former member of the PRI, rarely loses an opportunity to rail against the rich. In a recent exchange with Roberto Hernández, one of Mexico’s wealthiest bankers, who said that he made his fortune by the law, AMLO replied, “I don’t know if it was legal or not, but what you did to obtain profits of that size and to not pay taxes, is immoral and offends the people.” Such outbursts have led to comparisons with Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez. But AMLO shrugs off any similarities. “There is an attempt to compare

us,” he said. “I’ve never met Hugo Chávez, or spoken with him on the telephone. We are distinct.”

His aides are keen to make this clear to Mexico’s most important trading partners, Canada and the U.S. Last year, to assuage corporate American fears that AMLO was going to become yet another radical populist in a region where politics are increasingly moving to the left, his aide Manuel Camacho Solis told a group ofWall Street investors that AMLO is a pragmatist at heart. “We will not do crazy things in terms of the economy,” Camacho Solis said in New York, adding that AMLO

IN SPEECHES, HE HAS PROMISED TO CUT GOVERNMENT SALARIES, INCLUDING HIS OWN, FOR BETTER HEALTH CARE

had recently backed away from his promise to renegotiate NAFTA. “But Wall Street is not going to have a president who does everything it wants, because if that were the case, the president would not be able to govern.”

AMLO may work his crowds of impoverished supporters like an old-style Latin American populist, but many analysts predict that if he does become Mexico’s next president, he will follow in the footsteps of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s leftist leader. Despite fiery rhetoric on the campaign trail, which sent markets into a tailspin and played havoc with the Brazilian currency, Lula, elected in 2002, has followed in the free-market reforms of his more conservative predecessor.

“I think he [AMLO] will be closer to a Lula figure,” says Eduardo del Buey, a veteran former diplomat and Latin America analyst who is executive director of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas, an Ottawa-based think tank. “Should López Obrador win, he would not have the power of a Chávez. A possible PRD government would not likely have an absolute majority in congress, so he would have to forge alliances with the opposition.” Moreover, unlike Venezuela, the Mexican economy is not solely driven by the petroleum sector, says del Buey. Mexico has a much wider economic base and a vibrant private sector, which will continue to function no matter who wins the elections injuly, he notes.

There has been some public hand-wringing in conservative circles in the U.S. and Canada over the possible results of the election and the wider tendency of leftist governments throughout Latin America. In Ottawa, one veteran diplomat who did not want to be identified noted, “the impression we have is that he [AMLO] is learning as he goes.” The presidential campaign comes at a time when Canada has pushed to make Mexico a more important focus for bilateral co-operation, focusing on foreign policy initiatives beyond economic ties and NAFTA, which

continues to be an unpopular issue among many Mexicans. Canada is Mexico’s secondlargest export market, and Mexico is the fifthbiggest buyer of Canadian export goods.

Many in the Bush administration, at least, are beginning to realize that an AMLO victory may make little difference in their relationship with Mexico. “My expectation is that he will not be as bad as people expect because he is essentially a caricature in Washington today,” says Roger Noriega, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. Until last year, Noriega was assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs (Canada and Latin America) in the Bush administration.

“Assuming he [AMLO] does not engage in Chávista rhetoric, my guess is the U.S. government will make extraordinary efforts to keep relations on an even keel,” Noriega says.

Washington has made similar efforts to maintain a strong relationship with Lula, leader of the biggest economy in Latin America, and even with Evo Morales, the left-wing populist recently elected in Bolivia (U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Morales in Chile earlier this month). For his part, AMLO is expected to “do his darndest” to reassure the United States, Noriega predicts. “AMLO will undoubtedly try to establish closer relationships with South America,” says del Buey. “But he understands that the U.S. is his immediate neighbour, and also the intricate ways Mexico’s destiny is linked to North American realities.”

As mayor of Mexico City since 2000 (he left the post in order to campaign for the presidency), AMLO, who has weathered a handful of municipal corruption scandals, has already demonstrated his capacity for pragmatism. While he lives in a modest apartment and drives a second-hand car, he has not shied away from working with the super-rich. When city hall wanted to restore some of the city’s most historic neighborhoods, AMLO called on Carlos Slim, a Mexican tycoon and one of the world’s richest men, to help him. He still maintains a close relationship with Slim, despite their political differences.

“They can accuse me of many things, but they can never call me inconsistent,” AMLO is fond of repeating in his campaign speeches. And although he has demonstrated a Machiavellian ability to forge strange alliances, he claims he has not compromised his principles. “I will never betray the Mexican people,” AMLO has said. Whether that’s empty rhetoric or reality should become clear if he becomes Mexico’s new leader in july. M

John Geddes

Luiza Ch. Savage

in Washington