MEXICO CITY – As the U.S. looks back over one of the most divisive presidential elections in recent memory, Mexico’s own leadership battle is getting underway. As candidates for the top job come forward, the country’s main concern comes to the forefront: who can handle Donald Trump?
Enrique Peña Nieto will step aside on June 4, 2018. The most unpopular leader since records began, his replacements are already campaigning in the president’s heartlands, with man-of-the-people Andrés Manuel López Obrador leading the pack.
"Our politicians have betrayed us, lying and stealing, and allowing the United States to punish the poorest for their mistakes.”
- Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Mexican politician
Known as AMLO, the firebrand populist has already been defeated in two presidential elections, yet, undeterred by ejection from his party and protesting fraud by political opponents at every turn, his anti-graft cause is building a head of steam as he tours marginalized Mexico.
“We will bring down the Mafia of Power that has destroyed this country,” he shouted to the crowd in Ecatepec, the most murderous town in Mexico, in a rally last week. “Our politicians have betrayed us, lying and stealing, and allowing the United States to punish the poorest for their mistakes.”
Being a career politician hasn’t stopped AMLO from tearing a few pages out of Donald Trump’s playbook. He has used his high-profile defeats to personify the thorn in the government’s side, a role which resounds with the growing number of Mexicans (and was effective with a great number of Americans) who feel betrayed by their politicians.
The candidate is highly active on social media, releasing YouTube videos and tweets that highlight national issues to his millions of followers and strengthen an outsider image that has been carefully constructed since his ejection from his own party.
Unwilling to be put out to pasture following the 2012 defeat to Peña Nieto, he founded his own National Regeneration Movement party, MORENA, and won a small number of congressional seats. His was the only party to vote against the New Year gas price hikes that resulted in riots and looting across Mexico, and he has used this stance to highlight his Trump-tackling credentials.
“We have invited foreigners into Mexico, to our gold mines, oil wells and rich jungles, and we have handed our country’s resources over without question, resources that belong to you and me,” he shouted, touching at Mexico’s wounded nationalism, an injured pride rubbed raw by the insults that Mexicans see as having swept Donald Trump into the White House.
“Our ancestors taught us to respect authority, but I have a better idea: we will only respect those who show us respect in return. I will break down the barriers that lie in Mexico’s path.”
President Peña Nieto’s current approval ratings, which languish below 17 percent, have been a godsend for López Obrador. The invitation of Donald Trump, who López Obrador speaks of as a petulant bigot, during last year’s presidential campaign was disastrous for Peña Nieto, while crime and violence have worsened in the country’s poorest areas, where AMLO’s natural voters predominate.
“I don’t know who runs this town,” he said with his tongue lodged firmly in his cheek (Ecatepec is governed by the PRI, the López Obrador’s fiercest opponents), “but whoever they are, they’ve done a terrible job.” Cue boos and whistles from an impassioned crowd, directed at the speaker’s red-faced police escort.
The populist now campaigns on two principles: putting President Trump in his place and tackling the corruption that has been allowed to seep into all corners of Mexican society.
“You clean corruption like you clean a set of stairs: from the top down,” he tells a community living with rates of murder, kidnap, extortion and femicide that are all four times the national average, and where the police are seen as apathetic, if not involved.
Telling people what they already know is working out well for AMLO. He leads in the polls, is gathering endorsements from political heavyweights, and strengthens his anti-establishment credentials with every rally.
“He tells it like it is,” Fernando Vilchis, the local waste management union leader told Fox News during the rally. “He represents honesty, dignity and moral authority, values we see as badly lacking in Mexican politics today.”
“Andres understands us,” says mother-of-two Maura Morales, 32, who battles daily with the fear of armed robbery on the public buses, as she commutes to clean the houses of the capital’s upper-middle class, the same voters who baulk at Obrador’s pledges to eradicate the “monstrous inequality” of Mexican society. “Other candidates have come through Ecatepec, but they have no idea of the daily struggle of living here.”
“He can unite Mexico, because he doesn’t give up,” says Vilchis, who believes that if change is going to come in Ecatepec, that it must be an effort on the part of the entire community. “We need a leader who speaks for the angry and marginalized, just like the United States has with President Trump.”
Alasdair Baverstock is a freelance writer based in Mexico.