MEXICO CITY – Leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador charged Wednesday that his rivals are using dirty tricks and attack ads against him, warning that could plunge Mexico into political upheaval like that following the 2006 election.
His rise in recent polls has made him the focus of fire from the other candidates, front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto of the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party and Josefina Vazquez Mota of the governing National Action Party.
Both simultaneously aired attack ads this week, including one that quotes Lopez Obrador out of context, to depict him as violent, authoritarian or disrespectful of democracy.
Similar charges of extremist views, along with Lopez Obrador's own occasionally angry rhetoric, erased his lead in the polls in 2006 and contributed to his narrow election loss to current President Felipe Calderon. The results sparked months of protests by the leftist's supporters.
Lopez Obrador is known for crying foul — he alleged vote fraud in 2006 without ever providing much evidence of it. But this time around he may have some reason to feel unfairly victimized.
"The dirty war has started, to disorient people," Lopez Obrador said Wednesday. "But 2006 isn't the same as 2012."
While widely feared by Mexico's business community in 2006 when his slogan was "the poor come first," he has largely mended fences with entrepreneurs since then.
But Vazquez Mota's campaign aired an ad this week that includes footage of Lopez Obrador at a recent rally saying "the path of taking up arms (is) a possibility to achieve the transformation of the people."
What Lopez Obrador really said was: "We do not have contempt for those who think that the path of taking up arms (is) a possibility to achieve the transformation of the people, but I want to make it clear to those who think that way, that we are going to engage in a struggle by peaceful, electoral means."
Vazquez Mota had previously focused her criticism on Pena Nieto, trying to keep the front-runner and his party from returning to the presidency. Before losing to her party in the 2000 elections, the PRI held the presidency without interruption from 1929 to 2000, ruling with a combination of hand-out programs, corruption and repression.
Vazquez Mota defended her swing to attacking Lopez Obrador, saying he and Pena Nieto were "two faces of the same party," referring to the fact that the leftist started his career in the PRI.
"What Lopez Obrador has proposed is simply a model of populism and demagoguery, and a model of violence, intolerance and arrogance," she said.
That rhetoric was similar to 2006, when Vazquez Mota was Calderon's campaign manager and shadowy groups allied with him ran attack ads calling Lopez Obrador "a danger for Mexico."
Vazquez Mota isn't the only one attacking Lopez Obrador using his old comments. Pena Nieto's campaign put out ads this week citing a 2006 speech by the leftist in which he said "to the devil with your institutions." Vazquez Mota's ads also cited that comment.
One Mexican newspaper cited unidentified officials within the campaigns of Vazquez Mota and Pena Nieto as saying the two had met to plan a joint campaign strategy against the leftist.
Vazquez Mota hotly denied that. "We don't have any type of agreement with the PRI," she said.
Pena Nieto's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Many people suspect the PRI was behind a shadowy series of protests against Lopez Obrador over the weekend in the Caribbean coast state of Quintana Roo that featured slogans calling him a liar, and worse.
Thousands of people in several cities marched with uniform, professional-made banners that were a sharp contrast to the large spontaneous, but rag-tag demonstrations that youth groups staged against Pena Nieto in recent weeks.
The manager of a humanitarian group that was listed as an "organizer" of one of the Quintana Roo marches against Lopez Obrador said his group had been tricked into participating, thinking it was attending a meeting against violence.
"We didn't expect that," Jorge Jimenez, manager of the anti-hunger group Huellas del Pan. "We went for the cause of peace ... and we were quite surprised when all these people showed up" with anti-Lopez Obrador banners.
Jimenez said he didn't know who really organized the protest.
It was the latest in a series of low blows against Lopez Obrador. Earlier in last week, a leaked audio tape was released in which a Lopez Obrador supporter is heard asking businessmen for $6 million in campaign donations, which would be a violation of electoral laws.
But the leaked version did not include the full conversation, in which another supporter is heard telling the businessmen that the leftist would never consider giving them anything in exchange and was not aware of or involved in the request.
Still, it was unclear whether Lopez Obrador would gain any sympathy in the wake of the attacks, given that he has spent years portraying himself as a victim of vote fraud in 2006 and suggesting the same might happen again this year.
"He's already talking about fraud, and the elections haven't even been held yet," Vazquez Mota noted.