Mexico’s Leftist Resurgence: Can Andrés Manuel López Obrador Unite the Left and Win the Presidency?

Mexican Presidential Candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Photo by Andres Kudacki / AP
Mexican Presidential Candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Photo by Andres Kudacki / AP
Mexican Presidential Candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Photo by Andres Kudacki / AP
Mexican Presidential Candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Photo by Andres Kudacki / AP

Say what you will about Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a leftist contender for Mexico’s 2018 presidential elections, but he sure knows how to make an entrance. Materializing out of nowhere at a recent rally in Mexico City, he came jogging through the crowd from behind. His supporters went wild, packing around to shake his hand and sneak in a selfie. Middle aged with graying hair and casual business attire, at first glance he looked like a conventional politician with a tactile twist. No baby went unkissed, and there were high fives all round.

If he was trying to play the man-of-the-people card, he was certainly hitting all the right chords. The crowd quickly slowed him down, bringing his pace to a meander as he made his way towards the stage to deliver the speech everyone was waiting for. He didn’t seem bothered; on the contrary, he was surprisingly relaxed, especially given the weight that comes with knowing one could soon be president of the world’s largest Spanish-speaking nation.

“If we win, we could really make some big changes to this country,” said rally-goer Fernando Lena.

Baby kissing and selfies aside, Obrador (or AMLO for short) is one of Mexico’s most controversial politicians of recent years. The right-wing loathes him, and he’s long been derided in the conservative press as the next incarnation of Venezuela’s late former president and socialist revolutionary, Hugo Chávez. He’s had the opposite problem on the left, where many have dismissed AMLO as not enough of a Chávez – or at least, of lacking the revolutionary credentials needed to truly push Mexico out of its state of chronic political depression. Either way, there’s no denying AMLO will be a force to be reckoned with in Mexico’s June 2018 presidential elections.

The latest polls show he’s the country’s most popular presidential candidate by a slim margin. In February, a poll by Mitofsky Consulting showed he had just under 26 percent of the vote. Comparably, his closest rival from the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) had just under 24 percent of the vote. In another survey that same month, pollster Parametria gave AMLO a slightly higher victory margin, with 28 percent of the vote.

Despite having momentum on their side, supporters of Obrador’s political party, the National Regeneration Movement (Morena), are more cautious than confident. Lena himself was optimistic that Morena has a chance to take power, but admitted nothing is certain.

“The political situation is really complicated right now,” he said.

Another Morena supporter, Oscar Vazquez, agreed, though he argued Mexico is desperate for a political change.

“It seems there’s a lot of dissatisfaction right now,” he said. Like many Morenistas, Vazquez blamed the bulk of Mexico’s woes on the country’s two-decade-old foray into neoliberalism.

Mexico’s Neoliberal Experiment

Since the 1980s, successive Mexican governments have rolled back corporate regulations and public services in unison. A smaller government and freer corporate climate were supposed to bring in fresh investment, new jobs and an end to poverty once and for all. Then there’s the crown jewel of Mexican neoliberalism, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Since being inked in 1994, NAFTA has been responsible for dragging an additional 20 million Mexicans below the poverty line, according to a report from the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). Not only has poverty mushroomed, but according to CEPR, after NAFTA, Mexico’s “per capita economic growth lagged the rest of Latin America.”

“Real wages have hardly risen since NAFTA’s implementation in 1994. Almost five million family farmers were displaced,” CEPR concluded.

Or, as the Morena supporter Vazquez put it, “The neoliberal project hasn’t given us what we need.”

“It hasn’t delivered on healthcare, education, even food. In fact, 80 percent of Mexicans are in a state of vulnerability [to poverty]. It’s particularly hard on young people, who can’t find work,” he said.

To Vazquez and other leftists, Morena is the only major party on Mexico’s political spectrum with the potential to challenge neoliberalism; and it’s delivering, at least in rhetoric.

“The neoliberal model imposed in the past 30 years has only benefited a minority, at the cost of poverty for the majority of Mexicans,” Morena’s mission statement reads.

“The economy is in the hands of monopolies; [Mexico’s] production base is destroyed, millions of young people have no opportunities to study or work, the countryside is abandoned and thousands of migrants cross the northern border every day, despite the risks and persecution,” it continues.

More than Words?

Yet despite the staunchly anti-neoliberal message, many on the left are skeptical of Morena’s ability to actually deliver change. Much of this debate has been playing out on the pages of Mexico’s newspaper of record of the left, La Jornada.

“Morena is certainly not a socialist party or anything like that. It is center-left and neither is it anti-capitalist,” the hesitant commentator Octavio Rodríguez Araujo wrote in April. Araujo is a professor in political science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and a longtime critic of the current government of President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Araujo views Morena as the least of all political evils. However, in another op-ed just a month earlier, he lambasted the party for its intake of a wave of career politicians, many of whom are viewed by the left as corporate stooges at best, deeply corrupt at worst.

“There are some new adherents of Morena that make my skin crawl,” he wrote, before arguing that in some parts of the country the party “will leave many [voters] without an electoral option.”

Indeed, some of the harshest criticism of Morena from the left stems from the party’s mostly open doors policy to defectors from the crumbling left-turned-centrist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). To many on the left, some of these defectors are seen as little more than rats fleeing a sinking ship, with the potential to infect the party with Mexico’s classic corruption and disingenuous opportunism.

Back in Mexico City, AMLO’s arrival to the rally was preceded by hours of new Moreno party converts pledging to support the party, including former PRD veterans.

Chatting with a group of activists on the sidelines of the rally, Morena member Pedro Gellert agreed that the influx of old guard politicians posed a challenge for the party, but said serious members are “acutely aware of the danger.” However, he noted this is just one of many imperfections in the party.

“Its program is also weak, not moving beyond radical nationalism, despite the many revolutionaries, including Marxists, in its ranks,” he said.

Nonetheless, Gellert remained hopeful Morena could offer Mexico a change in the right direction, emphasizing its close ties to the country’s various social movements.

“Morena’s greatest strength is its activist base and ties to the mass movements,” he said, pointing to its strong links with campesino movements, along with the party’s support for the teacher protests led by the country’s powerful education union. In Mexico State, Morena is also close to the National Union of Workers, along with a plethora of small, urban activist movements across Mexico City.

Whatever direction Morena takes, the international left needs to pay careful attention, Gellert argued. Comparing Morena to Spain’s leftist Podemos party, he said the rise of AMLO and his party is just part of a much broader wave of political discontent in Mexico. While he conceded this wave is still trying to find its footing in terms of how to coalesce around a party, he said the impact of the growing dissatisfaction with Mexico’s establishment politics could well resonate far beyond the country’s own borders.

“Mexico plays an important role in Latin American politics and given its common border with the US and the fact that more than 12 percent of its population resides in the US, what happens in Mexico has an impact beyond the country,” Gellert concluded.

Morena’s Historical Significance

It’s hard to overstate the stakes in the 2018 presidential race.

If AMLO wins in 2018, he’ll be Mexico’s first progressive head of state in generations, and arguably the first since the aftermath of the civil war, when the country enjoyed its now long gone honeymoon with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

With a name that sounds like it was inspired by an Orwell novel, the PRI’s loosely economically planned, vaguely protectionist glory days of the early 20th century are little more than a faint memory. Its leader, President Peña Nieto, is thoroughly neoliberal and easily one of the Western Hemisphere’s most hated heads of state.

Mexico’s other major parties are likewise in a state of crisis. The right-wing PAN once touted itself as an alternative to the PRI, but today is despised by many Mexicans who blame it for turning vast swathes of the country into literal battlefields during the drug war.

The last major party, the afore-mentioned PRD, isn’t doing much better. When it first broke away from the PRI in the late 1980s, the PRD marketed itself as a left-wing alternative. Today, it’s on the verge of total collapse, thanks to years of scandals, corruption and a gradual drift to the right.

All of this might sound like a history lesson, but this context is critical for understanding both AMLO, and the movement he represents.

AMLO himself was once the face of the PRD, running for president in 2006 as the candidate of a coalition led by the party. He lost by 0.56 percentage points. He tried to make a comeback in the 2012 presidential elections, coming in second to Peña Nieto.

Despite past setbacks, AMLO’s budding political movement has already passed a critical popularity hurdle ahead of the anticipated 2018 vote. His Morena party won big in the June 2016 Mexico City elections, when it secured a plurality of 33 percent of the vote. AMLO himself did a stint as mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005, during which he was generally quite popular. However, AMLO’s movement stretches beyond the confines of Mexico’s cosmopolitan capital. Morena’s support is particularly strong in bastions of broad political dissatisfaction, like in the impoverished southern state of Oaxaca, and the troubled eastern state of Veracruz

Whether or not Morena can use this momentum to forge a new, more hopeful left-wing alternative for Mexico is yet to be seen. Its own supporters are openly critical of the party, with many quietly pushing for it to move further to the left.

Nonetheless, supporters argue that Morena is the only major political party actually discussing neoliberalism and calling for a viable alternative for Mexico. The fact that it’s now within striking distance of the presidency is a massive change of fortune for the Mexican left, which has suffered decade after decade of defeat on the national level. Nobody knows if the hope invested in Morena can last, but whatever happens, it will be worth watching very carefully.

“Morena is still a work in progress,” Gellert explains, “but for all its imperfections, it represents a genuine hope for leaders and activists in the social movements, and has attracted youth seeking a radical alternative.”

Ryan Mallett-Outtrim is an independent journalist based out of Mexico. More of his work can be found at dissentsansfrontieres.com.