Anti-Trump candidate to clinch Mexican presidency
Mexicans on Sunday appear likely to elect a left-wing populist president who has campaigned on standing up to President Donald Trump, potentially ushering in a more confrontational era of U.S.-Mexico relations on everything from immigration policy to trade.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a former mayor of Mexico City who styles himself as a champion for rural Mexico, has enjoyed a double-digit lead over the other top candidates from the country’s major parties for months.
His vows to eradicate violence and official corruption — long unaddressed by outgoing Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s ruling PRI party — have played a major role in lifting him to the head of the pack. But his pledge to defend Mexicans from Trump, coupled with his nationalistic rhetoric, has also bolstered his standing with Mexican voters.
López Obrador traveled through the U.S. after Trump was elected to advocate for Mexican immigrants living in the states and even published a book called Oye, Trump. (Listen Up, Trump), that condemns Trump’s plans to build a border wall and “his attempts to persecute migrant workers.”
Mexico “will never be the piñata of any foreign government,” López Obrador, 64, told more than 90,000 supporters at a rally here to close out his campaign on Wednesday.
The election of López Obrador — like Trump, known for his impulsive and nationalistic tendencies —could further strain U.S-Mexico relations. The candidate, nicknamed AMLO, says illegal migration to the U.S. should be addressed with economic development programs, not a border wall. And while he supports continued talks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, he’s also been a critic of free trade in the past, arguing that Mexico needs to be more self sufficient.
“AMLO won’t hold back the way Peña Nieto has,” said Mark Feierstein, former senior director for western hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council. “Peña Nieto has been very passive toward Trump and toward the United States.”
López Obrador, a two-time failed presidential candidate, is now running as the candidate for left-wing National Regeneration Movement (Morena), a party he founded in 2014. He frames himself as a political outsider even though he has been a politician for decades. His popularity stems from widespread distrust of the ruling parties, including Peña Nieto’s PRI, which held power from 1929 to 2000 and regained the presidency in 2012. Less than 20 percent of Mexicans support Peña Nieto’s administration, according to Mexican consulting firm GEA-ISA.
López Obrador’s opponents — PRI’s José Antonio Meade and Ricardo Anaya, who’s running under an unlikely coalition of right-left parties — have also said they will demand respect from Trump. Being critical of Trump is seen as an easy way to unite Mexicans, who widely dislike the U.S. president. More than 80 percent of Mexicans have a negative opinion of Trump, according to a June poll by Mexican consulting firm Consulta Mitofsky.
Peña Nieto’s failure to stand up to Trump’s insults against Mexico and its people further hurt his popularity, particularly after he welcomed then-candidate Trump to Mexico in 2016. In 2017, Peña Nieto faced widespread criticism for sitting silently next to the American president on the sidelines of the G20 meetings in Germany while Trump repeated that Mexico would pay for a border wall.
In April, Peña Nieto finally gave a defiant address, telling Trump to respect Mexico because challenges in the U.S.-Mexico relationship “never justify a threatening attitude or lack of respect between the countries.” The speech was widely praised, even by López Obrador, but many argued that it came too late.
Against that backdrop, López Obrador’s fiery rhetoric is resonating with voters.
López Obrador “answers to his domestic constituencies, especially as many feel that Peña Nieto has been like Trump’s doormat,” said Ana Quintana, senior analyst on Latin America and the Western Hemisphere at the Heritage Foundation.
Despite the tough talk, López Obrador says he wants to work with Trump. He’s proposed a large-scale project that will strengthen cooperation between North America and Central American countries. The effort, López Obrador has said, would lead to more jobs and higher salaries – two points that would drive down illegal migration and cross-border violence. He also wants to hammer out a NAFTA agreement that will lead to higher wages for Mexicans, something that Trump supports.
The change in administrations could spark a new era of cooperation, Marcos Fastlicht, one of López Obrador’s top advisers said.
“A door opens for opportunity with Andrés Manuel,” said Fastlicht, a Mexican businessman who has been friends with López Obrador for about 20 years. “He’s willing to speak with [Trump], willing to sit and negotiate, but part of this requires we wait and see.”
Roberta Jacobson, who retired last month from her post as U.S. ambassador to Mexico, said López Obrado told her it was his priority for Mexico to have a good relationship with the U.S. during her meetings with him.
“Whether he can do that, whether any Mexican president can do that, is unclear to me,” she said.
Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister who served during the presidency of conservative Vicente Fox, put it another way.
“López Obrador will try and be prudent, more tolerant,” said Castañeda, who is currently campaign coordinator for Anaya. “But Trump is Trump.”