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Tuesday 20th March 2018

Lopez Obrador: Mexico’s Radical, Mercurial New President


Benjamin Schmidt

Sat, 01 Dec 2018 11:10 GMT

64-year-old Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador takes power in Mexico on December 1st, backed by the strongest democratic mandate of any recent Mexican president. Behind the curtain of his recent electoral success, however, stands a man with an erratic political history and a penchant for stubbornness that has investors and analysts sceptical that he will succeed in fulfilling his campaign promises to eradicate corruption and quell drug cartels.

He recently announced that he would be scrapping the partly built $13 billion Mexico City airport even though 1/3rd of the airport has already been completed. The announcement immediately put financial markets on edge, with billions of dollars of being wiped off the value of the local stock market shortly after the decision.

More selloffs followed when lawmakers from Mr Obrador’s party, Morena, introduced bills to limit bank fees and change laws governing mining rights. With fears rising that the new president and his party will pull Mexico away from the orthodox economic policies backed by the central bank, which has trimmed its growth forecast for the country, Obrador has named a team of market-friendly advisers and promised he would respect "macroeconomic equilibria."

Still, many observers are finding it hard to guess just what Mr Obrador’s policies will be. Having been a leader in three major parties in Mexican politics, his political career reveals little attachment to a particular political philosophy. More than anything else, his career has been defined by political comebacks and by a knack for rising to the top.

As an ambitious twenty-something, Obrador climbed the ranks of the governing PRI party -- now his enemy -- to become party leader in the early 1980s in his home state of Tabasco in southeastern Mexico. After leaving the PRI for the opposition PRD, Obrador lost the gubernatorial race for the state of Tabasco in 1994 before becoming national leader of the PRD from 1996 to 1999. Successfully elected Mayor of Mexico City in 2000, Obrador cracked down on crime, invested in new infrastructure, and improved social programmes in the city. He still held an 84% approval rating when he left the post in 2005 to run for president.

Obrador was the frontrunner for most of the 2006 presidential election but after he publicly insulted the current president, Vicente Fox, he lost by just 0.6% of the vote. Refusing to accept his narrow defeat, Obrador controversially proclaimed himself the “legitimate” president. He then held a faux inauguration and occupied the Paseo de la Reforma in the heart of Mexico City for several months.

After a second unsuccessful presidential run in 2012, he left the PRD to found his own leftist party, Morena. Now the dominant force in Mexican politics, Morena is composed of an especially unusual assortment coalition partners, including progressives, big business, evangelical Christians, and Marxists. It even includes several high-level defectors from Mexico’s three mainstream parties. Though ideologically diverse political coalitions are common in Mexico, Morena brings “diverse” to a whole new level.

There is no doubt Mr Obrador is a force to be reckoned with in Mexican politics. That may be why "stubborn" is among the most common pejoratives flung at him by his enemies. However, he takes it as a compliment. "I'm stubborn. It's a well-known fact,” he said in July, according to AFP. "With that same conviction, I will act as president... stubbornly, obstinately, persistently, bordering on craziness, to wipe out corruption."

His supporters say the same. "We're talking about a man whose main quality is his tenacity," said Mexican writer and historian Paco Ignacio Taibo II, an outspoken supporter of Obrador, according to AFP.

But his passionate attacks on Mexico’s "mafia of power" has tapped into widespread voter dissatisfaction with mainstream politics. He has also backed up his vows to fight corruption and cut government spending by cutting his own salary by 60%, refusing to live in the official presidential residence and promising to sell the presidential jet. "Not even Donald Trump has a plane like that,” he has remarked.

So while his clashes with investors and with other political leaders might be causing controversy, his distinctively different approach to governing is key to his support. Most Mexicans are assured that Mr Obrador represents something new in Mexican politics. So far, that has been enough.

Latin America