Mexicans fall out of love with López Obrador

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For decades, Mexicans from the arid coastline of Baja California to the lush hills of Chiapas have taken to the streets on November 20 to celebrate the revolution that toppled Porfirio Diaz’s dictatorship in 1910.

But the tens – perhaps hundreds – of thousands of people who gather on Monday in the Zócalo, Mexico City’s main square, will be thinking of another kind of revolution: that proposed by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, their charismatic leftwing leader.

Ever since Mr López Obrador, the 53-year-old former Mexico City mayor, lost the presidential election in July he has sworn to change Mexico’s political and economic system “from the streets”.

Claiming foul play both during the campaign and in the vote-counting, the silver-haired leader of the Democratic Revolution party (PRD) has said he will not recognise Mexico’s institutions. He has also said he will make life as hard as possible for Felipe Calderón, the centre-right president-elect who takes office on December 1.

At Monday’s rally, he will even proclaim himself the “legitimate” president of Mexico. To delight the crowd, he will also almost certainly repeat his now-familiar mantra of “He will fail, he will fail” – a reference to his vow to stop Mr Calderón from assuming power.

As one of Mr López Obrador’s top aides told the FT last week: “The ceremony is not just about proclaiming López Obrador president. It is about keeping the protest over electoral fraud going and consolidating an extremist civil resistance movement.”

On the surface, all this looks worrying for Mr Calderón. The election result – Mr Calderón beat Mr López Obrador by less than half a percentage point – underlined the fact that Mexico is a country divided along social, political and geographical lines.

During the six years since it returned to democracy after 71 years of one-party rule, Mexico has managed to consolidate and deepen macro-economic stability. But annual growth has averaged barely 2 per cent a year, and roughly half the population of 106m continues to live well below the poverty line.

The recent political violence in the southern state of Oaxaca is just one example of how poverty and the feeling of political exclusion can quickly get out of hand. And last week, Antonio Garza, the US ambassador in Mexico City, warned US citizens of possible violence as a result of Mr López Obrador’s ceremony on Monday.

In spite of these dangers, a growing number of political analysts believe Mr López Obrador may not turn out to be such a menace for Mr Calderón as he promised to be.

One reason, they say, is that his PRD party is increasingly split between those who support Mr López Obrador’s radical tactics – generally those who joined the PRD from the Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI); and those who consider them counter-productive – mainly those who cut their political teeth in trades unions and Mexico’s traditional left.

As one PRD member from the traditional left said of Mr López Obrador and his advisers: “They came from power and now want to take to the streets: we came from the streets and now want to take power.”

A second reason is that Mr López Obrador appears to be losing popularity. According to a recent poll by the Strategic Communication Group (GCE), a Mexico City consultancy, 69 per cent of Mexicans do not agree with Mr López Obrador’s determination to disrupt Mr Calderón’s swearing-in ceremony on December 1.

The same poll also says that only 15 per cent of the population supports the PRD – about 50 per cent less than those who voted for the party in the July election.

As Guillermo Valdés, a political analyst at GEA, a consultancy in Mexico City, puts it: “With those figures you have to conclude ‘forget it – you’ve been beaten’.”

The PRD’s crushing defeat last month in an election in Tabasco, Mr López Obrador’s native state, served as a further reminder of how much the leftwing leader’s support base appears to have waned since the presidential vote.

Mr Calderón has played his hand prudently. The most consistent message in his post-election speeches has been one of national unity and a willingness to head a “pluralistic” government.

Despite Mr López Obrador’s persistent and often aggressive sniping, Mr Calderón has remained accommodating. “López Obrador is not the enemy,” he said.

Even so, Mr Calderón still has a lot of work to do. Luis Rubio, who heads Cidac, a think-tank in Mexico City, says one of the keys to keeping Mr López Obrador at bay will be his ability to boost growth. “He realises that if the economy doesn’t move he does not have a future,” says Mr Rubio.

Most analysts agree that he will also have to adopt many of the social causes such as growth with equality that previous Mexican governments have ignored and that Mr López Obrador has articulated so skilfully.

That may not be easy. But Arturo Sarukhan, one of Mr Calderón’s closest advisors, says that the team is acutely aware of the challenges ahead. As he told the FT last week: “Some of the flags López Obrador has raised have to be addressed, and that is what we are going to do.”

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