Mexico’s Answer to Donald Trump

The mercurial Andrés Manuel López Obrador is likely to win the country’s elections on Sunday. But what does he really believe?

Amlo with smiling supporters
Supporters of the Mexican presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador greet him at his closing campaign rally in Mexico City, on June 27. (Ramon Espinosa / AP)

This Sunday, Mexicans will go to the polls to elect a new president. Of all the things we will be voting on, Donald Trump is not one of them. We are not voting as a reaction to his constant attacks on Mexico. Nor are we looking for the candidate most willing to stand up to him. Indeed, every Mexican agrees that there’s no edge in running against him. Trump is so despised that he is simply not an issue: He is equally opposed by every one of the candidates.

Mexicans are roughly evenly split between the leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a.k.a Amlo, and whomever they think can beat him. This is Amlo’s third attempt to win the presidency, and he is leading by an average of 18 points. The only real uncertainty left is how he might govern. Is he really a danger to Mexico, as his opponents warn? Or will he be a socially transformative leader who will finally address the country’s gaping inequality? It is not always clear what his positions are, or how he actually intends to address inequality, along with other entrenched problems such as corruption and violent crime. He will often say he’s for or against something, only to have his advisors say the opposite. (For example, he has repeatedly promised to discontinue pro-market energy reforms, even as his chief economic advisor has assured the business community that private investment in the energy sector will continue.) Amid enormous frustration with the government of Enrique Peña Nieto and widespread impunity of corrupt officials, however, he has claimed the mantle of change, even though he has been in politics for decades and served for five years as the mayor of Mexico City. To his critics, Amlo is just a recycled version of the old Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the party he once belonged to that ruled Mexico for 71 years.

Running second in most polls is Ricardo Anaya, the anti-Amlo camp’s favored candidate, and president of the center-right National Action Party (PAN). His main pitch is that he can save Mexico from the uncertainty of an Amlo presidency—not a bad strategy: In 2006 and 2012, the PAN’s Felipe Calderón and the PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto, respectively, won in part by running as the Amlo alternative. Yet Anaya has stumbled, kicking off his campaign by alienating supporters of Margarita Zavala, a former presidential spouse, whom polls showed to be the clear frontrunner among PAN voters and the only candidate in a position to defeat Amlo. Using his position as president of the party, Anaya massaged the rules of the primary election, pushing Zavala and other competitors out. He made the bet that any perceived lack of legitimacy surrounding his candidacy wouldn’t matter in the end—surely Zavala voters would fear Amlo more than they disliked Anaya.

But things haven’t gone quite as expected. Zavala eventually left the PAN to run as Mexico’s first independent female presidential candidate, but dropped out of the race in May; her name will still appear on the ballots, though, since they were printed before her withdrawal. Her supporters have not flocked, en masse, to Anaya and the PAN, the now maligned, once storied opposition party that broke the PRI’s grip on power in 2000. Furthermore, many traditional PAN voters, who skew conservative, are wary that Anaya’s coalition includes the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution. If Anaya’s message has always seemed a bit muddled, it may be because he was trying to be too many things for too many people on opposite sides of the political spectrum.

If Anaya’s problem is his singular focus on Amlo, the PRI candidate José Antonio Meade’s problem has been his political brand. A cabinet official in both the Calderón and Peña Nieto administrations viewed as a capable, experienced technocrat with a clean reputation, Meade still can’t quite overcome the fact that his name will appear on the ballot next to the logo of what many Mexicans would consider the most corrupt institution in their country’s history. Even so, it speaks to Anaya’s lack of charisma that in the most recent polls he has only a very narrow lead over Meade (a few polls even have Meade running second). The anti-Amlo vote, in other words, is almost neatly split down the middle.

Now, Amlo has a two-to-one lead over his opponents, and will most likely win on Sunday. Mexicans expect him to address corruption and crime immediately, both of which reached intolerable levels under Peña Nieto. Anaya and Meade voters are afraid—and not without reason—that he will reinstate outdated economic policies like import substitution, a 1970s-era model of producing consumer goods on which it has no competitive advantage. Some fear that his populist and strongman-like tendencies may turn Mexico into the next Venezuela. Others see his National Regeneration Movement party (MORENA) as the old PRI with another name. His main message is ending corruption, yet he has surrounded himself with some of the most brazenly corrupt people in Mexican politics. When asked for specifics on how he will actually combat corruption, he inevitably answers that he will lead by example and “sweep the house from the top.”

No one knows if and how Amlo might follow through on his most radical campaign promises, like ending Peña Nieto’s energy reforms, which have opened the oil and gas sectors to private investment for the first time since the 1930s, or canceling the construction of a new airport in Mexico City, one of the country’s largest infrastructure projects. In a Mexican version of “take him seriously, not literally,” his aides insist that he doesn’t really mean any of this.

Whoever Mexico elects on Sunday will be expected to stand up to Trump—something Peña Nieto didn’t need to worry about, given that U.S.-Mexico relations weren’t contentious at the outset of his presidency. Indeed, he had Trump inflicted on him. (Some would argue that by inviting the then-candidate to visit Mexico and infuriating Mexicans in the process, he helped him.) Amlo has already said that Mexico will not “do the United States’ dirty work” by stopping Central American migrants headed north. This is already a marked difference from the rather solicitous Peña Nieto, who expelled the North Korean ambassador to Mexico at Washington’s request, seemingly out of fear of angering Trump and jeopardizing the NAFTA negotiations.

Notably, if elected, Amlo will be the first person to win the presidency of Mexico without the support of its business community. As such, he will feel less constrained by its demands to save NAFTA at any cost. Even though he has spoken favorably about NAFTA, he is not a free-trader by heart. If Trump pulls out of NAFTA, Amlo likely won’t feel obligated to offer concessions in hopes of bringing him back.

In a best-case scenario, a President López Obrador will appoint a competent cabinet, govern with fiscal prudence, and not scare off foreign investment, particularly in the energy sector. The names he has floated to fill various posts include respected experts, none of whom is particularly radical or even necessarily leftist, and he has seemed reluctant to add to the national debt or increase taxes. He may even succeed in renegotiating NAFTA, eliminating the uncertainty caused by Trump’s threats to pull out of the agreement, and allowing him to focus on his domestic agenda. In the worst-case scenario envisioned by his critics, Amlo would send investors into a panic, triggering major capital flights, which would lead to a devaluation of the peso, inflation, and creeping economic uncertainty. To boost his popularity as things crumble around him, he may ramp up his nationalist appeals, attack the private sector and the independent press, polarize the country, and chip away at already weak democratic institutions.

As far as the United States is concerned, if the Trump era has strained relations with Mexico, Amlo’s election could change the dynamic even more drastically. In the best of circumstances, both countries would continue to ignore each other. In the worst, Trump would continue alienating Mexico in a way that will take generations to repair.