The World

The Trump Factor in the Mexican Election

El Gabfest en Español discusses how an anti-establishment mood—and a certain U.S. president—are benefiting a veteran leftist candidate in Mexico’s election.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) poses for a photo with supporters as he arrives at a campaign rally in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico April 5, 2018.
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) poses for a photo with supporters as he arrives at a campaign rally in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, on Thursday.
Daniel Becerri/Reuters

Campaigning for Mexico’s upcoming presidential election, on July 1, has officially begun. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the left-wing candidate and former mayor of Mexico City is the clear front-runner with an 18 percentage point lead. The two candidates from the mainstream parties that have dominated Mexico for decades., José Antonio Meade of the ruling PRI party and Ricardo Anaya of the opposition PAN have had difficulty gaining traction with voters in an anti-establishment mood.

A longtime fixture in Mexican politics—this is the third time he’s running—AMLO, as he’s known, has benefited from growing tensions with the United States under President Donald Trump, which have only grown more acute since Trump ordered troops to the border and began raising fears of a “caravan” of migrants passing through Mexico. In contrast to Mexico’s recent presidents—including the current one, the dismally unpopular Enrique Peña Nieto—who have defended NAFTA and security cooperation with Washington, he has pledged to take a harder line with the U.S.

López Obrador’s rivals paint him as a left-wing potential authoritarian in the mold of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, but this time around, running under a newly formed party, he has taken steps to portray himself as a more moderate figure.

Slate’s Spanish-language political podcast, El Gabfest en Español, recently spoke with Carlos Bravo Regidor, director of Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas in Mexico City and a perspicacious observer of Mexican politics and Mexican–U.S. relations. In the following excerpt from their conversation, which has been translated from Spanish and edited for length and clarity, Bravo Regidor speaks with host Leon Krauze and panelists Janet Rodriguez and Fernando Pizarro about the state of the election and AMLO’s prospects.

You can read an abridged version of the conversation below, or stream or download the full discussion and episode via iTunesStitcherSpotify, the Google Play store, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Janet Rodriguez: What needs to happen—now that we know Trump’s attitude toward Mexico and that Mexico is going to have important elections this year—what can be done to return stability to the U.S.–Mexico relationship?

Carlos Bravo Regidor: Well, look, it’s not that I want to sound like a pessimist, but I think it will take a long time. Even if we had a scenario where Donald Trump lost the [Republican] majority in Congress, was the subject of [Mueller’s] investigation, or was not re-elected, what Trump has done has already been so disruptive of the relationship. Because Trump has made Mexico a sacrificial lamb in domestic U.S. politics. Right? The whole topic of the wall, the criminalization of Mexicans, of migrants, the deportations—he’s shown himself in a way that’s very sad and very worrisome, but very effective in electoral terms. I mean, the social base of Trumpism responds so well to the agitation of anti-Mexican sentiment, to the anti-immigrant sentiment, which is so aptly symbolized by the border wall. The uncertainty that Trump has introduced in the [Mexican] election is not a passing phenomenon. It’s here to stay, at least for the medium term. What can be done is to try to mitigate it, try to contain it, try to do damage control. One of the best strategies Mexico has adopted in that respect is to try and make the topics, say, of NAFTA or deportations, into topics of domestic U.S. politics, that they not be huge topics of the bilateral relationship, because it’s clear that Donald Trump doesn’t see Mexico as an equal negotiating partner with the U.S..

Fernando Pizarro: How do you interpret the polls giving Andrés Manuel López Obrador a big lead? Is this just a rejection of [the currently ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party]? Is it also a rejection of Trump’s discourse? How is Trump influencing the political debate in Mexico?

Bravo Regidor: I think in the first place—as you said—it’s a reflection on the negative evaluation the Mexican public has of Enrique Peña Nieto’s six-year term, in particular with respect to three topics.

The first is corruption. There have never been so many corruption scandals in Mexico as there are now. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that there is more corruption than at other times. It’s that we know much more. Before, well, there wasn’t even that much investigation into the topic. But corruption has become, we’ll say, the central theme of Peña Nieto’s government.

The second is the increase in violence. At the end of Felipe Calderón’s term [in 2012] and the beginning of Peña Nieto’s, it seemed at last that the rate of homicides was beginning to go down again. But the second half of Peña Nieto’s term saw the rate change directions and go up once more. According to various indicators, 2017 was the most violent year ever registered, let’s say, in recent history in Mexico. Every day, similar to the corruption scandals, we’re learning about executions, disappearances, and mass graves. It’s a pretty sad landscape, pretty lurid and worrying. And so Peña Nieto, even though he was never as vocal on the topic of organized crime like Felipe Calderón was, has basically seen it become the main topic of his six years in government. It’s now also his war on drugs, and he hasn’t found a solution to this violence either.

And the third topic is without a doubt the economy. Economic growth is very unsatisfactory, very mediocre. And the fact that poverty might not have increased enormously; well, it hasn’t gone down either. The improvements during his six years in government have been very marginal; I’d even say circumstantial. So, corruption, violence, and disappointment in the economy—well, the electorate is very angry at the government.

In the previous campaigns in 2006 and 2012, I’d say the predominant sentiment regarding Andrés Manuel López Obrador was fear. I think the Mexican electorate was afraid of a López Obrador who seemed, well, he seemed very radical, he came off as very angry, as very extreme. And the disappointment and anger with Enrique Peña Nieto has coincided with an Andrés Manuel López Obrador who has very deliberately tried to move to the center, show himself more conservative, and more conciliatory. So put this all together, and the anger that people feel at Enrique Peña Nieto is gravitating and articulating itself around the candidature of a López Obrador who, compared to 2012 and 2006, seems pretty moderate.

Leon Krauze: The lead López Obrador has over the other candidates is considerable. Is the election over? Or do you think things could still change and there could be another result in July?

Bravo Regidor: You’re asking me a very difficult question. I’m still scarred from the 2016 elections in the U.S., which we had all thought was resolved in favor of Hillary Clinton—and what a surprise! So right now I’m particularly wary of giving a resolute response to this question. The Mexican electorate is very volatile; it’s an electorate with few strong or fixed loyalties, unlike the U.S. electorate which is pretty stable in terms of its preferences.

If one observes the history of elections in Mexican democracy, the majority of the electorate—or at least a significant portion—changes its party preferences according to the circumstances. So in that sense we know already that the electoral campaigns in Mexico can make a big difference. That was the case in 2006 when Felipe Calderón, a figure who was less well-known at the time, who had little national relevance, ended up beating Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who was the clear leader and the clear favorite.

In 2012, Andrés Manuel López Obrador may have lost the election, but in terms of the achievements he made in the campaign, he won. He was in a faraway third place and ended up more or less in a close second. Does that mean that the Mexican election is still up in the air? To a certain degree. The problem is that the candidates in second and third place might not be able to catch up. I saw a poll recently that asked people who they wanted to vote for and if they feel certain of their vote or not. The candidate with the greatest percentage of secure votes in that question was Andrés Manuel López Obrador with 40 to 45 percent.

And Ricardo Anaya and José Antonio Meade barely reached 20 percent of secure votes. So not only is López Obrador the front-runner, but he has also consolidated a more or less secure or loyal vote, and it will be hard for the other candidates to steal those votes. At this point it’s not only about convincing the undecided voters, but also about taking votes away from the other candidates. To me it seems like those who have decided on López Obrador won’t be too willing to give their vote to José Antonio Meade or Ricardo Anaya. There might be a percentage that might, but in principle that seems a little complicated.

You can listen to a new episode of El Gabfest en Español every Thursday. This week, we check in with a conservative Latino voice in Washington to gauge the way Republican Latinos feel about President Donald Trump and his policies.

This conversation was translated by Paulina Velasco.