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May 4, 2018

Mexico Decision 2018: The Scramble to Stop López Obrador

Mexico Decision 2018: The Scramble to Stop López Obrador
Kent Paterson
Special to The Digie Zone Network

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at a campaign rally.
EL PASO, TEXAS - As Mexican presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) continues to dominate the polls, contrary political forces are pulling out the stops to prevent the left nationalist reformer from sweeping the July 1 elections. 
And at this juncture, the scramble for second place in the polls is shaping up as a strategic bend in the campaign curve. That's the assessment of Rice University's Dr. Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at the Houston university and a longtime analyst of Mexican politics.

Speaking at a recent event sponsored by the El Paso Social Justice Education Project, Payan dissected the current balance of the presidential contest, the campaign strategies of the three main electoral coalitions, the political ramifications of the election on U.S.-Mexico relations, and other defining elements of the upcoming July 1 elections.

With some polls now showing frontrunner López Obrador increasing his support to well over 40 percent in the five-way contest, talk is in the air of one or more candidates dropping out and backing the strongest contender against the leader of the National Movement for the Regeneration of Mexico (Morena) party and standard bearer of the Together We Will Make History coalition, who is viewed as a dangerous, radical populist by his hardcore opponents.

Though López Obrador easily beats his rivals individually in the polls, the surveys still show a combined if diminishing majority of respondents either backing other candidates or not disclosing who they will vote for on July 1, perhaps waiting to see who will be the strongest possible contender against the frontrunner.

In this scenario, the candidate who ranks second in the polls, currently Ricardo Anaya of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), could reap the uncommitted, anti- AMLO vote if it breaks "en masse" for the runner up, Payan told a well-attended gathering at the El Paso Public Library.  "Whoever is in second place will harvest the strategic vote," he said.

A youthful politician, Anaya was regarded by some analysts as the winner of the first televised presidential debate held last month. According to the official National Electoral Institute (INE), the debate was the most watched one in Mexican history, with 11.4 million viewers older than 18 years of age tuning in on television and more than 6.6 million others taking in the event via Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.

The television audience alone surpassed a similar debate in the 2012 presidential campaign by ten times, the INE reported.   

But given the political fragmentation, deep rivalries and personal antagonisms driving Mexican politics in 2018, forging a big anti-AMLO coalition less than two months before election day might be an impossible task- or simply too late in the game. 

In a flurry of comments played up in the Mexican media in recent days, Anaya as well as spokespersons for two of the other candidates, Jose Antonio Meade of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) led coalition and independent Margarita Zavala, were quoted as rejecting political deals in favor of a unitary candidate against AMLO. Meade spokesman Javier Lozano, a former PAN politician who resigned from the party and assumed an important role in the PRI's campaign, lashed out against Anaya.

"We do not foresee an alliance, mostly because of the hypocrisy, double standards and double talk of Ricardo Anaya," Lozano was quoted. "There can't be a useful (pragmatic) vote for someone who is useless."

Yet in a glaring recognition that Meade's campaign was in serious trouble, the national president of the PRI, Enrique Ochoa, stepped down May 2 amid a shake-up of the presidential candidate's campaign staff. Ochoa was replaced by party stalwart René Juárez Cisneros, who had served as a Meade campaign coordinator. Though not a formal member of the PRI, Meade told the Mexican press that it was his decision to change the top command of President Peña Nieto's party.

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Occurring less than two months before election day, the timing of the leadership switch was characterized as unprecedented by Mexico's Reforma news agency.  A seasoned PRI politician, Juárez won the governorship of Guerrero state in a highly disputed 1999 election that was punctuated with allegations of fraud. 

As for his third place ranking in the polls, Meade was stoic. "The only poll that counts is the one on July 1," he was quoted in Proceso magazine’s news service.

For his part, López Obrador confidently dismissed the viability of two or more political forces closing ranks against him.

Political analyst Jenaro Villamil of Proceso challenged the notion that the presidential campaign was turning into a referendum on AMLO, contending the election was polarized well before the beginning of the campaign.

"...These elections are a referendum on the governments of the PAN (Fox and Calderon) and the PRI (Peña Nieto)," Villamil wrote.

López Obrador’s odds for victory are now even deemed inevitable by an unlikely source:  Antonio Solá, a Spanish political consultant and architect of the highly negative campaign against AMLO in 2006.  Predicting that the Morena plus coalition leader will triumph with more than 45 percent of the vote, Solá was quoted in Proceso as saying that barring the extraordinary, "López Obrador will be the president of Mexico." 

Conditions Favoring López Obrador  

In his El Paso talk, Payan outlined the strategies pursued by the three major electoral coalitions. For Anaya and the PAN, winning means joining with the onetime ideologically opposed Party of the Democratic Revolution and the centrist Citizen Movement to edge out López Obrador.

For the PRI and two smaller allied parties, the Mexican Green Party and National Alliance Party, victory implies somehow overcoming deep popular discontent, the unpopularity of President Peña Nieto, the PRI's loss of power in the states, and the party's corrupt image by fielding a relatively "clean" candidate, Meade, who has served both PAN and PRI administrations and is not a member of any political party. Yet Meade's consistent third place ranking in the polls indicates the public isn't buying the makeover.

Anaya's problem, Payan continued, is he's viewed as straddling the axis of "continuity and change" at a time when the body politic is searching for something different and someone new. In this sense, both internal and external factors are boosting López Obrador’s campaign, which in Payan’s analysis revolves around a formula of nationalism, populism and pragmatism. 

Economic discontent, for example, is rooted in Mexico's average annual growth rate of 2 percent over the last 35 years, a number that is simply not "enough" and underscores a situation of "growth without development," illustrated by the modernity of Mexico City and the poverty visible just outside the capital city, Payan said.

Even Juárez, Chihuahua, considered one of the more developed cities of the country, probably has an effective poverty rate of 60-65 percent, he said. Compounding an unfavorable economic picture is a decline in wages during recent years, Payan added.

At a time when most working Mexicans struggle to get by every day and retirees subsist on measly pensions, AMLO's bag of "juicy tidbits" finds ready approval from voters, including his proposals to end generous pensions to former Mexican presidents, sell off the super luxurious presidential jet and turn Los Pinos, the Mexican White House, into a museum, according to Payan.

Payan recalled telling a Mexican media outlet a couple years ago that if Donald Trump were elected U.S. president, the Republican winner of the White House would pave the way to power for nationalist López Obrador in Mexico.

"Mr. López Obrador will be handed (the nationalist) card and he will play that card," he said, stressing that "(Trump) has enabled the strategy of Mr. López Obrador to play out." Payan said he didn't expect a relationship between Trump and AMLO to go well.   

On a broader note, many Mexicans perceive the violence engulfing their country as an "American manufacture," in Payan’s words, due to U.S. drug consumption in addition to the flow of weapons from this country to organized crime organizations south of the border.

A story in La Jornada newspaper this week once again spotlighted the ‘American Connection.’ According to the Mexican daily, a new report from the Office of the Federal Attorney General (PGR) found that of the 188,000 firearms confiscated by the PGR between 2006-2018, 87,000 were traced to the United States during a six-year period, based on a United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives data base. The guns originated from the U.S. states of Arizona, Kentucky, California, Texas, Connecticut, North Carolina, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Nevada.

Legal U.S. arms transfers have now become a campaign issue for López Obrador as well. Lately he's made opposition to a pending $1.2 billion sale to Mexico of eight armored MH-60R Seahawk helicopters part of his standard campaign speech. 

"We don't want armament," AMLO said April 29 while on the campaign trail in Chiapas state. "What we want is peace, and that the money is used for the development and health of Mexico."

According to Defense News, the potential sale was cleared last month by the U.S. Department of State. Among other deadly items, the package would include 10 AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, 38 Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System (APKWS) 11 rockets and 30 Mk-54 Lightweight Hybrid Torpedoes, Defense News reported.

The State Department approved a separate arms request by Mexico to the tune of $100 million earlier this year, according to the trade industry journal.

The Spring Offensives Against López Obrador

In recent days, AMLO's opponents have ramped up their attacks against the three-time presidential contender, once again attempting to portray the former Mexico City mayor as a Venezuelan clone, reviving accusations that he will (hurt) the Mexican economy if elected president and associating him with a host of purportedly corrupt and criminal individuals.   

The broadsides recall similar attacks against López Obrador during the 2006 and 2012 presidential campaigns, but this year don't seem to be gaining the same traction as the polls, large AMLO campaign rallies and notable political defections to the Morena party chief's camp all indicate.  

Stirred into the political stew are the two independent presidential candidates, former PAN lawmaker Margarita Zavala, who is the wife of ex-President Felipe Calderon, and Jaime "El Bronco" Rodríguez, governor on leave of absence from the northern state of Nuevo Leon. Both independents are registering single-digit support in the polls.

 Payan  contended that the participation of independent presidential candidates was facilitated by  the "design" of the ruling PRI as a way of dividing the opposition vote, a gambit the former University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) political science professor termed a "miscalculation." Recent developments and revelations lend credence to this thesis.

For instance, independent aspirant Armando Rios Piter, whose candidacy was rejected by the official National Electoral Institute (INE) because of the alleged submission of fake or irregular petition signatures, suddenly endorsed Meade last month after legal cold water was splashed on his own possibilities. 

Although the INE allowed Zavala onto the ballot in spite of a high number of invalid signatures turned in by her campaign, the federal election authority gave a thumb’s down to Rodríguez, who likewise allegedly submitted gads of bunk signatures. Undeterred, Rodríguez took the INE to election court and won, thus gaining status as the fifth candidate on the ballot and, importantly, participation in the presidential debate televised in April.

Yet questions of El Bronco's true independence were raised after Mexico City-based Aristegui News recently dug into records of signature gatherers for the candidates, discovering that at least 2,432 of the individuals out stumping for Rodríguez were registered members of the PRI.

In the Days Ahead

Perhaps López Obrador’s opponents last chances to turn the political tide will come during the next two presidential debates, which are scheduled for May 20 in Tijuana and June 12 in Merida. The Tijuana event is organized with a focus on trade and investment, border security and migrant rights, while the Merida encounter will consider poverty, education, science and technology, health, sustainable development and climate change.

Despite Mexico's high vulnerability to climate change and ongoing ecological troubles, many of which are shared in common with the United States, a green accent has been lacking in the presidential campaign discourse and media cover until now. The omission was noted by Dr. Irasema Coronado, UTEP professor of political science, who pointed to the critical issue of transboundary water and the binational need for the indispensable binational resource to have "quality, quantity and access."

Another unmentioned issue, Coronado told this reporter, is the routine transshipment of toxic materials in places like the Paso del Norte borderland.  "We don't talk about the trains carrying chemicals and hazardous substances," she said.

Coronado is a former director of the Montreal based-Council for Environmental Cooperation, the trinational institution tasked under the environmental side agreement to NAFTA with investigating citizen environmental complaints and researching outstanding green issues of concern to Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.

As complex as the Mexican presidential contest seems, it's but one piece of a bigger political puzzle that will be reassembled after July 1, Payan reminded his El Paso audience. A total of 3,406 political offices are up for grabs in the country's biggest elections ever. The prizes include the presidency, the Mexican Congress, governorships, state legislatures, mayors' posts, city councils and, in the experimental case of Campeche state, local judgeships. 

Mirroring or even amplifying the national picture, an array of big and small parties as well as independents are competing for state and local offices. In the key border city of Juárez across from El Paso and New Mexico, former newscaster and independent mayoral incumbent Armando Cabada could win reelection.

“(Voters) may give him a second chance,” said Payan, who also teaches part time at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez. Payan rated Cabada’s main opponents in the race as Ramon Galindo of the PAN and Morena’s Javier González Mocken, who resigned from the PRI after decades with the party and jumped on López Obrador’s bandwagon. Both Galindo and Mocken have previously served as Juarez mayors.

Payan envisaged a challenging political chessboard south of the border after the summer voting ends, one characterized by electoral division, multiple political forces and young office holders with little or no experience.  "It will be a very fragmented country when it comes to political parties," he argued. "It will be a veritable test of Mexico's ability to create great governance."

Author-journalist Kent Paterson is an expert on Mexican politics and U.S.-Mexico border issues.