“When the ambition for power crushes one’s most important convictions, I think we can talk about opportunism.”
A violin weeps as images of down-trodden, destitute communities flash across the screen. “It is good to give to those who do not have. The problem is to give what you do not have. Short- sighted and easy solutions, calls for justice and solidarity towards those less fortunate. Deception, generating dreams and illusions. This is populism,” a deep and somber voice proclaims. “And what are its consequences? Inflation and currency devaluation. Economic crisis. Capital flight. Indebtedness. Corruption. National impoverishment. Unemployment. Insecurity. Misery.” Now, pictures of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Cuba’s Fidel Castro appear. Lastly, close-ups of Mexico’s own Luis Echeverría and José López Portillo are shown side by side. “The populist speaks a lot, but never clearly. Populist rulers say what, but never how. They are very generous, but irresponsible, because they spend what they do not have. They oppress and attack democratic institutions. They do not respect the law,” the voice continues. “History teaches lessons that cannot be forgotten. López Obrador, a danger for Mexico.”
Attack ads like this one were central to the strategy that allowed Felipe Calderón, of Mexico’s right-wing National Action Party (PAN), to defeat Andrés Manuel López Obrador, of the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), in the presidential election of 2006, despite the latter holding a consistent, albeit narrowing, lead in the polls in the months leading up to the election. Revisiting López Obrador’s failed 2006 campaign is key to understanding his run for the Mexican presidency in 2018, as his attempts to attain Mexico’s highest office have led to serious questions about the sincerity of his progressive ideology.
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By successfully associating López Obrador with Latin America’s leftist firebrands and the authoritarian figures of Mexico’s past, Calderón’s allies convinced enough voters that López Obrador was too radical to be president to overcome the deficit in the polls and secure a slim victory. López Obrador’s unapologetically progressive rhetoric, his overwhelming popularity among Mexico’s poor, and his support for policies like higher pensions were used against him in what he and his supporters branded a “dirty war.” Calderón won by about 244,000 votes, just 0.58% of the total, and López Obrador refused to accept the result. In the months following the election, López Obrador led a massive sit-in that lasted for several weeks in downtown Mexico City, successfully called for a recount of ballots with supposed inconsistencies that failed to alter the result, and ultimately refused to recognize Calderón’s victory and declared himself Mexico’s “legitimate president.”
Despite the unpopularity that these actions brought him, López Obrador was the PRD’s presidential candidate again in 2012. He adopted a conciliatory tone, focusing his campaign on his call for a “loving republic” while retaining his definitively progressive proposals. However, he lost a second time, now to Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) by a much wider margin, some three million votes. Also for a second time, López Obrador pushed allegations of fraud and vote-buying, successfully called for a recount that failed to change the result, and refused to recognize the president-elect’s victory as legitimate.
The aftermath of the 2012 elections was a watershed moment in López Obrador’s political career. In September 2012, just two months after the July vote, López Obrador announced that he was leaving the PRD and establishing his own political party, the National Regeneration Movement (Morena). With Peña Nieto taking office, Mexico’s three main parties, the PRI, PAN, and PRD, joined forces to approve the structural reforms of the so-called Pact for Mexico, which brought sweeping changing to Mexico’s fiscal, education, telecommunications, and energy policies.
“There was a definitive rupture [between López Obrador and the PRD] after the election of 2012 which became almost irreconcilable when the Pact for Mexico was signed,” Carlos Illades, a professor in the Social Sciences and Humanities Division at Mexico City’s Metropolitan Autonomous University, told The Politic. Although López Obrador originally described his exit from the PRD as a friendly split, he changed his position in 2014, directly attributing it to the Pact for Mexico. From that point forward, a complete rejection of the Pact for Mexico and the corrupt “mafia of power,” consisting of the parties that supported the reforms, became the centerpiece of López Obrador and Morena’s message.
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It is not surprising that López Obrador emerged as Morena’s candidate for the 2018 election. However, certain changes to his approach have raised eyebrows. First among these is the fact that López Obrador is the candidate not for Morena, but for a coalition that also contains the Labor Party (PT) and the Social Encounter Party (PES). Morena’s alliance with the PT is understandable, given that both are seen as left-wing parties. The same cannot be said of the PES, a party founded to represent Mexico’s evangelical Christian minority that is often described as far-right and opposes both abortion and same-sex marriage. In an interview with El País last month, PES founder and president Hugo Eric Flores said that “same-sex marriage has become a fad” and that, should López Obrador be elected, its legality nationwide would be determined by a referendum.
Additionally, López Obrador named businessman Alfonso Romo as his chief strategist, and he has gone to great lengths to gain allies in the Mexican private sector in the hopes of avoiding the accusations of radicalism that hounded his previous campaigns. All of this has raised questions about López Obrador’s ideological stance— has he abandoned the left?
Prominent intellectuals within the Mexican left are divided in their evaluations of López Obrador. Roger Bartra, an esteemed sociologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who is widely considered an ideological figurehead of the Mexican left, told The Politic that he believed that “López Obrador has taken a spectacular turn to the right” and that “his program is, frankly, right-wing.” Of López Obrador’s alliance with the PES, Bartra said that “when the ambition for power crushes one’s most important convictions, I think we can talk about opportunism.”
On the other hand, Illades maintained that, “because the nucleus of [López Obrador]’s reflection is the social question,” —which he defined as issues of social justice and equity— “I recognize him as a leftist.” Of Morena’s coalition with the PES, Illades reasoned: “López Obrador has adopted a tactical stance, to win a conservative vote in order to one, win a majority, and two, break his electoral ceiling, especially in regions of the country where he had little presence [in 2006 and 2012].”
When his alliance with the PES was announced last December, López Obrador directly addressed claims that he was casting his progressive ideology aside: “there is no fundamental political or ideological difference in what I represent and what inspires [PES].”
López Obrador rejected the possibility of an electoral alliance with the PRD for 2018 last summer, on the grounds that “those who associate with the mafia of power are nothing more than mercenaries.” Since then, the PRD has formed another left-right coalition with the PAN, supporting Ricardo Anaya’s bid for the presidency. Although this coalition has endorsed some progressive policy proposals like a universal basic income, it is certainly not regarded as a left- wing option. Bartra and Illades agree on the reason for this— the PRD’s weakness following López Obrador’s exit.
“The PRD lost much of its strength because the entire populist wing led by López Obrador left. It became a very weak party. Compared to the PAN, which is a very big and strong party, the left is in a relatively marginal condition,” Bartra told The Politic.
“The PRD arrived already very broken [to its alliance with the PAN], in fact the PRD is almost a skeleton,” added Illades.
López Obrador’s approach has seemingly worked, as he now holds a greater lead in the polls than in either of his previous campaigns, less than a month away from the July 1 vote. According to Bloomberg’s Poll Tracker, 51% of registered Mexican voters intend to vote for López Obrador, followed by 25.4% for Anaya, 20.5% for the PRI’s José Antonio Meade ’97 (Ph.D), and 3.4% for independent Jaime Rodríguez. López Obrador has created a coalition that welcomes politicians and voters of all ideological walks of life, a far cry from his previous presidential campaigns. So broad is López Obrador’s coalition, it includes former members of what the candidate himself calls the “mafia of power,” like Manuel Bartlett and Esteban Moctezuma, both of whom were members of the PRI, served in the Cabinet of PRI-affiliated presidents, and now hold prominent positions within Morena.
“Something that I feared is happening, the restoration of the old PRI’s revolutionary nationalism,” observed Bartra, comparing López Obrador’s strategy to that of the PRI during its uninterrupted 71-year rule of Mexico during the twentieth century. “I am a leftist, reformist, social-democratically oriented person, and I regret that this option appears very diluted in the upcoming election,” he concluded.
Meanwhile, Illades remains optimistic: “it is very likely that López Obrador will win, and what the left must do is on the one hand try to pull López Obrador in the direction of a more radical and progressive left, and on the other to conduct a responsible criticism.”