AMLO and the Loving Republic

Mexico City

The most outspoken and loved/loathed politician in Mexico is back – five years after they said the fallout to the 2006 election had sunk his political career. The man who tried to steer the nation to the left in an era of “Drug War” militarism and neoliberal excess will head a progressive coalition again in 2012; this time going head-to-head with mass-media darling Enrique Pena Nieto, candidate of the country’s former ruling dynasty, the Institutional Party of the Revolution (PRI).

At his peak, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (known to friends and foes alike as AMLO) was the most popular politician in Mexico, capable of drawing a million souls to hear him speak in the capital’s Zocalo square. Yet his detractors say that he no longer has the oomph to halt the resurgence of the PRI, which came third in 2006 but is slowly clawing its way back to relevance. Pena Nieto, capitalizing on widespread disillusionment with President Felipe Calderon’s National Action Party (PAN), currently leads the polls by 30-40 per cent.

AMLO officially lost the 2006 election to Calderon by a mere percentage point – amid evidence of fraud and a vicious media campaign designed to portray him as “Mexico’s Chavez”; a dangerous radical sure to ruin the country (his campaign slogan, ridiculed by many, was “The Poor First”). Under the PRI, Mexicans were no strangers to electoral thievery, but screw-jobs like this were something the country supposedly left behind with the electoral reforms of 2000.

It got dirty. Thanks to Wikileaks, we now know that one of the country’s notoriously right-wing bishops, Cardinal Juan Sandoval Iniguez, appealed to the Bush administration for help in derailing AMLO’s bid. In the end, no Venezuela/Ecuador/Honduras-style coup attempt was needed, although the US embassy greased the wheels by recognizing Calderon’s “victory” ahead of Mexico’s federal electoral commission.

That AMLO would be candidate for the Democratic Party of the Revolution (PRD), Mexico’s largest left-wing party, this time around was by no means a given; in fact, there was a time when he looked set to split with them altogether. Following the 2006 election, a faction calling itself “the New Left” won control of the PRD and aimed straight for the center ground; cutting deals with the right-wing PAN along the way. The subsequent infighting and one-upmanship between the sides saw the PRD’s public image flounder.

A deal was finally reached that two national polls would determine which candidate was better positioned come the end of 2011. On November 15, the PRD stunned everybody by coming out united behind AMLO, with his closest rival and current Mexico City mayor, Marcelo Ebrard (part of “the New Left” faction), backing the bid in return for a nailed-on 2018 run. The good news for progressives is that an AMLO/Marcelo double act keeps the left vote from being split. The only question is whether AMLO can repair his damaged reputation and unite progressive voters behind his cause.

Once again, the PRD will head a coalition comprised of the Workers’ Party (PT) and the Citizens’ Movement (formerly Convergence for Democracy), an alliance dubbed the “Progressive Front”. Forget “The Poor First”, the slogan that caused so much controversy in 2006; the name of the game in 2012 is “love”. The phrase that has characterized AMLO’s pre-campaign spiel so far has been “La Republica Amorosa” (“the Loving Republic”), a move designed to differentiate the PRD from the tough, militaristic policies of the PAN, which have left so many out in the cold.

Occupy Mexico

Although he faces an uphill battle, AMLO has a history of making things happen. Following the election of 2006, Mexico City had its own “Occupy” movement five years before the fact. Demanding a full recount of the vote – which was never granted – tens of thousands of PRD supporters occupied Reforma Avenue for two months, transforming the Champs Élysées-style boulevard that sweeps through the capital’s financial district into tent city.

It couldn’t have been more symbolic; the country’s historically-marginalized mestizo and indigenous majority, which formed AMLO’s core support, merrily squatting among the glittering skyscrapers of NAFTA-era Mexico. This was the country’s Tahrir Square, its OWS, and its “Los Indignados” rolled into one. The US media barely gave it a sniff.

When rumors surfaced that president-elect Felipe Calderon wanted to remove the protesters by force – a hugely controversial move in Mexico because of the scars left by the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre – the occupation dispersed, but within weeks, AMLO held an alternative, entirely symbolic inauguration ceremony in the capital’s main square. Joined by some 100,000 supporters, he swore himself in as “the legitimate president of Mexico”. The Right accused him of provoking unrest; on the contrary, AMLO had always urged non-violence and from beginning to end the protests were remarkably trouble-free.

But Mexicans were split on the provocative behavior. Although some 40 per cent believed that the election had indeed been dodgy, less than 20 per cent approved of this “legitimate president” shtick. Along with his predominantly working-class base, AMLO had enjoyed a notable middle-class following in 2006, especially among the young. But the considerable disruption to the city, the shadow inauguration, and ongoing hostile media coverage swayed many would-be sympathizers against him.

The Democratic Party of the Revolution was, in fact, founded as a party of resistance. Following the equally controversial election of 1988, defeated candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas – son of legendary leftist president Lazaro, who nationalized Mexico’s oil industry in 1938 – created a new party comprised of PRI dissidents and other progressive strands. AMLO himself was a disillusioned “priista” who jumped ship. The PRD won Mexico City in 1997 and hasn’t lost it yet.

AMLO became a household name in dramatic fashion. In 1996, he appeared bloodied on national TV after clashing with police during a protest against oil exploitation in his native state of Tabasco. Following a stint as president of the party, he succeeded his mentor Cardenas as Mexico City mayor in 2000, a six-year tenure during which he enjoyed an 80 per cent approval rating before stepping down to run for the presidency.

Despite being portrayed as a radical, the twenty “actions of government” AMLO proposed at his self-proclaimed inauguration in 2006 rang true with millions of Mexicans, well over half of whom live in poverty; among them a dignified minimum wage, economic subsidies for the poor, protection for national producers ruined by NAFTA, protection for the informal economy (in which over half of Mexicans earn their living), and reduced salaries for public servants.

The New-Look AMLO

But AMLO’s 2012 campaign looks set to be quite different in tone. It appears that the firebrand of old – who regularly referred to his PAN/PRI rivals as “the mafia of power” – is learning the public relations game. One of his first moves as candidate was to do the unthinkable: make a truce live on air with Televisa, Mexico’s leading TV network and the largest mass-media organization in the Spanish-speaking world, which had led the “dirty war” against him in 2006.

Recent visits to Spain and the US were clearly intended to play to foreign investors. At a business conference in Monterrey, Mexico’s US investment capital, last month, AMLO won over several domestic empresarios who had previously backed the PAN. The converts pointed to a gradual but growing disillusionment with the NAFTA doctrine and a desire to look south to countries like Brazil where, unlike Mexico, their  trade model has met with social development and poverty reduction.

The comparison is one that AMLO likes to court, recently going on record as saying: “I want to be the Mexican Lula… but with my own characteristics. If they had not done the fraud against us [in 2006], the example to follow would not be Lula, it would be Mexico.”

Lula actually visited Mexico in October and met with PRD head honcho Jesus Zambrano, who later admitted that the former president had scolded the PRD for its lack of unity, wishing the party success but urging it to – in Zambrano’s words – “wash its dirty laundry at home, not in public”.

It’s the really big empresarios – Mexico’s 1 per cent – that AMLO will have to win over, but so far the response to his candidacy has been one of ambivalence. Mario Sanchez Ruiz, president of Mexico’s Business Coordinating Council (CCE), said that the business world should no longer view AMLO as a threat. “What I see from [him] today is different to the proposals he’s had in the past,” Sanchez remarked, claiming he was open to listening to proposals from all candidates.

Much has been made of AMLO filling the spots on his campaign team with die-hard leftists and loyalists from his 2006 run (many are members of the Workers’ Party and Citizens’ Movement, with whom he would likely have run had he lost the PRD nomination), but he insists that there will be a place for the likes of Marcelo Ebrard, one of the centrist figures in the party and the only one whose popularity rivals AMLO’s, in his cabinet.

It’s probable that party president Jesus Zambrano and other figures in the “new” PRD will acknowledge that 2012 will not be their year for a significant victory and that given their need to rebuild, it’s better to bide time and come out fighting in 2018 with Marcelo at the helm. AMLO would almost certainly be out of the picture by then and Zambrano’s group could focus on being the centrist face of the Left that he, Ebrard and their allies would like it to be.

Hearts and Minds

Besides wooing middle-class voters put off by his past rhetoric, the other challenge AMLO faces is simply to unite  a notoriously disparate Mexican Left, which includes not only the differing factions of his coalition but would-be revolutionary groups like the Zapatistas. Based in the impoverished southern state of Chiapas, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) still enjoys considerable support and urged sympathizers not to vote for the PRD – or any party – in 2006.

On a visit to Chiapas last month, AMLO publicly implored the Zapatistas (“and other groups who don’t believe in elections”) not to repeat the same mistake and welcomed them to join his campaign for 2012. AMLO, who often quotes Gandhi, insists: “The people want change by peaceful means, by electoral means.” The Zapatistas are famed for their armed uprising of 1994 and reject party politics altogether.

Yet in Oaxaca for the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, AMLO sounded a lot like the Zapatistas’ Subcomandante Marcos when he told supporters that the much-lauded Revolution of 1910 – still celebrated lavishly every year – had been a resounding failure in addressing injustice. Contrary to the spin of free trade zealots, Mexico is one of the few countries in Latin America where poverty continues to rise.

The other problem facing the PRD-led coalition is that the party has never held power at the national level and these are uncertain times in Mexico. The ongoing drug gang violence, the fallout to the economic crisis, and spiralling unemployment may persuade voters to opt for a more experienced hand – even if that means the return of the former dictatorship.

Certainly, Felipe Calderon’s PAN appears to view the PRI as far more of a threat than AMLO at this point. But the empty war of words between PAN/PRI on who did a greater job of destroying Mexico – while essentially espousing the same neoliberal agenda as before – does lay the seeds for the “Loving Republic” to grow.

Paul Imison is a journalist. He can be reached at