In the village of Tepetitan, in southern Mexico, people still remember Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the outgoing boy who liked to play baseball and swim in the river – and who could become the country’s next president on Sunday.
Now 64 years old, the man known as ‘AMLO’ has a more than 20-point lead in the polls heading into Mexico’s election, and is promising to bring a “radical transformation” to a country governed by the same two parties for almost a century.
Back in Tepetitan, the village of 1,400 people that he left more than 50 years ago, residents of a certain age still remember him, and speak of him in almost mythical tones.
“It would be a big source of pride to be able to say that a humble village boy who was born here became president of our country through sheer tenacity and struggle,” says Hermínio Camara, 61, a childhood friend.
Camara fondly recalls playing marbles with López Obradorr, who used to challenge him to swimming races in the Tulija river. He was with ‘AMLO’ in his early days in politics, too, joining him in the 1990s for a march from their native Tabasco state to Mexico City -- some 900 kilometres (550 miles) away – to protest alleged fraud in local elections.
Camara is thrilled his old friend, who went on to be Mexico City mayor, has become the man to beat in his third presidential bid, after twice finishing as runner-up.
But “we know he doesn’t have a magic wand” to end poverty, corruption and violent crime, says Camara, a retired worker for state oil company Pemex.
María Cruz Domínguez, a 59-year-old doctor, lives on the street where López Obrador’s parents and grandparents lived. She is proud the “very healthy” local boy appears poised to become the first-ever president from Mexico’s southwest, a tropical region where jobs are scarce and poverty is rife.
She shows off her collection of newspaper clippings on the politician – some 500 pages covering his entire career.
People in Tabasco have pinned their hopes on López Obrador and his coalition, led by the party he launched six years ago, Morena. A recent poll by the newspaper El Financiero found that the coalition’s candidates for governor and Congress have more than 60 percent of the vote here.
“We’re the worst state in terms of employment,” says Roberto Villalpando, who is running for mayor of Macuspana, the municipality where Tepetitan is located.
Eighty percent of the jobs that do exist in the area are with Pemex.
One of López Obrador’s key campaign pledges is to reconsider the landmark energy reform implemented by outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto, which privatised the oil sector and subjected Pemex to fierce competition from private firms.
“Andres Manuel is actually thinking about how to reactivate Pemex. And that is going to do a lot of good in Macuspana, bring a lot of jobs,” says Villalpando.
López Obrador is so popular here that street vendors in the state capital, Villahermosa, have rolled out myriad products bearing his name and image.
They include devotional candles of the kind Mexicans usually use to pray to saints.
Dangerous ground, perhaps, for a candidate whose critics deride him as a would-be “tropical messiah.” But in this region there are few López Obrador critics to be found.
Other fans have made a López Obrador wine, whose label carries a not-so-subtle political message: “AMLO: 2018-2024” – the years he would govern if he wins.
At this point, it would be a surprise if he did not. But should he lose the race, López Obrador has vowed to “go to Hell” – a rough translation of the name of his ranch in neighbouring Chiapas state, “La Chingada.” Located in Palenque, the ranch sits behind a modest black door just off the main road.
“There’s nothing ostentatious about the house. If he becomes president maybe he should try to fix it up a bit,” says Luz Rodríguez, 73, AMLO’s neighbour of 25 years.
She would love to see him more often, she says. But she is pretty sure he won’t be packing his backs for La Chingada anytime soon.
Mexico’s mega election: at a glance
Mexico’s next leader will serve a six-year term ending in late 2024 and will be constitutionally barred from seeking re-election at the end of his six-year term. The next president will take office on December 1, five months after the election.
The front-runner in most polls is Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the leftist National Regeneration Movement (Morena), followed by conservative Ricardo Anaya, of the National Action Party (PAN), in a right-left coalition, and José Antonio Meade of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Independent candidate Jaime ‘El Bronco’ Rodríguez Calderón has been polling a distant fourth, in single digits.
Candidates win with a plurality of the votes and there is no run-off.
Mexicans will also be voting for an all-new Congress — 128 seats in the Senate and 500 in the Chamber of Deputies — as well as state legislatures, eight governorships, the head of government for Mexico City and nearly 1,600 mayors across the nation. In all, there are some 17,670 names on ballots at the federal, state and local level.
Nearly 90 million Mexicans are registered to vote, something that comes automatically when citizens receive their government ID cards at age 18. In the last presidential election, in 2012, a little over 50 million people cast ballots for a turnout of about 63 percent. THE COUNTRY Mexico is home to some 120 million people, the third most populous nation in the Western Hemisphere after the United States and Brazil. Mexico’s GDP was about US$1.2 trillion last year, making it the world’s 15th largest economy. About half the country’s people live below the poverty line.