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LATIN AMERICA | 30-06-2018 11:47

Mexicans set to throw out status quo in presidential vote

Many voters despise the two parties that have governed Mexico for nearly a century and populist leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who leads the polls by more than 20 points, looks set to benefit in Sunday’s ballot.

Mexicans fed up with corruption and violence believe their country is poised for a historic transformation in Sunday’s presidential election, while others fear the vote will bring a freefall into populism. The lightning rod for such divergent opinions is front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the once-fiery leftist who has moderated his rhetoric and sought alliances across the political spectrum after two unsuccessful presidential runs and having led massive protests alleging electoral fraud.

Despite his new image, the 64-year-old candidate universally called ‘AMLO’ still appears to trust more in his own sense of mission than in the rules of modern economics and still vows to wrest control of the country back from the “mafia of power” that he has railed against for decades.

Such is the level of discontent with Mexico’s political status quo, historically high homicide rates and rampant corruption that even his rivals are trying to convince voters that they represent “real change” – while simultaneously warning that a López Obrador win would herald a Venezuela-like era of economic collapse and authoritarian rule.

‘WITHOUT EXCEPTION’

“What people have set as the priority in this election is no more of the same,” said economics graduate Rogelio Salgado, 30, who plans to vote for López Obrador. “The point is to vote them all out of office, without exception.”

Salgado runs down the failures attributed to the outgoing government of President Enrique Peña Nieto — low economic growth, murderous gangs and a non-functional legal system. “Who wants a continuation of this? People are fed up,” he says.

López Obrador holds a lead of 20 points or more in most polls. But number two Ricardo Anaya — a tech-savvy young conservative politician running for a right-left coalition — hopes people who fear López Obrador will flock to him.

Some will, like Alfonso Ulloa, 33, a natural gas specialist at a government energy agency. Ulloa has worked on Mexico’s effort to open its state-owned energy sector, including projects to import cheap natural gas from the United States, and fears López Obrador may cancel such economically important projects.

“I am going to vote for whoever is in second place, to take a bit of strength away from him,” Ulloa says of López Obrador. “The important thing is keeping the economy running, and I am afraid López Obrador will screw it up.”

Running third for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party is José Antonio Meade, who promises a steady hand and experience. That counts for something in a country that faces constant, unpredictable challenges from US President Donald Trump.

Meade is also counting on the well-oiled, get-out-the-vote machine of the nearly 90-year-old party, which has spent a total of 77 years in power.

But it is corruption that has defined the debate so far.

López Obrador rails against what he calls an unholy alliance of business leaders with corrupt politicians that has bled Mexico and promises to sunder that relationship in a historic national transformation, just as President Benito Juárez broke up the Catholic Church’s hold over the country’s economy in the 1850s.

López Obrador says his government will usher in a change as big as the 1810 Independence movement and the 1910 Revolution.

“This transformation consists of tearing up this corrupt regime by the roots,” López Obrador told a cheering crowd of almost 100,000 at his closing rally in Mexico City Wednesday night. “My government will be of the people, for the people and with the people.”

Anaya, meanwhile, says he has been directly attacked by the government, which leaked details of a money-laundering investigation against him, and has promised to bring Peña Nieto to justice.

“Do you know why Peña Nieto’s regime has attacked us?” Anaya asked a crowd in Mexico City. “It’s because they fear us, and rightly so, because when I am president of Mexico there will be a special prosecutor who will investigate Enrique Peña Nieto and his participation in corruption scandals.”

The split is important: Since Mexico’s first democratic transition in 2000, Anaya’s conservative National Action Party (PAN) has governed hand-inglove with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), voting through market-oriented economic reforms.

López Obrador railed against the two parties’ alliance in both of his previous runs for the presidency, and he paints them as the same thing.

THIRD TIME LUCKY

Now, on his third run, Lopez Obrador’s time seems to have come. The market-oriented economic policy has provided annual growth of only about 1.3 percent, and Mexicans were outraged when first lady Angélica Rivera was caught buying a mansion from a favoured government contractor.

So big is López Obrador’s lead in the polls that much of the attention is focusing on whether his relatively new Morena party can gain a majority in Congress.

Once angry, López Obrador has become more playful. When opponents accused him of benefitting from Russian meddling in the campaign, he dubbed himself “Andres Manuelovich” and shot a video near the sea, saying he was waiting for the Russians to deliver him gold.

López Obrador has even begun to joke about those who criticise him for running for president three times, with largely the same campaign speech every time.

“This has all been made possible by being obstinate, headstrong, stiff-necked,” he said at his closing rally.

He has pledged a “radical transformation,” but at least according to his chief adviser, businessman Alfonso Romo, his economic policy would be pretty restrained.

“We don’t want deficits, we don’t want new debt,” said Romo. “I think we are in the right position, in the middle.”

While separations by US officials of child migrants from their parents has grabbed headlines recently, immigration hasn’t figured as an issue in Mexico’s election. All three major candidates share a commitment to defending Mexican migrants in the US, despite the very limited means at their disposal to do so.

Perhaps Mexico’s most immediate problem is violence. The country’s homicide rate could be on track to reach almost 25 per 100,000 inhabitants by the end of this year, and none of the candidates have made any credible or specific proposals on how to reform the police or improve law enforcement.

The proposals have ranged from the bizarre — independent candidate Jaime ‘El Bronco’ Rodríguez Calderón wants to cut off the hands of public servants who steal — to the maddeningly vague: López Obrador floated the idea of an “amnesty” that advisers say may just mean plea bargains or pardons for farmers who grew opium poppies or marijuana.

“They have to do something about the crime situation. We are fed up,” said marketing worker Joselin Valle, 31. Valle hasn’t decided who to vote for, but one thing she is sure about: “The proposals [on crime] don’t make sense.”

Finally, all three top candidates disagree about who can best handle Trump, a man widely hated in Mexico.

Anaya touts his language skills and tech savvy. Meade relies on his extensive government experience, but has suffered from the current government’s attempts to cozy up to Trump.

López Obrador says he doesn’t want a fight with the United States, but some worry that one fiery populist may not be the best person to deal with another voluble populist.

Romo discounts the latter fear: “There is a saying that two bees don’t sting each other.”

by By MARK STEVENSON

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