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No mas Mr. Underdog

A rabble-rouser finds himself ahead of his two rivals in Mexico's presidential race.

April 16, 2006|Andres Martinez | Andres Martinez is editorial page editor of The Times.

Lazaro Cardenas, Mexico — ANDRES MANUEL Lopez Obrador, the leading contender to win Mexico's presidential election on July 2, just wants to run out the clock. "Easter is here, so people will go on vacation. Then the World Cup comes in June, and people will have other things on their minds," he recently told a crowd in his seductively raspy voice in the port city of Lazaro Cardenas.

And why not? Lopez Obrador has remained ahead in the polls ever since Mexico's two other major parties -- the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and the National Action Party, or PAN -- unsuccessfully tried barring him from the race last spring with an impeachment process for disregarding court orders as mayor of Mexico City.

But playing the part of the front-runner doesn't suit this leftist, straight-talking, self-professed rabble-rouser from the state of Tabasco, the politico who famously moved his family to live among Indians when he held a government job dealing with indigenous affairs, and then perfected the art of the mass demonstration when he lost a race for governor of his home state.

Lopez Obrador, who is running as the candidate of the Party of Democratic Revolution, or PRD, thrives as an underdog, and he relishes the notion of taking on an establishment intent on persecuting him.

"I am still here, fighting for you, despite all the calumnies and lies of our opponents," Lopez Obrador told the approving crowd here. He went on to say that he was the victim of a smear campaign unleashed by "powerful interests" who rely on techniques perfected by Adolf Hitler and his chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels.

That's exactly the kind of fanciful hyperbole that is most worrisome about the prospect of a Lopez Obrador presidency.

To the extent that they are paying any attention to the compelling three-way race taking shape in Mexico, Washington and Wall Street just want to know whether Lopez Obrador as president would take after Venezuela's Hugo Chavez (bad leftie intent on crazy economic policies and anti-Yankee rhetoric) or Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (good leftie who acted responsibly on all fronts once in office).

This is an overly simplistic template, of course, though Lopez Obrador seems to bristle at the comparisons to Chavez, telling the assembled faithful here that he has never even gotten a phone call from the Venezuelan leader.

And though he is not noted for self-restraint on the campaign trail -- he recently took a hit in the polls for calling Mexican President Vicente Fox a "screeching bird" who needs to shut up -- Lopez Obrador and his team go out of their way to avoid incendiary rhetoric about the U.S. They do so even though it would probably go over well in places such as Lazaro Cardenas, a port city named after the president who nationalized foreign oil companies in 1938.

Mexico is more politically and culturally inward-looking than most other Latin American nations, and even his thoughtful opponents concede that comparing Lopez Obrador to Chavez is a bit overwrought.

"Lopez Obrador is neither Chavez nor 'Lula'; he is another Echeverria," a prominent business executive told me in Mexico City, in a formulation I would hear more than once.

That's not meant as a compliment -- Luis Echeverria's presidency in the 1970s epitomized the worst of the PRI's long-standing authoritarianism and the high-water mark of the party's embrace of statist economic policies.

Lopez Obrador rails against the free-market "neoliberal" policies embraced by the last PRI governments and PAN's Fox, but it isn't entirely clear how far he would turn back the clock if elected. His advisors admit that there isn't much they can do to roll back the North American Free Trade Agreement. A belief that Lopez Obrador's more radical instincts would be restrained by structural constraints and an opposition-led Congress is one reason that Wall Street investors don't seem too concerned about the prospect of his election.

Lopez Obrador, for his part, vaguely promises in his stump speech "to change things" and not "go on with business as usual."

He vows to replicate nationwide a popular pension program for the elderly that he implemented in Mexico City. He also talks of the need for more subsidies, starting with fuel prices. And his strident nationalist rhetoric seems to foreclose any talk of privatizing any part of the nation's inefficient electric utility or Pemex, the state oil behemoth, or exposing them to foreign competition, which Mexico desperately needs.

Rather than fleshing out his program in more detail, Lopez Obrador dwells on the need to lower the "cost of government" to the people. He is at his populist best in decrying the salaries of the nation's leaders, calling it ridiculous for Mexico's president to earn three times what Spain's president gets, and for the finance minister to earn 60% more than his U.S. counterpart.

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