Trump’s mirror image eyes victory in Mexico

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) is seen during a meeting with his followers at outside of the Nat

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) is seen during a meeting with his followers at outside of the National Electoral Institute (INE) on March 16, 2018 in Mexico City, Mexico Photo: PA / NurPhoto - Credit: SIPA USA/PA Images

Elections in the Central American country could end in victory for a hard left populist seen as the polar opposite of the US leader, says PAUL KNOTT

'Poor Mexico – so far from God, so close to the United States'. The oft-quoted words of the early 20th century Mexican President Porfirio Diaz have rarely seemed more apposite.

As the formal hustings for Mexico's general election on July 1 get under way, the shadow of Trump hangs heavily over America's large southern neighbour. Wall-building, protectionism and abusive anti-Mexican rhetoric from north of the border is partly turning the campaign into a test of who will stand up strongest to the American president.

The prevailing tone in Mexican politics has been set by prominent figures such as former president and ex-Coca-Cola executive Vicente Fox Quesada. Fox has turned making sharp and frequently profane blasts back at Trump into an entertaining retirement hobby.

The anti-Trump atmosphere has hurt the incumbent president, Enrique Peña Nieto. His administration has failed to tackle crime and endured many corruption scandals, but his term will perhaps most be remembered for his disastrous decision to invite Trump to Mexico whilst the Donald was still only a candidate in the US. Pandering to an obnoxious bully deeply offended Mexican pride and irreparably damaged Peña Nieto's credibility.

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He will at least be spared a humiliating re-election bid, as Mexican presidents can only serve for a single six-year term. But guilt by association still looks likely to sink the candidate of his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), José Antonio Meade.

Another leading candidate, the cerebral Ricardo Anaya from Fox's old centre-right National Action Party (PAN), is also seeing his clean government-focused campaign derailed by a controversial property deal.

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This leaves the left-wing firebrand and long-standing Yankee-sceptic, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, often known by his initials 'AMLO', as the main beneficiary of Mexicans desire to push back against Trump.

The veteran AMLO has been the runner-up in the last two presidential elections, in 2006 and 2012. On both occasions, he has strongly disputed the result and caused significant post-election instability. In 2006, he went as far as declaring himself the 'legitimate president' during an unofficial 'swearing-in' ceremony on Mexico City's central square, the Zocalo.

Electoral skulduggery may have played some part in AMLO's defeats. But his biggest handicap has always been his inability to reach beyond his devoted support base and convince enough non-partisan Mexicans that he would be a responsible head of state.

AMLO has sought to address these doubts of late. He has promised concerned voters that he will hold a referendum on his performance as president every two years and stand down if they are not satisfied with him.

Many of his policies are reasonable responses to Mexico's long-term problems too.

He has campaigned against the corrupt elites for decades and pledges to end their questionable privileges. He proposes a reform of Mexico's failing education system to increase equality of opportunity. AMLO also advocates a wholesale restructuring of the country's dysfunctional police, military and judicial systems.

In the age of Trump, AMLO's evocation of Mexico's traditional anti-Gringo suspicion is popular and, to some extent, justifiable. Whilst Trump and his fellow American nationalists bluster, usually inaccurately, about the problems Mexico causes for the US, the other side of the story is often ignored.

Mexico's chronic narco-gang violence is almost entirely fuelled by the demand for illegal drugs north of the border. And, according to AMLO's electoral rival Anaya, at least 80% of the weapons the gangs use to commit their mayhem come from the US.

Rather than his stated policies, bigger worries persist about AMLO's personality and whether an old leopard can really change its spots. The Movement for National Regeneration (MORENA) he now represents is essentially a personal vehicle. This reflects his poor track record of working with others. Such a flaw would be a practical problem in running a large, diverse and complex country like Mexico, where the president does not control all of the levers of power.

A strongly personalised style of political leadership also sparks concerns in a region which has suffered more than its fair share of megalomaniac 'Caudillo' rulers.

Perhaps even more pertinently, AMLO's messianic 'only I can solve your problems' tendencies cause some Mexicans to see him as the left-wing mirror image of Trump.

Despite these doubts, AMLO holds a healthy lead in the polls. If he does finally reach the Los Pinos presidential residence, the impact of Trump and the US on Mexico may come to be defined by another famous quote, this one from Isaac Newton – 'for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction'.

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