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Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, or AMLO for short, is the latest of a global generation of ageing white men to overturn an established political order. He was elected President of Mexico on Sunday after winning by a huge landslide, with a projected 53 per cent of the vote.
He swept past the two parties that have dominated Mexican politics for decades, the conservative National Action Party (PAN) which polled at 23 per cent of the vote, and his former party, the social democratic Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which hit an historic low of 16 per cent.
He’s a career politician who successfully posed as an outsider to beat an exhausted establishment. You know the script.
His support base has always been the poorer indigenous south of the country, rather than the north which has more in common culturally with the southern states of the USA. He was born in Tabasco State on the Gulf of Mexico and first came to prominence as head of the National Indigenous Institute in Tabasco.
It’s true that he’s a career politician, and reportedly harboured teenage ambitions to run for the Presidency, but he has a good claim to be much more than a ‘chancer’. There is nothing insincere about his radical credentials.
He joined PRI in 1976 – at that point the most significant vehicle for leftist politics – but quickly became disenchanted, joining the Partido Revolucionario Democrático in 1988. He ran unsuccessfully against PRI in 1994 in a state election.
In 2000, he was elected as mayor of Mexico City where he began to develop the charismatic political personality that has brought him victory. He developed a reputation for self-effacement and modesty: he drove around in a beat-up car and reduced his own salary.
In 2006, he founded the National Regeneration Movement, or MORENA, which, in structure, is eerily similar to Macron’s En Marche – highly decentralised with a relatively small membership, a strong activist ethic and savvy social media use. The establishment candidates, with their lumbering party machines, and their association with endemic corruption, were extremely vulnerable against a nimble young pretender.
Circumstances have aided his insurgency: this has been a bloody election campaign with 130 politicians murdered since it began. That’s supercharged AMLO’s calls for rapid reform of the public realm.
AMLO is basically an economic nationalist along the lines of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. His policy programme is simple, combining sweeping, ‘drain the swamp’-style anti-corruption rhetoric with redistributive economic policies. Ending corruption will save Mexico lots of money, the argument goes; and that money will be ploughed straight into enormous economic handouts, to directly enrich Mexico’s disadvantaged and dispossessed. One of his key election policies was a tree planting programme in the south of the country, which, he claimed, could potentially create 400,000 jobs at a stroke.
His charisma extends beyond the reputation for personal rectitude. He’s also a great speaker, mixing easy vernacular with well-pitched slogans, the best of which he repeats over and over. At rallies, the crowds often join in familiar passages.
His adoring followers call him AMLO, but he has another nickname, El Peje, after pelelagarto, a fish with an alligator’s face, which holds much more sinister overtones. When he ran for President in 2006, he lost by a tiny margin and there was some speculation that the election had been rigged in the incumbent’s favour. He staged a mock-inauguration ceremony when the President was being sworn in.
He clearly abhors the corrupted establishment, but it remains to be seen whether his populist language is a merely a strategic device or, more troublingly, a wholesale rejection of liberal democracy, with its in-built checks on the popular will, in favour of a more organic form of politics that reframes government as a symbiotic union between the charisma of an individual leader and the soul of ‘the people’.
We should reserve judgement on that – if you look at his time as mayor, he actually got a lot done in policy terms and showed a willing appetite for compromise, even working with big business to support welfare spending and to improve local infrastructure. Highly critical in the past of the free market orthodoxies of the Mexican ruling elite, today he changed tack, promising to work on a new free trade agreement with America. Trump welcomed his election. We’ll see.