Mexican leftist closes in on presidency with anti-graft message

Mexico's frontrunning presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador waves to supporters during the closing rally of his campaign ahead of Sunday's election

Mexico City (AFP) – Fed up with rampant corruption and violence, Mexicans vote Sunday in historic elections that look set to punish the political establishment and deliver the presidency to leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Leading by more than 20 points in the polls, the sharp-tongued, silver-haired politician known as “AMLO” looks poised to become the next figure on the growing global list of anti-establishment candidates swept into office by a wave of popular discontent.

But there is also something uniquely Mexican in his message and the way it has resonated with voters.

Mexicans are angry over endemic corruption and horrific violence that left a record 25,000 murders last year — a record on track to be broken again this year in an orgy of bloodshed fueled by the country’s powerful drug cartels.

Many voters despise the two parties that have governed Mexico for nearly a century: the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the conservative National Action Party (PAN).

Lopez Obrador, 64, calls them both part of the same “mafia of power,” a message that resonated with many people — even if the former Mexico City mayor has been vague on what the change he promises will look like.

“The policies we’ve been applying for the past 30 years haven’t worked. We haven’t even had economic growth,” Lopez Obrador told supporters as he wrapped up his campaign on Wednesday.

“What’s grown is corruption, poverty, crime and violence. That’s why we’re going to send their policies to the dustbin of history.”

– Master of message –

Such attacks have left Lopez Obrador’s rivals scrambling to both distance themselves from their parties’ legacies and portray his ideas as dangerous.

Judging by the polls, the PRI and PAN candidates — ex-finance minister Jose Antonio Meade and former speaker of Congress Ricardo Anaya, respectively — are struggling to sell that message.

The poll aggregator Oraculus gives Lopez Obrador 48.1 percent of the vote heading into election day, Anaya 26.1 percent, Meade 20.8 percent and independent candidate Jaime Rodriguez five percent.

Lopez Obrador’s coalition — led by his party, Morena — is within striking distance of a congressional majority and six of the nine governorships up for grabs.

That would be a major realignment in Mexican politics and a coup for a party launched only six years ago, originally as a grassroots movement to support the three-time presidential candidate’s 2012 campaign.

“Neither Meade nor Anaya managed to present anything as attractive as Lopez Obrador’s message,” political consultant Fernando Dworak told AFP.

“Like him or not, he’s the best political communicator in Mexico.”

– Mexican menace? –

Lopez Obrador has clashed with Mexico’s business community, with some warning he would pursue Venezuela-style socialist policies that could wreck Latin America’s second-largest economy.

Seeking to soothe, he has recruited a team of market-friendly advisers and backpedalled on his most controversial proposals, including reversing outgoing President Enrique Pena Nieto’s landmark energy reform, which privatized the oil sector.

Mexico’s next president faces a laundry list of challenges, including a lackluster economy and a thorny relationship with the United States under President Donald Trump, whose anti-trade, anti-immigration policies have turned diplomacy with Mexico’s key trading partner into a minefield.

Lopez Obrador has vowed to “put (Trump) in his place.”

Ironically, some commentators draw parallels between the two: both are free-trade skeptics who have fired up a disgruntled base with populist campaigns.

But unlike the American billionaire, Lopez Obrador has built a reputation as an ascetic everyman, vowing to halve his own salary and eschew the presidential residence in favor of his modest Mexico City home.

Criticized by opponents as an arrogant autocrat, he has also strived to soften his image.

“This time around, he’s demonstrated his sense of humor,” said Duncan Wood, director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute in Washington.

“It’s generated a much less threatening image. The rise of Morena and the reinvention of Andres Manuel are very closely tied together.”

– Massive election –

Besides electing their president for the next six years, Mexico’s 88 million voters will choose their 500 lower-house deputies and 128 senators, as well as a host of state and local officials.

Preliminary official results are expected around 11:00 pm (0400 GMT Monday).

In all, more than 18,000 posts are at stake — the largest elections in Mexican history.

They have also been the most violent, with more than 100 politicians murdered since September — some after vowing to fight drug cartels, others for apparent links to them, and still others in crimes that, like so many in Mexico, remain murky.