Riding a wave of populist anger fuelled by rampant corruption and violence, the leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was elected president of Mexico on Sunday, in a landslide victory that upended the nation’s political establishment and handed him a sweeping mandate to reshape the country.
Lopez Obrador’s win puts a leftist leader at the helm of Latin America’s second largest economy for the first time in decades, a prospect that has filled millions of Mexicans with hope – and the nation’s elites with trepidation.
The outcome represents a clear rejection of the status quo in the nation, which for the past quarter century has been defined by a centrist vision and an embrace of globalization that many Mexicans feel has not served them.
The core promises of Lopez Obrador’s campaign – to end corruption, reduce violence and address Mexico’s endemic poverty – were immensely popular with voters, but they come with questions he and his new government may struggle to answer.
How he will pay for his ambitious slate of social programs without overspending and harming the economy? How will he rid the government of bad actors when some of those same people were a part of his campaign? Can he make a dent in the unyielding violence of the drug war, which left Mexico with more homicides in the past year than any time in the past two decades?
And how will Lopez Obrador, a firebrand with a tendency to dismiss his critics in the media and elsewhere, govern?
In the end, the nation’s desire for change outweighed any of the misgivings the candidate inspired.
“It is time for a change, it’s time to go with Lopez Obrador, and see what happens,” said Juan de Dios Rodriguez, 70, a farmer in the state of Hidalgo, a long-time bastion of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which has dominated politics in Mexico for nearly his entire life. “This will be my first time voting for a different party.”
In his third bid for the presidency, Lopez Obrador, 64, won in what officials called the largest election in Mexican history, with some 3,400 federal, state and local races contested in all.
A global repudiation of the establishment has brought populist leaders to power in the United States and Europe, and conservative ones to several countries in Latin America, including Colombia after an election in June.
“The recent elections in Latin America have exhibited the same demand for change,” said Laura Chinchilla, the former president of Costa Rica. “The results are not endorsements of ideologies, but rather demands for change, a fatigue felt by people waiting for answers that simply have not arrived.”
Lopez Obrador, who vowed to cut his own salary and raise those of the lowest paid government workers, campaigned on a narrative of social change, including increased pensions for the elderly, educational grants for Mexico’s youth and additional support for farmers.
He said he would fund his programs with the money the nation saves by eliminating corruption, a figure he places at tens of billions of dollars a year, a windfall some experts doubt will materialize.
Realistic or not, the allure of his message is steeped in the language of nostalgia for a better time – and in a sense of economic nationalism that some fear could reverse important gains of the past 25 years.
In this way, and others, the parallels between Lopez Obrador and President Donald Trump are hard to ignore. Both men are tempestuous leaders, who are loath to concede a political fight. Both men lash out at enemies, and view the media with suspicion.
And even as the electoral rage propelling Lopez Obrador’s rise is largely the result of domestic issues, there will be pressure for the new president to take a less conciliatory line with his U.S. counterpart. Mexico’s current government, led by president Enrique Peña Nieto, has suffered a string of humiliations at the hands of Trump with relative silence.
But Lopez Obrador is not the typical Latin American populist, nor does his branding as a leftist convey the complexity of his ethos.
In building his third candidacy for the presidency, he cobbled together an odd group of allies, some with contradictory visions. There are leftists, unions, far-right conservatives and endorsements from religious groups. How he will manage these competing interests remains to be seen.
Lopez Obrador will inherit an economy that has seen only modest growth over the past few decades, and one of his biggest challenges will be to convince foreign investors that Mexico will remain open for business.
If he fails to convince the markets that he is committed to continuity, or makes abrupt changes to the current economic policy, the country could find itself struggling to achieve even the modest growth of prior administrations.
There is some evidence that Lopez Obrador knows what is at stake. Though political rivals have painted him as a radical on par with Hugo Chávez, the former socialist leader in Venezuela, Mexico’s president-elect has vowed not to raise the national debt and to maintain close relations with the United States.
Lopez Obrador, who is commonly referred to by his initials, AMLO, has a history of working with the private sector, and has appointed a respected representative to handle negotiations for the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“Today AMLO is a much more moderate, centrist politician who will govern the business community with the right hand, and the social sectors and programs with the left,” said Antonio Sola, who created the effective fear campaign that branded Lopez Obrador as a danger to Mexico in the 2006 election he lost.
“The great difference between then and now is that the dominant emotion among voters is fury,” Sola said. “And anger is much stronger than fear.”
On the issue of violence, Lopez Obrador has largely failed to articulate a policy that goes much beyond platitudes. At one point, he said that amnesty for low-level offenders could be an option, as a way to end the cycle of incarceration.
When the suggestion summoned widespread criticism, he claimed the idea was merely an effort to think outside of the box. But analysts say there is little that distinguishes his platform from those of other candidates, or even his predecessor, Peña Nieto.
More likely, he will find himself in the unenviable position of managing the crisis, as opposed to ending it.