Sunday’s presidential election will be most momentous in Mexico since 1910

AMLO expected to win

MEXICO CITY – In 1910, the opposition was calling for a change to 30 years of the “same old same old” Porfirio Diaz; to economic policies that seemed to benefit the already-haves, leaving crumbs for the have-nots; and to oppressive heavy-handed responses to protests.

What followed, when the 1910 election was canceled was a 10-year revolution and the emergence of a radically different political system.

While that scenario is unlikely to repeat itself, the expectation, and worry here, is that the results of the 2018 presidential election will bring major changes in the system.

The presidential election is Sunday, July 1.

This year, even the “establishment” candidates have had to sell themselves as agents of change. The PRI, which has held the presidency for all but 12 of the last 90 years, had to go so far as to find a candidate from outside the party: economist José Antonio Meade. Beset with one corruption scandal during President Peña Nieto’s tenure, Meade – the former Treasury Secretary in Peña Neito’s cabinet – is hard pressed to sell his party as an agent of change, and faces the additional handicap of being a perfectly decent, intelligent but deathly dull campaigner.

He has only polled about 20% of the electorate, and even with their coalition partners (the Green and the New Alliance Parties) “national seats” as well as district representatives and senators representing states. The number of national seats for each party is based on the party’s percentage of the overall votes in the election, and even without winning top office, a strong run is to the party’s benefit.

A multi-party coalition ticket was expected to give an edge to Ricardo Anaya, the candidate for both the conservative PAN — the country’s second largest party — and the left-leaning third major party, PRD. But PRD’s star had been Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (known everywhere as AMLO), who left the party to found the “Movimiento Regeneración Nacional” (Morena) taking large factions of what had always been an uneasy coalition of various left-wing and liberal groups with him.

What remained of the PRD – especially in the north where it is weakest – had to run with PAN in the hope of at least maintaining a presence in some states.

Anaya is also running under the relatively liberal Citizen Movement banner. As a “left-right” candidate, Anaya can present himself as being above ideological battles, he managed to alienate important factions in his own party, when he turned against Margarita Zavala, the wife of former president Felipe Calderón who had expected to be her party’s nominee.

The fact that he commutes from his family’s home in Atlanta, Georgia, and that he is being investigated both in Spain and Mexico for money laundering (which he claims is a dirty trick orchestrated by Enrique Peña Nieto, who Anaya promises to jail if elected) has not helped.

When AMLO called Anaya “Richie Rich” (Ricky-Riquín-Canallín) the epithet stuck.

Making the argument that Meade will lose no matter what, Anaya is appealing to PRI voters to back him to prevent AMLO from winning, although polls indicate that even if all Meade and Anaya voters did back a single candidate, AMLO would still win.

AMLO often compares himself to the 1910 insurgent candidate, Franciso Madero, who was not so much demanding to overthrow the system, but to reform it.

While derided as a “populist” during his tenure as “mayor” of Mexico City (which is becoming a state this year, as opposed to a Federal District like Washington, DC), AMLO’s initiatives, like senior citizen stipends, were rapidly adopted by his opponents.

He only lost in his 2006 bid for the presidency (as the PRD candidate) by half a percentage point, in an election marked by vote buying and which he and many of his supporters claimed to have been stolen. The noisy and months long protests that followed cost him much of his support within his own party, and furthered the perception that he was a rabble-rousing radical.

His 2012 run (also for PRD) also was marred by open vote buying, but he accepted the loss, and after a detour through a series of smaller parties, put together Morena. Although not on the ballot, in 2018, Morena overtook PRD in its Mexico City stronghold and, following defections from PRD, and from both PAN and PRI, has emerged as a major party in its own right.

Although painted as a “dangerous leftist” (in 2006 there were ads comparing him to Fidel Castro, Stalin, and … confusingly… Hitler), he has spent much of his campaign assuring business interests that he is looking at reforms a la “New Deal” (he quotes Franklin Roosevelt in his speeches) and, that he is a “Christian.” Morena is in coalition not just with the far-left Workers’ Party, but the Social Encounter party, which openly appeals to conservative Evangelical Christians.

While his own party faithful tend to be typically liberal on social issues, AMLO himself is known to be something of a puritan and, highly unusual in Mexican politics, talks about his religious faith (not stated, but he is apparently a Protestant, which is even more unusual).

His big idea is to clean up politics, and use the money saved by cutting ridiculously high salaries for government officials for development projects and expanding education. That, and ending the “drug war” and corrupt business practices though a general amnesty for at least the small fry.

“El Bronco,” Jaime Rodriguez Calderón (no relation to the former president), also on the ballot, only polls about one or two percent. Bronco, largely self-financed, had been the first independent to garner enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, although he now faces fines for using fraudulent signatures on his ballot petition. Coming across in debates as a cross between Yosemite Sam and H. Ross Perot, his campaign has largely been seen as a joke. Bronco’s proposal for dealing with corrupt politicians: cut off their hands! For working with Donald Trump: invite him to a barbecue!

AMLO will win. Whether, like Francisco Madero, who would win a special election in 1911, only to be assassinated two years later for threatening US and British oil interests, or like another of his heroes, the 1930s socialist president, Lazaro Cardenas, is able to channel business, peasant, worker, and Catholic Church support for radical economic changes, or like yet another hero, Benito Juarez, will single-mindedly push through legal and administrative reforms.

No one knows, but for the majority of Mexicans, there is hope the gamble will pay off.

A former reporter for the Big Bend Sentinel and the Alpine Avalanche, Richard Grabman is the author of “God’s Gachupines and Gringos: A People’s History of Mexico.” A free-lance editor and writer, he lives in the Roma Sur neighborhood of Mexico City, blogging on Mexican history, politics and culture at mexfiles.net . He can be contacted at [email protected]