Though the progressive media and bloggers are paying scant attention, a progressive populist is the front-runner in Mexico’s July 2 election, a man who would demand a revision of NAFTA, add a powerful workers’ voice to the roiling U.S. debate on immigration, and foster the new nationalism spreading in Latin America.
The candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, currently leads by 3 to 4% in official polling, while his internal surveys indicate a margin as high as 10%. Obrador represents the historical party of the left, the PRD. His closest rival is Felipe Calderon of the neo-liberal PAN. The traditional governing party, the PRI, continues to trail badly while retaining significant power at state and local levels.
The United States is not happy over the latest challenge to its faded hegemony over Latin America but is keeping a discreet profile. The only well-known American consultant involved with the candidates is ex-Clinton advisor Dick Morris, who assists the conservative Calderon.
Lopez Obrador benefits immensely from popular approval of his tenure as mayor of Mexico City, where he fought successfully for the elderly and ran a more efficient administration than most of his predecessors. As a candidate he promises to stop privatization of oil and gas industries and to offer free medical care and food subsidies for citizens over 65. He has tapped a passionate popular solidarity with his modest lifestyle and outspoken preference for Mexico’s poor, who are more than half the country’s population. Speaking under the blazing sun rather than the shaded canopies usually reserved for the powerful, he is often paralyzed by the frenzied joy of the crowds he draws.
Mexicans close to the campaign said in interviews that Lopez Obrador would insist on basic revisions to NAFTA, the trade pact that has only widened inequality in Mexico since 1994. As the Los Angeles Times noted in 2002, “few would argue that NAFTA has been anything but devastating for Mexican farm families.” In 2003, farmers stormed the doors of the Mexican legislature on horseback and threatened to seize customs checkpoints at the U.S.-Mexico border (L.A. Times, Jan. 1, 2003). With the situation worsening, Lopez Obrador would preserve subsidies for Mexican farmers that were set to expire under the NAFTA agreement.
He would make a priority of labor standards for immigrant workers, turning every Mexican consulate in the U.S. into a procuraduria, a kind of legal aid center. He also opposes the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border as an inhumane affront.
There would be major consequences for the American immigration debate with a new Mexican government that forcefully defended workers’ rights and blamed NAFTA and U.S. multinationals for the conditions forcing Mexican workers to emigrate northward. Pro-immigrant and anti-corporate forces here would be fortified. A majority in the U.S. Congress might consider seriously reforming NAFTA for the first time. Right-wing conservatives would become more frenzied about the radical “threat” on the border.
“Neo-liberalism is a failure for us,” said one of the Mexico City sources. “It is destroying our strategic national industries and resources: energy, phones, even privatizing health and education, the whole reform model achieved by the Lazaro Cardenas government since the 1930s.”
Lopez Obrador has survived the intense fear-and-loathing campaign generated by the Mexican businesses and right-wingers who charge that he would become Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro rolled into one populist nightmare. Fear is their brand, because their alternative is the widely unpopular gospel of free trade and free markets.
At the same time, Lopez Obrador has largely weathered the critique of subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas, who are carrying out their la otra campana [the Other Campaign], a speaking and organizing tour that rejects all political parties and seeks to unify Mexico’s social resistance movements. When pressed, Marcos will deny that the Zapatistas are urging a “no” vote on Lopez Obrador, saying they only are stressing that the presidential election will bring no fundamental change to the people of Mexico. The intensive and massive support for Lopez Obrador represents a “popular will” that the Zapatistas cannot ignore, according to a continuing Zapatista supporter I interviewed who also is working hard for Lopez Obrador. Similarly, the attachment of the independent media to the Zapatistas may have caused a lack of attention to the popular movement to elect Lopez Obrador.
Complicating the scene is the Zapatistas’ designation of election day, July 2, as a “national day of direct action,” a defiance of federal election laws. That could give the right a pretext to bring out police and troops to crush anyone blocking roads.
“The country is a powder keg that could ignite on election day,” warn activists who accompanied the recent Zapatista campaign and witnessed the police repression in May of flower vendors in San Salvador Atenco, where a land resistance movement had succeeded in becoming virtually autonomous from the state. The Zapatistas forged an alliance with the community and, for the present, Marcos and his associates have camped out in Mexico’s urban jungles instead of their traditional bases in the mountains of Chiapas.
Another flash point is Oaxaca, where teachers have camped in a tent city during a yearlong campaign for pay increases. The armed forces recently tried to dislodge the protestors, using gas from helicopters, and the resistance broadened to 70,000 in the colonial town square. Talks through a federal mediator have broken down and the standoff continues. Lopez Obrador supports the teachers.
Apocalyptic scenarios are never to be ruled out in Mexico. If Lopez Obrador wins by a close margin and sectors of the elite and armed forces refuse to accept defeat, much of Mexico might become like Oaxaca and San Salvador Atenco, with people pouring into the streets in a prolonged confrontation.
An even darker projection, commonly if privately expressed by many Mexicans, is that Lopez Obrador will be assassinated if he comes close to the ring of power. Luis Donaldo Colosio, a presidential candidate in 1994, was assassinated in broad daylight. That election ushered in the NAFTA era and the simultaneous Zapatista uprising.
If the supporters of Lopez Obrador sense that the election is stolen from them, they will not go quietly like Al Gore’s Democratic Party in 2000. It is accepted across Mexico that the 1988 presidential election was crudely stolen from the then-PRD candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, son of Lazaro Cardenas. At that time, the lack of popular organization and fears of a massacre led the PRD candidate to accept the fraudulent outcome. “Not this time,” I was told. “The people won’t let this election be stolen.” The street demand to defend the vote could bridge the differences, at least temporarily, with the Zapatistas.
Indeed, a fusion of popular mobilization and electoral politics has saved Lopez Obrador before. In 1998, his campaigners blocked roads and oil fields after he lost a gubernatorial race in Tabasco described as “fraud-ridden” by the New York Times (March 16, 2005). Only last year, the major parties tried to force him off the ballot by indicting him on a spurious corruption charge involving the construction of a road to a private hospital. Presidential candidates are disqualified if they are indicted. So Lopez Obrador’s destiny was in doubt until hundreds of thousands of people rallied in the streets. Lopez Obrador announced he would go to jail rather than submit, leaving his enemies to ponder the prospect of 1 million Mexicans marching on his prison site. The charges went away.
This fusion of direct action and constitutional politics makes this a unique campaign in a country long ruled from the top down by chicanery and fraud. It appears that mass mobilization is necessary to make electoral politics work at all, and to defend the vote even when politics succeed.
Close supporters of Lopez Obrador dismiss these extreme scenarios, not wanting to increase tensions any further. They insist that their candidate will win decisively by peaceful means. They also are quick to reject any allegations that they are closet chavistas or fidelistas. Having an electoral strategy by itself separates them from the Zapatistas. While naturally part of the progressive trend now sweeping Latin America, they insist on a unique Mexican identity in the tradition of Morelos, Juarez, Zapata, Madero and, perhaps most of all, Cardenas. That tradition alone always has constituted a challenge to the United States.
In the new Latin American spectrum, it is indeed difficult to identify Lopez Obrador with any particular pole. That he and his supporters seek proper relations with the superpower on the border, rather than starting an ideological war, is understandable. That they would launch demands to reform NAFTA will make sense to many, and remove the underpinning of support that the Vicente Fox regime has provided. The call for a kind of “new New Deal” to increase jobs and lessen the causes of migration will stand as an alternative model to neo-liberalism in crisis. Poverty and history both will compel Lopez Obrador to a greater independence from the U.S. than the Mexican state has shown for decades.
Tom Hayden is the editor of The Zapatista Reader  and many articles on Latin America. His most recent book is Radical Nomad, a biography of C. Wright Mills [Paradigm]. He is a member of the Nation’s editorial board. Mexican presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador