Andres Oppenheimer

Mexico may soon elect a leftist president — thanks to Trump

Mexican 2018 presidential hopeful Andrés Manuel López Obrador, leader of the National Regeneration Movement, MORENA, speaks during a rally at the Revolution Monument in Mexico City on Sunday, April 9, 2017.
Mexican 2018 presidential hopeful Andrés Manuel López Obrador, leader of the National Regeneration Movement, MORENA, speaks during a rally at the Revolution Monument in Mexico City on Sunday, April 9, 2017. AP

The race for Mexico’s 2018 presidential elections has drawn zero interest in the United States so far, but it should be in the headlines. Thanks to President Donald Trump’s fake claims about Mexico, the country may soon elect its first populist leftist president in recent memory.

The latest polls show that Trump’s Mexico-bashing has had the predictable effect of creating a nationalist backlash in Mexico, which is helping leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador climb steadily in the polls for the July 1, 2018, election.

According to a May 6 poll by BGC Associates and the daily Excelsior, López Obrador — a former Mexico City mayor — is leading the race with 26 percent of voters saying they would cast ballots for him, followed by center-right candidate Margarita Zavala with 21 percent, and ruling party hopeful Miguel Angel Osorio Chong with 19 percent.

But the most interesting part of the poll is a chart with Mexico’s voting trends over the past 12 months. It shows a steady rise by López Obrador and his Morena party, especially after the U.S. elections last November.

Trump’s false claims about an alleged upsurge in illegal immigration from Mexico — in fact, the number of undocumented Mexicans in the United States has fallen from 6.4 million in 2009 to 5.6 million in 2016, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center — and other untrue assertions about Mexico have given López Obrador the perfect ammunition to cast himself as the only one who can save Mexico from its aggressive northern neighbor.

Curious about López Obrador’s rise in the polls, I asked former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda whether it’s too early to predict a López Obrador victory. After all, López Obrador had also led in the polls at various times in the campaigns for the 2006 and 2012 elections but didn’t win.

Castañeda responded that “there is a serious chance that, unless something unexpected happens, López Obrador will win.”

Several things are converging to help López Obrador’s candidacy, Castañeda told me.

Trump’s constant Mexico-bashing, Mexico’s lackluster economic performance — in part due to a halt in investments while Trump decides what to do about his campaign pledge to scrap or renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement — and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s low popularity because of corruption scandals and rising violence are creating a “perfect storm” that is working in López Obrador’s favor, he said.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer stated that the Mexico border wall could be funded by tax on imports, while speaking with reporters on Air Force One en route to Andrews Air Force Base on Thursday.

“What Trump and his people don’t seem to understand is that, at the end of the day, the overriding U.S. interest in Mexico for the past 100 years has been Mexico’s stability. The United States has had the extraordinary luxury of not having to worry about its southern neighbor since the days of Pancho Villa,” Castañeda said. “Trump may now change all of that by helping elect López Obrador.”

López Obrador told me in an interview several years ago that he had never met with late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez nor with Cuba’s Fidel Castro. But López Obrador sounds exactly like Chávez did when he ran for office. López Obrador lashes out against corruption, vows to reverse what he calls the privatization of Mexico’s oil resources, and wants to revert to Mexico’s old nationalist foreign policy.

Earlier this week, when López Obrador was asked in an interview on Imagen television about the anti-government protests that have already left at least 37 dead in Venezuela, he echoed Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s line of blaming opposition leaders for the deaths. López Obrador called on opposition leaders to stop “sacrificing people.”

Asked about Mexico’s decision to join all major Latin American countries in officially asking Maduro to call free elections and restore Venezuela’s democratic rule, López Obrador called on Mexico’s government to pursue a policy of “non-intervention” and respect for “peoples’ self-determination” — code words used by dictatorships across the world to defend themselves from foreign criticism.

My opinion: It’s time for Trump to retract his fake claims about Mexico, and to deactivate the political time bomb now ticking in that country, partly thanks to him. Otherwise, Trump will be responsible for helping elect an anti-American, leftist president in Mexico whose populist policies will scare away investors, make the country poorer and produce more illegal immigration and more drug trafficking across the U.S. border.

A whirlwind tour of the triumphs and setbacks that marked the first 100 days of Donald J. Trump’s presidency.

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