Andres Oppenheimer

Mexican leader picks a U.S.-educated candidate for 2018 elections. Can he win?

Leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador holds a comfortable lead in the polls.
Leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador holds a comfortable lead in the polls. AP

Americans have not faced a hostile power next door for many generations, but the big question is whether that will change after Mexico’s July 1, 2018, presidential elections, if leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador continues to hold a comfortable lead in the polls.

This week’s nomination of former finance minister Jose Antonio Meade as the likely government candidate in next year’s vote was widely acclaimed by Mexico’s business establishment and many in the media. It lifted hopes in Washington that he may be able to avert a Lopez Obrador victory.

The consensus is that Meade was Mexico’s ruling party’s best possible choice for next year’s elections, even if he faces formidable challenges to win as a recent minister of one of Mexico’s most unpopular governments in recent history. A recent Latinobarómetro poll shows that only 20 percent of Mexicans have a positive opinion of the current government — the lowest percentage in at least 15 years.

Meade has several things going for him. First, he is not an official member of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s discredited Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI,) and has served in cabinet positions under both PRI and opposition National Action Party (PAN) governments.

That will allow Meade to present himself as an apolitical candidate who is not tainted by the PRI’s history of corruption and authoritarianism, which could help him win over independent votes. Some government critics loathe the PRI, but are afraid that a Lopez Obrador victory could turn Mexico into the next Venezuela.

Second, Meade is a technocrat who will be able to present himself as the right candidate for difficult economic times. At a time when a rightist populist U.S. president is threatening to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which would affect more than 80 percent of Mexico’s exports, Meade will be able to say he has the perfect credentials to maintain economic stability and find new export markets.

An economist and attorney, Meade got his Ph.d. in economics from Yale University, and served twice as finance minister, and once as minister of foreign affairs. By comparison, Lopez Obrador is a former Mexico City mayor with virtually no international experience.

Third, Meade has not been tainted by corruption scandals, and has a reputation of being an affable person. I had a long conversation with him over coffee during a visit he made to Miami last year. He came across as a candid politician who does not speak in the convoluted, highly scripted manner of Peña Nieto and other PRI politicians.

But, having said that, Meade will still be the underdog in this race. Lopez Obrador is leading in the polls with about 30 percent of the vote, followed by Meade with 23 percent and three independent candidates who account for much of the remainder.

One thing that all polls show is that Mexicans are eager for change. When asked by Latinobarómetro whether they agree with the claim that, “The government rules for a few powerful groups,” 90 percent of Mexicans said Yes, more than in all other Latin American countries except Brazil.

The PRI’s strategy to win, judging from what I’m told by party insiders, will be to divide the anti-PRI vote into several factions, so as to take votes away from Lopez Obrador. In Mexico, there is no second-round vote, which means that Meade could possibly win with only 30 percent of the vote, or even less, if the opposition vote is splintered among three or four opposition candidates.

In the past, this strategy has often worked for the PRI, which is known to have financed opposition parties to help divide its opponents. But this time, given Mexico’s anti-government sentiment, it will be a big gamble: Lopez Obrador, as well, could win with 30 percent of the vote, or less.

Mexico’s tragedy is that, largely because of Peña Nieto’s failure to push for a political reform that would have allowed a second-round vote, the country will be condemned to having a weak president. That could lead to a leftist-populist overreaction, or to a continuation of the status quo with little room for making needed reforms.

Either way, Mexico’s faces difficult times.

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