Andres Oppenheimer

Mexico may veer to the left in 2018

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, former Mexican presidential candidate and leader of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) party.
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, former Mexican presidential candidate and leader of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) party. Bloomberg

While most of Latin America is shifting to the right, there is a potential exception that may soon keep U.S. policy-makers awake at night: the possibility of a populist leftist victory in Mexico’s 2018 elections.

Judging from the stinging defeat of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the June 5 local elections in 14 Mexican states, Mexicans may be ripe for an anti-establishment leader. And if likely Republican candidate Donald Trump wins the U.S. elections, the resulting nationalistic backlash in Mexico would make a leftist populist victory even more likely (I’ll come back to this in a moment.)

On June 5, Mexican voters sent a clear message that they are tired of the PRI’s corruption, and its inability to combat street crime and improve the economy. The clear winner of the local elections was the center-right National Action Party (PAN,) which won seven governorships alone or in alliance with smaller parties, and the leftist MORENA, which won Mexico City’s election for a constitutional assembly.

But, for now, all eyes should be focused on MORENA, because its leader, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is much better known — and is more anti-establishment — than any other candidate for the 2018 presidential elections. According to an April 17 survey by the daily Reforma, Lopez Obrador is leading in the race for 2018 with 29 percent of voters’ preferences.

Lopez Obrador, a former Mexico City mayor who started his career as a PRI politician, was a top contender in the 2006 and 2012 presidential elections. In 2006, he was officially declared the loser by less than 1 percentage point. He claimed fraud, organized massive protests and kept the country at bay for more than a year.

An austere 62-year-old man with virtually no private sector or international experience, he shuns ideological labels.

When I interviewed him in 2005 and asked him if he was friends with late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez or Cuba’s Fidel Castro, he said he had never met them. He described himself as a follower of late Mexican President Gen. Lázaro Cardenas, the populist leader who nationalized Mexico’s oil industry.

Lopez Obrador will have several advantages in the race for the 2018 elections. He presents himself as an anti-corruption champion at a time when corruption has become one Mexicans’ top concerns. And he proposes to change Mexico’s orthodox economic policies, which he says have benefited only the rich and have resulted in decades of weak economic growth.

In addition, if Trump were to win the U.S. elections, Lopez Obrador would have a field day. Trump has insulted Mexicans since the start of his presidential campaign, saying that most Mexicans are “criminals” and “rapists,” and vowing to build a wall on the border, deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and slap a 35 percent tariff on Mexican goods.

Lopez Obrador’s fiery speeches against Trump’s Mexico-bashing would rally many Mexicans behind him (and, by the way, endanger future U.S.-Mexico collaboration on terrorism, drug trafficking and environmental issues.)

When I asked the former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza earlier this week whether Lopez Obrador is likely to win in 2018, he said it is “premature” to make such predictions. But he added that the June 5 PRI defeat should send a clear warning sign to Mexico’s political class.

“The election showed that Lopez Obrador is still out there, and that he is focused, and organized, and that he has potential for growth,” Garza told me.

“In two years, if incumbents haven’t done more to address Mexico’s corruption and violence problems, it will be very hard to scare people with the prospect of a Lopez Obrador victory,” Garza added. “People will say, ‘Are you telling me that I should be scared of Lopez Obrador, when you haven’t done the things that you should have been doing for years?’ ”

My opinion: Granted, the center-right opposition PAN party was the biggest winner of Mexico’s June 5 local elections, but few Mexicans know its leader Ricardo Anaya. Leftist MORENA leader Lopez Obrador is the country’s best-known opposition presidential contender, and stands to benefit the most from Mexico’s anti-establishment sentiment.

Over the next two years, Lopez Obrador will claim that both the PAN and the PRI are part of Mexico’s corrupt establishment, and that it’s time to try something new. And if U.S. voters make the historic mistake of electing Trump, it would be a godsend for Lopez Obrador, which could help propel him to the presidency.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” tv show Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español