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What Turns an Outsider Into a President?

The strange case of Mexico's formerly defeated Andres Manuel López Obrador.

Lopez Obrador's closure rally in 2006. He's back. (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)

“I make three promises to the people,” Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the white-haired progressive who has been gunning for the Mexican presidency for over a decade, told crowds in the capital at the start of his campaign. “I never lie, I never steal, and I never betray.”

Mexico’s July election may finally be the right moment for the controversial candidate, who has made headlines for proposals on everything from reducing former presidents’ pensions to granting amnesty for poppy growers. Discontent with the current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, and with policies that have led to high inequality and a skyrocketing murder rate, have won defectors to López Obrador’s National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), bringing the once-marginalized candidate into the mainstream. His eye-catching qualities, some experts argue, mask a broader and more interesting story of societal change: The Mexican public has lost faith in almost a century of one-party or, in the latest years, two-party rule. If López Obrador wins, it will be because they are convinced he is the only feasible alternative.

López Obrador’s fans call him “Peje,” which was once his critics’ derisive nickname and comes from a fish native to his town in the state of Tabasco. He became nationally recognized for his high-profile battles in the 1990s, such as his march across half the country to decry local electoral fraud, his appearance in a blood-spattered shirt after a peaceful indigenous protest against the national oil company, and his opposition to the state’s assumption of banks’ debt. By 2000, he was a celebrated governor of Mexico City. But his administration’s tepid response to the lynching of federal law enforcement investigators in 2004 didn’t play well. López Obrador was almost impeached over an unrelated contempt of court charge, and then lost his first presidential bid by a tiny margin. Amidst allegations of fraud, he occupied the capital’s main avenue for months.

His actual policy platform is far less incendiary than his street protests. López Obrador has indicated that, as president, he will provide scholarships for the thousands who are annually rejected from universities, promised to help Mexican agricultural producers not rely on grain imports, and proposed a tax-reduced zone along the northern border. His most controversial proposal, the amnesty for poppy growers, is based on the recognition that farmers’ hands are forced by drug traffickers. His balancing act involves convincing the public that he hears those who have been forgotten, but that his programs will not threaten the rest of the population.

The true centerpiece of his platform is his rhetoric about unseating what he calls “the mafia of power,” the people who he says unfairly became millionaires off of Mexico’s neoliberal reforms, and the politicians who he says rule in their name. He has written sixteen books, many of which deride those at the top of Mexico’s hierarchy. In an election when there are more local and federal seats up for grabs than at any other time in history, this rhetoric has finally struck a chord in the broader Mexican population, after years of guarded responses. “Have you heard the phrase, ‘A broken clock is still right twice a day?’” said Javier Aparicio, a politics professor at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching.

The most curious aspect of this year’s competition has been López Obrador’s nineteen-point lead in the polls. Some politics watchers in Mexico think that his lead can be credited to his more moderate campaign, which they say has assured people that he is not the same rabble-rouser who once famously said, “To the devil with you and your institutions!” Others have criticized him for harping on about honesty during debates, instead of getting down to the nitty-gritty proposals, but that’s exactly what could get him elected.

“To win a campaign, to transform a country, we need inclusion,” his campaign manager Tatiana Clouthier said, before the circulation of a López Obrador icon with his hand raised in a peace sign. To win broader appeal, he has attempted to break down “the social prejudices that have long limited his popularity in the north,” said John Ackerman, a journalist and law professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. One example is his continued alliance with the evangelical Social Encounter Party, which has a blatantly socially conservative platform. Though strange pacts are common in Mexico, Lopez Obrador’s ambiguous stance on abortion and homosexuality have tested the support of some of Mexico’s leftists, who wish for a more blatant progressive.

Can his positioning of himself as not a radical candidate, but still a transformative one, actually help him clinch the vote? To court his former enemies, he has said he will aid Mexico’s central bank and honor most of the oil permits for private drillers, then published a report stating that even Goldman Sachs sees cleaning up public finances as a priority. He has won the support of a new cast of characters who would not traditionally be welcome in his party: the right-hand man of ex-president Felipe Calderón, the leader of a multi-million-dollar mining union, and a major northern businessmen with a questionable track record. These aides may help him push back against the notion, hawked by old attack ads showing stacks of bricks crashing, that López Obrador’s anti-big-business policies could ruin Mexico.

But in the end, the sea change in Mexico that has boosted López Obrador’s support may have more to do with a backlash against the Peña Nieto administration. Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), despite titular and somewhat misleading membership in Socialist International, has trended conservative over 71 continuous years of rule from 1929 to 2000, broken only by a 12-year stretch from the National Action Party. It returned to power with Peña Nieto in 2012. Perhaps because of him, voters are willing to take a risk on López Obrador, a candidate they once feared because of the campaigns waged against him, and some intend to go to the polls though they have never voted before.

The PRI had grown used to absorbing potential competition over the previous century, by swallowing other parties. It has also been implicated in more nefarious tactics. Mexico is no stranger to mysterious killings of opposition politicians: earlier this month, two mayoral candidates of MORENA were found shot to death, adding to the list of now thirty-six candidates who have been killed in this election cycle. Jesus Ramírez Cuevas, López Obrador’s social media coordinator, pointed out that more than six hundred members of the political oppositions had been killed since 1988, according to statistics from the Party of the Democratic Revolution, of which López Obrador was once president.

The public’s faith in Mexican government has deteriorated, which is why people have turned toward a candidate from a party that has not previously won. More than 34,000 people have gone missing in the past twelve years, and last year, the murder rate was the highest on record. Local government officials were involved in the disappearance of forty-three students from Ayotzinapa, a rural teachers’ college, in 2014. Peña Nieto’s image was also tarnished by a scandal involving the first lady’s unregistered purchase of a $6 million marble home, and the channeling of millions of dollars through public universities to phantom companies. (López Obrador’s critics have countered that he is not entirely untouched by scandal himself; a video last year showed a MORENA legislator receiving 500,000 pesos in cash, though she denied that it was for his campaign.)

“People are exhausted with the current situation, and they are looking for something else. It fell to AMLO [López Obrador’s nickname: his initials] to fill that role,” said Mario Arriagada, a program officer for the Open Society Foundation and one of the founders of a leftist group called Democracia Deliberada.

The mere fact of López Obrador’s presidency would be historic for Mexico, bringing a progressive party to power. The only other party that managed to unseat the PRI, the conservative National Action Party, did so first with Vicente Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive with a profile the opposite of Lopez Obrador’s in every way. The PAN’s second president, Felipe Calderón, was criticized for starting the Mexican Drug War, which led to greater violence. The fortuitous timing for López Obrador comes at the end of years of labor to win votes—but hardly signifies that the country is swinging to the left in any meaningful sense.

“Where is the real Mexican left?” said Itzel Tzini, a social anthropologist from the Autonomous University of Sinaloa. “MORENA is not actually anti-capitalist. It talks about ‘civil society’ as though that were not a category that homogenizes people, from farmers who have never had a cellphone to university students without scholarships who can support themselves, even if it attempts to unify them.”

If López Obrador actually maintains his lead, he will do so largely on the idea that the people merely deserve something else than what existed before. Symbols are more useful for such a strategy than specifics. He has joked that Peña Nieto should take Amlodipine, a form of blood pressure medication. He says he will refuse to live in the presidential white house in the area called Los Pinos, joking that it was “haunted.”  He offered to sell Donald Trump the presidential plane.

“The strategies of the governments of the PRI and the PAN have failed,” Lopez Obrador said during a presidential debate on May 20. “There should be no thieves, and not only those on the street. The thieves who do the most damage are the white-collar ones, the corrupt politicians. They’re the worst plague affecting our country.” In a month’s time, the public will see whether this argument wins him the presidency. Then the question will be whether he can actually bring about a transformation for all those who have been waiting for one.