End of an era in Mexico as political dinosaurs face electoral wipeout

Leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador set to destroy the status quo in weekend election

Like the Chicxulub asteroid that smashed into the country 66 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs, Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his Morena party look set to wreak devastation on Mexico's status quo in Sunday's election.

According to a Berumen poll commissioned by business leaders, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI) – which governed for most of the 20th century and whose return to power in 2012 has once more been linked with the corruption that tainted it in the past – could see its presence in Congress halved.

Consulta Mitofsky, another polling group, estimates that the conservative National Action party (Pan) could lose a quarter of its seats in the Chamber of Deputies and more than half in the Senate.

López Obrador's Morena, which registered as a party only in 2014, may even clinch an absolute majority in Congress – something unheard of in Mexico for two decades.


"We will have a crisis of traditional parties in Mexico," predicted Daniel Kerner, Latin America managing director at Eurasia Group, a consultancy.

Some observers believe López Obrador’s bigger goal is not just to demolish the PRI, but to make Morena – the party he has built from the ground up, and in which he wields absolute power – the dominant force in Latin America’s second-biggest economy.

"Morena is going to be the new PRI as the party of reference in social and nationalist terms," said Rodolfo González, a Morena member who helped establish the party in northern Mexico and now runs the borough of Cuauhtémoc in the capital.

Populist policies

López Obrador sees himself as a candidate from outside the system, crusading against what he calls “the mafia of power” and neoliberal policies he says have failed.

However, critics who fear he will push populist policies that will imperil state finances and precipitate a financial crisis believe his ambition is to make Morena not just a PRI lookalike, but a PRI clone.

“Amlo has more of a political project than an economic project ... that is building and keeping clienteles – unions, landowners, business groups – like the PRI. I can see him recreating 21st century clientele networks,” said Shannon O’Neil at the Council on Foreign Relations, using the politician’s nickname.

His promise of agricultural subsidies, higher old-age pensions and bursaries or apprenticeships for young people neither in school nor at work will create groups “who will owe it all to Amlo ... he wants to create his own ‘mafia of power’ which he controls,” she said.

Mexico has moved on since the hegemonic PRI of old. Two presidents from Pan ruled from 2000-12 and civil society groups, for which López Obrador has short shrift, have led a successful drive to force transparency and accountability.

Nonetheless, the 64-year-old veteran politician cut his teeth in the PRI when it was still what Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa called "the perfect dictatorship" – a time when the PRI ruled like an absolute monarch and brooked no dissent. Democracy in Mexico is less than 20 years old, dating back to 2000 when the PRI was finally toppled after 71 straight years in power.

López Obrador eschews comparisons with the PRI. “The fundamental difference is corruption. Morena’s main banner is not to steal and for the PRI, it’s like public policy – get in and rob,” said González.

Former foes

But critics say his formative years in the PRI fostered an authoritarian attitude and a rose-tinted view of the Mexico of his youth when the focus was national and the economy booming.

"I think he has a nostalgic streak. Mexico had a golden age in the 20th century, a time of unity between politics and the economic model, which he praises," said Jesús Silva Herzog, a commentator and professor at the Tec de Monterrey university. "This imagining of a country all harmonious around grand national projects does indeed sound like the PRI."

López Obrador has opened Morena to former foes, forged an electoral alliance with a far-right party and welcomed politicians from other forces willing to submit to his leadership.

That has invited comparisons with the PRI "in the sense that, while offering up leftist rhetoric, it's actually a pretty broad church", said Andrew Paxman, a historian at the CIDE university. One pre-election newspaper cartoon portrayed López Obrador in a car, cruising a row of prostitutes each identified by a different party logo.

Polls put him about 20 points clear of Ricardo Anaya and José Antonio Meade, his Pan and PRI rivals respectively. If he wins, leftist politicians are expected to defect to his side. PRI politicians could follow suit, encouraged by his promise not to engage in a witch hunt over graft scandals that have blighted the outgoing government of Enrique Peña Nieto.

Marco Fernández, an anti-corruption expert at think-tank México Evalúa and professor at the Tec de Monterrey, sees "worrying signs" that Morena might be cosying up to the ruling party "so it can become the PRI of the 21st century".

“It would be very bad for the future of Mexican democracy for everything to change just for everything to stay the same,” he said. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018