(Bloomberg) -- They should’ve been at school. Instead the four kids, and their mother, Fanny Santos, were among thousands who crammed onto a dusty soccer field in a hardscrabble suburb, and screamed with excitement when they got a wave from the man on stage -- Mexico’s leftist president-in-waiting.
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador inspired plenty of people to skip school or work that day in Los Reyes La Paz on the outskirts of Mexico City. He’s been doing the same thing for months, up and down the country of 125 million. With a massive and durable lead in the polls, the politician known as AMLO has turned Mexico’s presidential election campaign, usually a contentious affair, into a kind of triumphant carnival.
The crowds of mostly poor Mexicans rallying around Lopez Obrador may be harbingers of something more than a handover of power from one party to another -- something more like regime-change. Unless the pollsters have got it wrong on an unprecedented scale, Mexico is turning its back on decades of rule by U.S.-trained technocrats. To the alarm of many investors and business leaders, it’s swinging sharply to the left.
Successive presidents, leery of taking financial risks that could trigger a repeat of the 1994 peso collapse, have delivered economic growth that’s dismal by developing-nation standards and left behind a trail of graft allegations and soaring crime. During this campaign season alone, more than 100 politicians have been killed.
‘So Much Theft’
“This election will change the country,” Santos said as some in her family held up cell phones to capture every detail of the rally. “There’s so much corruption, so much violence, so much theft.”
Lopez Obrador promises to put the poor first with a raft of new social programs -- and to stand up to that other firebrand leader, Donald Trump.
The U.S. president has been denouncing Mexico since before he got elected -- on everything from NAFTA, which he’s trying to renegotiate, to the drugs that flow over the border and into American cities. His renewed anti-immigrant rhetoric in recent days, adding to the mood of populist fervor south of the border, is playing into AMLO’s hands. Lopez Obrador published a book last year titled “Listen, Trump!”
Lopez Obrador was beaten in the last two presidential contests, though he claims that vote-rigging denied him his first bid in 2006. Some concerns have been voiced about a repeat this year, but the leftist’s crushing lead makes that scenario unlikely. Bloomberg’s latest poll-tracker puts him at 46 percent, about 20 points clear of business-friendly candidates Ricardo Anaya, who heads a left-right coalition, and Jose Antonio Meade from the ruling PRI party.
In his two failed campaigns, Lopez Obrador couldn’t break through the one-third barrier. He’s managed it this time by drawing support from outside his base in low-income neighborhoods. Polls show him winning in almost every demographic, and by even higher margins among the more educated. In almost every layer of Mexican society, there seems to be a powerful urge -- much like what’s been seen across many parts of the globe -- to throw out the current political class.
“It will be good for democracy to have him in office,” said Rafael Rivera Goyenechea, who teaches TV production at a private university in Mexico City’s upscale Santa Fe neighborhood, and runs his own video production company employing 16 people.
Corruption will be “at the top of his agenda,” Rivera said. He says that Lopez Obrador won’t find it easy to combat Mexico’s entrenched graft -- but other candidates don’t stand a chance because they’ve been compromised by working within that system.
There’s still plenty of fierce opposition to AMLO, especially among the middle class and commercial circles. The peso’s 10 percent decline since mid-April is a sign of market nerves.
Investors are especially alarmed by Lopez Obrador’s plans to have the public decide whether a $13 billion new airport for Mexico City should go forward, and to audit oil contracts for graft. He’s an opponent of the measures passed by outgoing President Enrique Pena Nieto that opened the stagnant energy industry to private investment.
The candidate has repeatedly clashed with Mexican big business, labeling it a “power mafia.” His criticism of the Supreme Court, the electoral regulator and some news outlets have sparked concerns that Lopez Obrador could swing a Trump-style wrecking ball through Mexico’s institutions -- and those concerns have been amplified as polls suggest he may win both houses of Congress too.
“The risk is that we return to a presidency without counterweights,” said Veronica Ortiz, a political analyst who co-hosts a show on Mexico’s non-partisan Congress channel. “I don’t think that it would be good for democracy to lose that equilibrium.”
Opponents have compared Lopez Obrador to Luis Echeverria, a 1970s president who nationalized industries and spent his way into debt. Among Mexico’s Latin neighbors, there are plenty of examples of left-populism that’s led to economic collapse, from Argentina to Venezuela.
‘This Rice Is Cooked’
Lopez Obrador was widely seen as a pragmatist when he was mayor of Mexico City last decade, and he says he’ll govern the country that way too. He promises to avoid taking on more debt, saying higher social spending can be funded by eliminating graft. He’s ruled out quitting Nafta or nationalizing companies. Still, he and his team have sent out enough mixed messages to fuel warnings among some critics that Mexico is about to elect its own Hugo Chavez.
In teeming, crime-plagued urban centers like Los Reyes La Paz, there’s little talk about such concerns. After the AMLO rally there, families sat on the sidewalk munching street tacos and discussing their election-night party plans. A sign outside the venue read: “We’re going to win.”
The candidate himself had expressed a similar thought when he addressed the crowd earlier. Summing up an election whose outcome has rarely looked in doubt, Lopez Obrador used a local idiom.
“This rice is cooked,” he said.
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