AMLO Wins Big and All Eyes Turn to Battle for Mexico's Congress
(Bloomberg) -- Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was elected as Mexico’s first left-wing president in recent times, riding a public revolt against rampant crime, corruption and poverty and handing a crushing defeat to the business-friendly parties who’ve run the country for decades.
Lopez Obrador’s coalition also looks poised to pick up scores of seats in Congress, with some polls indicating that it may actually take a majority in both legislative chambers.
Final tallies in some of those races could still be days away, creating jitters among investors who worry that such broad power could allow, AMLO, as Lopez Obrador is known, to quickly enact an agenda that includes building new refineries and railways, and auditing energy contracts from outgoing President Enrique Pena Nieto’s term. The peso slid 1.2 percent in early trading Monday.
While congressional votes are still up for grabs, there was never really any doubt about the outcome of the presidential election. Figures announced by the electoral board gave Lopez Obrador 53.7 percent of the vote, with half of the ballots computed. Ricardo Anaya, leader of a right-left coalition, had 22.7 percent and Jose Antonio Meade, the candidate of the incumbent PRI party, took 15.4 percent.
The 64-year-old former mayor of Mexico City, who narrowly lost the presidency in 2006 and again failed in his bid in 2012, has been both compared to Donald Trump and former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in his populist rhetoric and ambitious promises to help the poor while keeping the budget deficit in check. He’s promised to govern as a pragmatist and says he won’t nationalize companies, or quit the North American Free Trade Agreement. Still, his procession toward victory has alarmed many investors and business leaders.
“There’s nothing to fear,” he said early Monday. “I’m not a dictator.”
Long before those official results began to emerge, exit polls had showed Lopez Obrador so far ahead of his two main rivals that they conceded defeat -- and congratulations had begun to pour in from foreign leaders, including Trump. “I look very much forward to working with him,” the U.S. president, who’s repeatedly lambasted Mexico for sending illegal migrants and drugs across the border, said on Twitter.
In a televised address Sunday evening, Lopez Obrador promised “deep changes” and said that while he’ll respect all Mexicans, “we’ll give preference to the poorest, and to the forgotten.” But he made a point of allaying market concerns too, promising to respect the central bank’s autonomy, avoid raising taxes in real terms, and stay within “legal channels” as he reviews oil deals approved under the outgoing president.
Then he climbed into a white SUV and headed for Mexico City’s historic center, where a huge crowd of jubilant supporters was waiting for him. “We’ll fulfill all our promises,” he told them. “We won’t fail you.”
The business community and investors have expressed concerns that the privatization of the energy industry will be rolled back, and expanded social programs will push the country into debt. Lopez Obrador says his plans can be funded without deficit spending, with the money saved by eliminating graft. Economists are skeptical. And looming over Mexico’s sea-change is the specter of left-populist governments, from Brazil to Venezuela, that ran their economies into the ground.
“This will be a new era,” said Alonso Cervera, chief Latin America economist at Credit Suisse. “The continuity of the economic model is in question.”
Not Like Trump
The current model, overseen by U.S.-educated technocrats and centered on tight budgets and foreign trade, has won investment-grade credit ratings for Mexico. It’s been less successful at delivering growth in the $1.2 trillion economy, or higher living standards for ordinary Mexicans. About half of the country’s 125 million population live in poverty. They’re Lopez Obrador’s base -- and they’ll be expecting concrete material benefits from his presidency.
The Mexican election fits into a wider pattern of anti-establishment politicians appealing to voters left behind by globalization -- though Lopez Obrador, who cut his political teeth as an activist defending the rights of indigenous peoples, has little in common with Trump or the right-wing populists who’ve gained power in Europe.
Markets have had plenty of time to prepare for an AMLO win. The peso has declined since mid-April as his poll lead widened. After early gains in election-night trading, the currency was among the worst performers of developing nations Monday.
Even before Sunday night’s electoral landslide, one of Mexico’s most prominent historians was worrying about one-man rule. The presidency is already enormously powerful, and Lopez Obrador’s personal charisma will make it even more so, Enrique Krauze said in an interview. “We could face a concentration of power in one person not seen in Mexico for, I would really think, actually, never.”
Only two parties have run the country in the past century or so: Pena Nieto’s PRI, and Anaya’s PAN. Mexicans decisively turned their backs on both.
On the campaign trail, many voters said crime was their top concern. A decade-long war on drug cartels has pushed the murder rate to record levels (politicians haven’t been spared: more than 120 were killed during the campaign.)
Corruption was also a widespread complaint. Pena Nieto’s allies and family were tainted by a string of scandals. He began his six-year term hailed as an economic reformer and a fresh face, and is ending it with some of the lowest approval ratings in the history of the presidency.
Pena Nieto will remain in office until December, because Mexico has a five-month gap between elections and inauguration. But already on Sunday night, as crowds thronged into the streets of Mexico City, there was a sense that power was shifting.
‘Things Will Change’
In the Zocalo, the historic city-center framed by palaces and cathedrals built under Spanish rule, Lopez Obrador’s supporters jammed the square, dancing to a mariachi band as they waited for the election winner.
The Zocalo is where Lopez Obrador plans to govern from. He says he’ll move the presidential office there from Los Pinos, the palatial compound in an upscale neighborhood where Pena Nieto and his predecessors have been based. The historic square is also where hundreds of thousands of Lopez Obrador’s supporters camped out in the summer of 2006, to protest alleged vote-rigging after his first, failed bid for the presidency.
Hawkers sold AMLO dolls, coffee mugs, buttons and flags with his image while chanting their support in a party that lasted well past midnight.
Among the crowd there toward midnight on Sunday was Monica Angel Pachuca, who had tears in her eyes. “I’ve been waiting for this for 12 years,” she said. “Our children are suffering. They’ve had such a hard life. Now, things will change.”
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