Obrador lures Mexico's 50 million poor
The leftist candidate rebounds as next week's presidential election tightens.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador is not a man who elicits lukewarm responses.Skip to next paragraph
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"He is marvelous. A superstar. An angel ... a true Mexican patriot," sighs Liliana García García, a shopkeeper attending an Obrador rally last week in the central state of Queretaro.
On stage in the Plaza del Armas, the gray-haired candidate in a pink and blue plaid shirt is revving up the crowd. "We are going to bring the price of electricity down," he promises. "Gas prices are coming down!" he cries. "We are not accepting the contradiction that we live in a rich country, but we are poor," he calls out. "We are going to end injustice!"
Polls in recent days show next week's presidential election will likely be a photo finish. Mr. Obrador, the candidate of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) has drawn even with Felipe Calderón of the ruling conservative National Action Party (PAN). Roberto Madrazo, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that led this country for 71 years until 2000, is trailing in third.
The public has dubbed Mr. Calderón – who focuses on foreign investment, free trade, and pro-business policies – the "employment candidate." Mr. Madrazo, who has devoted much of his campaign to fighting the scourge of violence, is often called "the security candidate." But Obrador is known, simply, as the "candidate of the poor."
The specter of an Obrador victory arouses strong emotions – of all kinds.
"The country doesn't need a savior. It needs leadership. Obrador is abusing the desperation of the poor with empty promises and easy solutions. He is intoxicating the public," says Enrique Jackson Ramírez, president of Mexico's Senate and a member of the PRI. "If he wins, this country will find itself in a major crisis."
Some of Obrador's positions also make Washington uneasy. All candidates have condemned the construction of more walls along the US-Mexican border, and have vowed to push for an immigration accord with the US. But Obrador, who has been in the US only once in his life and does not speak English, is the most critical of US policies. He has also threatened not to honor Mexico's agreement to drop tariffs on US corn and beans as stipulated by the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The eldest of eight children, Obrador began his political career 30 years ago in the PRI, working as an Indian Welfare official in his home state. He broke from the party in 1988 to help form the PRD, and lost two races for the Tabasco governorship, and turned, in the mid 1990s, to serving as president of the party, gaining a reputation as an activist.
As mayor of Mexico City for five years until last July, Obrador, by then a widower with three sons, became famous for his modest, folksy style: Living in a small apartment, driving an old Nissan, arriving at the office before daybreak, and playing first base during semiregular municipal games. He was also known for his cash grants for the elderly and the poor, which helped his approval rating soar as high as 80 percent.
As presidential candidate, Obrador chose the campaign slogan: "For the Good of Everyone, the Poor First." His platform, centered on the approximately 50 million impoverished in the country, followed accordingly.
Obrador today promises to increase pensions and lower gas, electricity, and cooking fuel costs. He vows to provide more clean water, institute free universal healthcare, redirect spending into education, and pave new roads. He vows to hand out monthly government grants of about $70 each to senior citizens, the disabled, and single mothers.
To do all this, he assures voters, he will not raise taxes. The money, says Porfirio Alejandro Muñoz Ledo, one of the founders of the PRD and a close Obrador adviser, will mostly come from ending an era of "unfair advantages" and "monopolies" of the wealthy. While Calderon has proposed cutting income taxes for the rich and businesses in order spur investment, Obrador vows to combat rampant tax evasion.