Mexico: Ready for Prime Time? Mexico's Political Left Has Never Had Much Power-But Led by Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, It's Poised to Make Its Mark

Newsweek International, February 21, 2005 | Go to article overview

Mexico: Ready for Prime Time? Mexico's Political Left Has Never Had Much Power-But Led by Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, It's Poised to Make Its Mark


Byline: Scott Johnson (With Maria Amparo Iasso in Mexico City)

Mexico's Guerrero state, which abuts the Pacific coast, has long been characterized by the gaudy luxury of Acapulco--a wealthy tourist town that caters to thousands of American vacationers each year. For just as long Guerrero has been a bastion of backroom political dealmaking; indeed, until last week, it had always been governed by a politician from the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. In what may portend another signal political shift in Mexico, voters swept the PRI incumbent out of office, electing instead a former mayor of Acapulco, Zeferino Torreblanca, who ran on a left-wing ticket sponsored by the Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD. Torreblanca won with a comfortable 55 percent of the vote. A buoyant Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador--the mayor of Mexico City and standard-bearer for the PRD--spent days after the election cooing about his party's unexpectedly easy Guerrero victory. "Authoritarian structures last until people say they're over," he told reporters at one of his daily morning press conferences. "What has changed is society, and we saw it in Guerrero."

Unlike its counterparts in the rest of Latin America, the political left in Mexico has never had much formal power. Given the long dominance of the center-right PRI and the recent emergence of President Vicente Fox's National Action Party, or PAN, the left has been reduced to operating at the margins--vociferously railing against U.S. hegemony but otherwise never quite forging a national identity or broad-based following. That's an inherent problem for a movement en-compassing disparate groups ranging from Zapatistas and Greens to social democrats. In 1988, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, son of the legendary President Lazaro Cardenas, who nationalized Mexico's oil company in 1939, united a passel of left-wing groups and made a run at the presidency. He may have won, but in what some believe was a rigged election, PRI candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari was declared the victor.

Now the left may finally be poised to make its mark on Mexico's political and economic development. The Guerrero gubernatorial victory--conceived and engineered partly by Lopez Obrador's political operatives in the capital--suggests that the PRD is establishing a national presence and attracting crucial swing voters in the run-up to next year's presidential election. Certainly the Guerrero vote dealt a serious blow to Roberto Madrazo, the powerful leader of the PRI and his party's leading contender for the presidency. And it was not the only left-wing victory last week: the state of Baja California Sur also elected a PRD governor, Narciso Agundez, giving the left control of six of Mexico's 32 states. Lopez Obrador is hard at work promoting Yeidckol Polevnski, formerly a top executive at Mexico's small-business confederation, for the all-important gubernatorial election in the state of Mexico in July. With 8 million voters, that election will be an early indicator of Lopez Obrador's chances for victory in next year's national election.

Lopez Obrador has led the presidential polls for months--but his election is far from a sure thing. That's because the political left, and the PRD in particular, still suffers from an identity crisis. Despite the encouraging gubernatorial wins, the left remains a diffuse and ideologically splintered movement, vulnerable to muddled messages and infighting. The PRD itself has four strands; one, known as the "Amalia current," after Zacatecas Gov. Amalia Garcia, places a strong emphasis on social-democratic economic policy (think Sweden) and regional development. The party's other wings include traditional populists, who champion the poor and trade protectionism, and tend to be sympathetic to global rabble-rousers like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Fidel Castro; a human-rights branch, and, last, a newer group of left-wing "modernizers." This group--led by former foreign minister (and NEWSWEEK contributor) Jorge Castaneda, who's running for president as an independent--are challenging the orthodoxy of the old left. …

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