Leftist ‘Amlo’ favourite as Mexicans choose new leader

Sharp-tongued, silver-haired politician Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has tapped voters’ anger

Presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador talks to reporters as he departs after casting his ballot at a polling station during the presidential election in Mexico City, Mexico, July 1, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

Anti-establishment leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador looked poised to win Mexico’s elections on Sunday amid anger over corruption and brutal violence that flared again even as voters cast their ballots, claiming two party members’ lives.

The sharp-tongued, silver-haired politician known as "Amlo" has successfully tapped voters’ anger over a seemingly never-ending series of corruption scandals and horrific violence that left a record 25,000 murders last year – an orgy of bloodshed fuelled by the country’s powerful drug cartels.

Mr Lopez Obrador, who was first in line at his polling station in Mexico City’s Tlalpan district, called the elections “historic”.

“We represent the possibility of real change,” he told hundreds of journalists crowded at the entrance.

“We are going to achieve a peaceful transformation, without violence. There is going to be an orderly but also deep change, because we are going to banish corruption, the main problem facing Mexico.”

The violence gripping the country has been highlighted by the record number of politicians murdered in the build-up to election day: 145 since September, according to consulting firm Etellekt.

Two more political party members were shot dead on election day.

Flora Resendiz Gonzalez, a member of the Workers’ Party (PT) in the western state of Michoacan, was gunned down outside her home just before polls opened.

Fernando Herrera Silva, a member of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), was later killed in the central state of Puebla.

This is Mr Lopez Obrador’s third bid at the presidency.

But unlike the previous two elections, his main rivals this time around – former speaker of Congress Ricardo Anaya of the conservative National Action Party (Pan) and ex-finance minister Jose Antonio Meade of the PRI – have not tacitly teamed up against him, instead going for each other’s throats.

Many voters say they are sick of both the PRI and the Pan, the parties that have governed Mexico for nearly a century.

Mr Lopez Obrador, 64, calls them both part of the same “mafia of power”, a message that has resonated with many people – even if the former Mexico City mayor has been vague on what the change he promises will look like.

Watching the huge crowd outside Mr Lopez Obrador’s polling station, 82-year-old Salvador Sanchez said the country was at a turning point.

“At last, a change. For the first time, history will be written on the side of the poor,” he told AFP.

But Mexicans are deeply divided over the front runner.

Gustavo Felix, 56, said he was just hoping Mr Lopez Obrador’s coalition – led by his party, Morena – would not win a majority in Congress.

“If they do, we’re going to be living in a dictatorship,” he said.

Mr Lopez Obrador’s coalition is within striking distance of a congressional majority and six of the nine governorships up for grabs.

That would be a major shift in Mexican politics and a coup for a party launched only six years ago, originally as a grassroots movement to support Mr Lopez Obrador’s 2012 campaign.

But Mr Lopez Obrador has clashed with Mexico’s business community, and some critics have warned he would pursue Venezuela-style socialist policies that could wreck Latin America’s second-largest economy.

Seeking to soothe, he has recruited a team of market-friendly advisers and backpedalled on his most controversial proposals, including reversing outgoing president Enrique Pena Nieto’s landmark energy reform, which privatised the oil sector.

Mexico’s next president faces a laundry list of challenges, including a lacklustre economy and a thorny relationship with the United States under president Donald Trump, whose anti-trade, anti-immigration policies have turned diplomacy with Mexico’s key trading partner into a minefield.

But Mr Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, suggested that the Republican president could find common ground even with a leftist politician like Mr Lopez Obrador, predicting “some surprising results”.

Besides choosing their president for the next six years, Mexico’s 88 million voters are electing both houses of Congress, with a total of more than 18,000 federal, state and local posts at stake.

Whoever wins, he may have trouble holding the spotlight on Monday, as Mexico’s beloved football team plays eternal powerhouse Brazil in the knockout round of the World Cup.