Mexico’s next presidential election is more than a year away – it will take place on July 1, 2018 – but it’s already on people’s minds. Mexicans, it’s safe to say, are hoping for a change. The current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has seen his popularity sink to historically low levels (17% as recently as April). But even he is not as despised as the new president of Mexico’s northern neighbor, Donald J. Trump. Meanwhile, the Mexican economy is sputtering, struggling to reach 2.5% annual growth; corruption at the local, state, and federal levels is rampant; and the savage violence of the drug war continues unabated. Over the last few months, the left-wing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador has taken the lead in the polls, positioning himself as his country’s potential future leader. This fills many Mexicans with hope, and others with terror.

It’s mandatory in Mexico these days to dismiss the predictive ability of political polls– particularly since Trump’s surprise victory in the United States last November– but the results are pretty consistent. Several public opinion firms released results in January, February, March, and April, and all show López Obrador, known popularly as AMLO, with an uncontestable lead. The regional candidates representing the National Regeneration Movement (Movimiento de Regenaración Nacional, or MORENA), the political party he created in 2014, also look to have good showings in upcoming electoral contests.

While many Latin American countries, such as Argenitna and Brazil, are seeing the end of a long period of leftist dominance, it looks as if Mexico is about to experience its own sharp left turn.

It’s too early to know what the field of presidential candidates will look like next year. There is competition among several prominent members of Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI) for leadership in that organization. Mexico’s second political force, the National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional, or PAN), is likely to see a contest between Margarita Zavala, the wife of former president Felipe Calderón, and current party president Ricardo Anaya. Other likely competitors include independent Jaime Rodríguez Calderón, known as “El Bronco”, the governor of the State of Nuevo León, who is widely popular for his hardline stance on crime, and radio and television personality Pedro Ferriz de Con. Many things can happen in a year, but as of now AMLO is dominating the conversation and the field.

Famously volatile, AMLO has proven himself an able and socially minded politician. As mayor of Mexico City between 2000 and 2005, he instituted a series of very popular social programs that earned him international notoriety and prominence in Mexican politics. In 2006 he barely lost the presidency to Felipe Calderón in an election filled with controversy. AMLO amply demonstrated his ability to contend for national office, but his refusal to concede defeat in that election and his call for several protests thereafter hurt his reputation. For many observers, inside and outside of Mexico, the 2006 debacle showed that AMLO does not have sufficient respect for democratic norms and institutions, and therefore his election as president would put Mexico’s hard-earned political stability in peril. His supporters, of course, contend that the election was a fraud and that AMLO was actually fighting to defend the rights of the people.

What would a López Obrador presidency look like? As with Trump, the world will have to wait and see what it gets. It would indubitably bring to Mexico’s house of government, the Palacio Nacional, the same type of populist politics that have come to dominate many South American countries as well as the United States.

The term “populism” doesn’t have an accepted definition, and is used by different people to mean different things. But most political scientists agree that populists are different from conventional politicians in that they seek to communicate directly with “the people” (really, their supporters) and are generally aggressive towards their opponents, be they opposition politicians, the media, or groups within civil society.

For AMLO opponents in Mexico, there are two worst-case scenarios. One would be a northern version of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. Chávez was a socially minded and charismatic former military officer who, upon gaining power, set to radically change Venezuelan institutions and concentrated power around himself. Upon his death, his appointed successor Nicolás Maduro has struggled to maintain stability in a bitterly divided country. Venezuela is currently in deep economic crisis and in danger of falling into total chaos. The other would be a left-wing version of Trump, who would go at politics like a solitary gunslinger without regard for counsel or consequences. Many Mexicans secretly hope for a president who will stand up to Trump, who has said some truly despicable things about Mexico and Mexicans, but such a course of action carries significant risk for all involved.

It would be wise, however, to remember that the recent wave of Latin American populism has brought about many success stories. In Ecuador, Rafael Correa improved his country’s economy and managed to curb his more personalistic impulses. He recently stepped down from office after a free and peaceful election. In Argentina, Néstor Kirchner and his wife Cristina Fernández both presided over a healthy economy for many years. It is also true that in both of these countries the government often used questionable means to maintain the support of “the people”, including (in Argentina’s case) manipulating government data to make the economic situation seem better than it was.

At the same time, it’s also clear that whoever becomes Mexico’s next president will have little chance of changing the facts on the ground, particularly the unspeakable violence committed by drug cartels in their never-ending war and the endemic corruption of Mexico’s political system. How AMLO and Trump deal with each other may, in the end, be more of a distraction than anything.

Photo by Eneas De Troya, 2008, via Flickr.

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