Donald Trump’s campaign might upend Mexico's entire political system

Donald Trump’s campaign might upend Mexico's entire political system

Business Insider

Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks as Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton listens during their first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking Thomson Reuters

Hillary Clinton's performance in the first presidential debate buoyed hopes of her victory in November, especially in Mexico, where her performance raised spirits and the value of the peso.

But win or lose, there is still the potential for Donald Trump, who has made having Mexico pay for a wall on the southern border a central campaign promise, to have a lasting impact on the Mexican political landscape.

The Republican candidate has already caused turmoil in the sitting Mexican government.

In the wake of Trump's visit with current President Enrique Peña Nieto in early September, Luis Videgaray, one of Peña Nieto's closest advisers and reportedly the person who suggested Trump's visit, stepped down as finance minister.

As Trump has tapped into a dissatisfaction with the political status quo in the US, his stance toward Mexico appears to have bolstered the position of a leftist Mexican presidential candidate who has the same anti-establishment appeal.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, often referred to as AMLO, has twice run for Mexico's presidency, losing narrowly in 2006 and again by 6 points to Peña Nieto in 2012 — and he's set to run again in 2018.

'If Trump were to win ... Lopez Obrador would have a field day"

AMLO's party, the National Regeneration Movement, or Morena — which he formed in 2014 after breaking with the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution — got a boost from Mexico's midterm elections in June, in which the party won 18% of state-level votes nationwide (but no states), a number of local elections, and Mexico City's vote for a constitutional assembly.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador Mexico presidential election leftist morena partyThomson Reuters

"Lopez Obrador was the big winner in the last election cycle, because they had so much to gain," David Shirk, a professor at the University of San Diego, told Business Insider. "They were a nonpresence, and they basically were able to sap a whole bunch of strength away from the PRD, and no other party made as large a gain as in the election as Lopez Obrador."

Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party lost six of the nine governorships it held going into that election cycle, a defeat attributed to corruption scandals, the country's weak economy, and rising violence, all of which have dogged the party.

The shortcomings of the PRI and other mainstream parties, coupled with Trump's incendiary rhetoric about Mexico, has burnished AMLO's appeal as an outsider willing to challenge the status quo and as a defender of Mexicans.

pena nietoThomson Reuters

"If Trump were to win the U.S. elections, Lopez Obrador would have a field day," Miami Herald columnist Andrés Oppenheimer wrote in June, after the PRI's electoral drubbing. "Lopez Obrador’s fiery speeches against Trump’s Mexico-bashing would rally many Mexicans behind him."

Recent presidential polls have found AMLO in contention in Mexico's multiparty system.

An early August poll by Mexican newspaper Reforma found his support at between 24% and 29%, comparable to the 24% to 27% support for Margarita Zavala of the rightist National Action Party.

An August poll by Mexican newspaper El Universal found him with a 36% approval rating, while another round of polls that month found him with 24.8% to Zavala's 25.99%

A recent Reforma poll found him trailing Zavala by only 2 percentage points, and other surveys have put him in first with as much as 28%, according to The Wall Street Journal.

If Trump were to take the White House in November and doesn't moderate his tone on Mexico, chances are AMLO would benefit.

"If the negative rhetoric on Mexico would continue after the US election, it would definitely bolster Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s competitiveness because he would be framed as more nationalistic and more capable candidate to really fight back that negative rhetoric that has been taking place in the US against Mexico," Carlos Petersen, Eurasia Group's Latin America associate, said in August.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador Mexico leftist presidential elections morenaThomson Reuters

Moreover, if Mexico's current government continues to be plagued by corruption allegations and if the current security situation doesn't improve, Mexico's established parties will likely have more trouble steering voters away from him.

"In two years, if incumbents haven’t done more to address Mexico’s corruption and violence problems, it will be very hard to scare people with the prospect of a Lopez Obrador victory," former US Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza told Oppenheimer in June.

"People will say, 'Are you telling me that I should be scared of Lopez Obrador, when you haven’t done the things that you should have been doing for years?'"

'He is his own man'

Unlike Trump, AMLO has held public office but spent little time in the private sector, but in other aspects, the two are fitting counterparts.

"I guess the main point of distinction that sets AMLO apart is that he is, in some ways he is like Trump," said Shirk, who is also the director of USD's Justice in Mexico program. "He doesn't play according to the traditional rules. He is his own man, and his platform is really about him as much as they try to make it seem otherwise."

"It's basically that [AMLO] is a maverick," Shirk added, "and he is going to stand up for the people and he's specifically going to stand up for the poorest of the poor, and I think he would if he gets elected."

Thomson Reuters

Both have struck populist stances on economic issues.

While Trump has targeted NAFTA in his campaign, AMLO has railed against constitutional reforms (the most polarizing of which opened the country's oil industry to private investment) enacted under Peña Nieto, promising to reverse them.

And as Trump has been buffeted by reports of financial impropriety and other misdeeds, AMLO has been accused of less-than-honest dealings, most recently with reports finding he failed to disclose his ownership of two Mexico City apartments — nothing illegal, but a potential blow to efforts to separate himself from Mexico's establishment.

And like Trump, AMLO is competing to lead a country where economic fortune has divergent for people at the top and the bottom. "Right now the situation in Mexico is very interesting because you have a population that is very divided," Petersen said.

"You have one part [of the country] that has benefited a lot from these [current] policies and another that hasn’t really seen any benefits," Petersen added. "And that’s what the political environment shows."

Former Mexican President Vicente Fox has even drawn a comparison between Trump and AMLO, calling them both "loudmouths."

EPN Trump slump ≠ AMLO Trump bump

While AMLO may be trying to play to a broader constituency — striking a more conciliatory tone in late summer, seeking out alliances with other parts of Mexico's political left and easing his stance on some of Peña Nieto's reforms, as Carin Zissis of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas noted in early August — there are reasons to doubt he would triumph in a presidential election that is still more than a year away.

"That is just name recognition," Viridiana Rios, a global fellow at Washington, DC's Wilson Center, said of AMLO's performance in recent polls. "[It's] clear people know him more than others just because he has been running for office for so long."

"Whoever is against Peña has a chance now," Rios told Business Insider. "That is AMLO but also PAN and everybody."

Lopez Obrador benefits from positioning himself against the status quo, with which many Mexicans have grown frustrated. Moreover, that he is the first presidential candidate to secure a place on the ticket of a main party also likely boosted his image. Whether that translates into votes in 2018 is a different matter.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador Mexico presidential election leftist morenaThomson Reuters

"Lopez Obrador is necessarily limited to a very specific segment of the electorate, and I don't know that Lopez Obrador will ever be able to pull more than ... 30% of the vote," Shirk told Business Insider.

Some of AMLO's positions could turn off parts of Mexico electorate. He has downplayed the importance of issues like legalizing abortion and gay marriage and spoken of gentle treatment for those implicated in corruption.

"With respect to AMLO I would only say he does not represent a progressive, smart left but an authoritarian, old one," Rios argued. "His platform does not represent younger, more creative, educated and innovative Mexican voters," Rios said.

"I think we definitely see a Peña Nieto slump due to Trump," Shirk said, "but the Peña Nieto Trump slump doesn't necessarily translate into a AMLO Trump bump."

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