U.S. Isn’t the Only North American Country Turning Populist

  • Oil capital of Veracruz is microcosm for voter discontent
  • New Morena Party rising in some polls for gubernatorial races

Disgust with corruption in Mexico is so overwhelming that voters on Sunday are entertaining the thought of sacrificing landmark education and economic reforms in exchange for a chance to bring down the politicians they blame for it.

Through the heart of the June 5 elections for governors flow the stirrings of populism, personified by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, 62, a two-time presidential contender known as AMLO. He has railed against graft in government, but has also raised concerns in the past that he’d pit the poor against the rest of the country and recently criticized evaluations of teachers, whose protests have grown in some states.

Lopez Obrador on May 28.
Lopez Obrador on May 28.
Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg

The elections for governors of 12 states will help answer whether his anti-corruption message attracts voters he turned away by his more divisive policies. How his new Morena Party candidates do in the race for states overrun by graft like Veracruz could be a bellwether for the 2018 national elections -- and, along the way, the potential for Lopez Obrador’s third try at the presidency.

“I have no doubt Lopez Obrador will end up in first or second place” in the presidential race, said Jose Antonio Crespo, a political analyst at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City. “I don’t think it would be good to have Lopez Obrador as president, but many do think so, because all other alternatives have been used up.”

First will come the test in Veracruz, which is seen as a microcosm of the disaffection for politicians that has spread through Mexico, starting with President Enrique Pena Nieto. His approval rating plunged to 30 percent after the disappearance of 43 teaching students and amid reports that builders of his and his wife’s homes were government contractors. Most recently he’s been criticized for delays in passage of anti-corruption laws.

The peso fell 0.3 percent to 18.5217 per dollar on Wednesday after dropping earlier to its lowest since February.

Graft and impunity aren’t new problems in Mexico, but they’re triggering greater public ire, in part due to discontent with parties in power that, in Latin America, has contributed to the ouster of Brazil’s president and, in the U.S., the rise of outsiders like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, says Andrew Selee of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. Corruption is the biggest concern of Mexicans after violence, according to a new government agency study.

“The discredit of the three parties that have dominated politics in Mexico really opens opportunities for Lopez Obrador,” said Selee, executive vice president of the center. “If he can show Morena is a serious party even in local elections, it makes it much more likely that other parts of the left will follow him.”

For Bloomberg View’s assessment of the challenges corruption presents Mexico, click here.

In a sign of his potency, Lopez Obrador’s party -- which is but two years old and whose leadership consists of pretty much just him -- is tied for first place with two other candidates out of seven contenders in some polls for governor in Veracruz. The state has the largest population -- and fiscal budget, at $5.25 billion -- of any other up for election, and has never left the hands of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as PRI. His chosen candidate for governor in Zacatecas is polling second.

Mexico’s Houston

Once referred to as Latin America’s Houston amid expectations it would attract billions in energy investment, Veracruz has become the nation’s murder capital of journalists, and kidnappings have doubled as drug cartels battle for territory. Its governor, Javier Duarte, grew so maligned by corruption scandals and accusations that he was generating some of the violence that his own party demanded he give a full account of his actions. He has yet to resolve criminal complaints brought by federal auditors alleging Veracruz misdirected funds and then faked the return of $260 million of that money.

The clamor led opposition from the left and right to an alliance to defeat the candidate of Duarte’s party, PRI. Then they went and picked a candidate, Miguel Angel Yunes, who soon became roiled in illicit-wealth scandals and who has struggled in opinion polls after his son’s name appeared in the Panama Papers. Like Duarte, he denies wrongdoing. Calls to Duarte and Yunes for comment were not returned.

Cuitlahuac Garcia in Veracruz City on May 29.
Cuitlahuac Garcia in Veracruz City on May 29.
Photographer: Nacha Cattan/Bloomberg

All this has only increased the popularity of Cuitlahuac Garcia, a high-school teacher who entered politics after Lopez Obrador broke from the Democratic Revolution Party, known as PRD, to form Morena. Morena is polling higher in state elections than the PRD, says Luis Carlos Ugalde, a former top electoral official who runs Integralia Consultores.

Garcia, 48, said in an interview that he’d investigate Duarte and others in the state government and look into concessions they granted to petrochemical maker Mexichem SAB and Brazil’s Odebrecht SA for any irregularities. Wearing a guayabera and jeans, Garcia is eager to show he’s new to public office; he’s risen from blasting political propaganda through his car’s loudspeaker to becoming a federal lawmaker a year ago.

With so little experience, Lopez Obrador’s well-known image comes in handy. At the close of Garcia’s campaign this week, posters showed him shoulder to shoulder with Lopez Obrador, and the biggest banner was of the former presidential candidate, not the current candidate for governor. "In Veracruz, I accept that he has a great impact," Garcia said.

Lopez Obrador has his doubters.

The prospect of his scoring big in state elections or winning 2018 is “absolutely ridiculous,” said Alejandro Schtulmann, president of Mexico City-based political risk consulting firm EMPRA. He argues that surveys placing Lopez Obrador ahead in 2018 are based more on name recognition than his chances of winning. In fact, Lopez Obrador may be helping the PRI win in Veracruz by splitting the opposition, he said.

For now, first and foremost in many voters’ minds is their distaste for politicians:

“They’re all the same garbage,” said Maria Guadalupe Sanchez, 48, a Veracruz resident. “More than anything, we’ll have to see which of the candidates is honest.”

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