What’s next for Mexico’s fractured left?


Thousands cram into Mexico City's Zocalo plaza to hear left-winger Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speak on Sept. 9. His announced departure from his longtime party puts a huge question mark over the future of this massive movement.


Ronaldo Schemidt

MEXICO CITY — When asked where he might go if he lost the July 1 Mexican election, left-wing candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador replied, "la Chingada."

That’s prime Mexican profanity that loosely translates into something less polite than “the hell outta here.” Lopez Obrador, however, uses la Chingada to refer to his country house in Chiapas.

Yet after taking second place with 31 percent of the vote, the 58-year-old politician known as “AMLO” is anything but retiring to the countryside. Instead, he’s doing what he did after the last election in 2006: refusing to accept defeat, urging supporters to join him in peaceful disobedience.

Only this time, Lopez Obrador has split from the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) and its two smaller allies to start a new party.

The unexpected turn puts AMLO into the political arena for the foreseeable future. It further entrenches the two-time runner-up — in races he considers rigged — in a political system he reviles for being decadent, neglectful of the poor and, critics say, one he thinks only an AMLO presidency can correct.

"He has had a philosophy that we cannot see reforms, we cannot see changes [in Mexico] until he becomes president," says Marco Rascon, a restaurateur who co-founded PRD and previously led protests as the caped social crusader Superbarrio.

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This puts Mexico’s left in a precarious situation. Leftists here are known to fight among themselves even more ferociously than against their political opponents. Now their top coalition has lost its fiery candidate, who draws huge crowds and voters to their cause.

While AMLO garnered almost one-third of the popular vote, left-wing lawmakers rode his coattails to a surprise showing in Congress and two unexpected gubernatorial victories.

But it's uncertain how many Mexicans might follow him to an upstart party.

Political science professor Aldo Munoz of the Autonomous University of Mexico State estimates the party could place 25 lawmakers in the 500-seat lower house — all answering directly to AMLO.

Even more impressively, Munoz says, the new party could win the seats on its own, unlike other smaller parties, which form coalitions with larger players to secure the 2 percent vote minimum required to stay registered.

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Then there's the topic of money, which flows freely from the Federal Electoral Institute to registered political parties, most of which are owned like family businesses and have collected more than $3 billion combined in public money since 2000.

"It's hard to form a party in Mexico," says Jeffrey Weldon, director of the political science program at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. "But if anyone can do it this guy can."

On Aug. 31, the electoral tribunal threw out Lopez Obrador’s accusations that the winning party had bought votes with laundered money. The tribunal confirmed Enrique Pena Nieto as Mexico’s president-elect.

In response, AMLO supporters crammed into this capital city’s massive Zocalo Plaza to hear what came next. He told the crowd he was leaving the Democratic Revolution Party — which had backed him as candidate through two presidential races, and as Mexico City’s mayor from 2000 to 2005.

He also said the Movimiento de Regeneracion Nacional (National Regeneration Movement) would become a political party. Not one to miss out on word play, AMLO’s new party can be abbreviated to “MORENA” — Spanish for dark-skinned woman, which happens to be Mexicans’ nickname for their national patroness Our Lady of Guadalupe.

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Despite his rally cries, Lopez Obrador now appears less likely than he did in 2006 to have demonstrators pitch tents in downtown Mexico City for six weeks to protest an election outcome he says was rigged.

He’s avoiding a rerun of his reign as "legitimate president," when he held his own swearing in, masqueraded as the leader of a powerless government, and belittled President Felipe Calderon as "spurious."

In 2008, he had the mostly loyal legislators of his party shut down Congress for several weeks.

That year he also led marches against reforms to the energy sector — a touchy topic in Mexico, where the industry is state-controlled and needs the capital and expertise private partners can provide, analysts say.

The AMLO-led protests and polarizing discourse, says Rascon, marginalized the Mexican left and propitiated the return of Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) — which had ruled for most of the last century but performed poorly in the 2006 vote — by allowing it to occupy a vacated political center and broker deals with Calderon. Today, PRI is preparing to move back into Los Pinos presidential palace on Dec. 1.

"[Lopez Obrador is] the person most responsible ... for the return of the old regime," Rascon says. 

Such criticism from his own party has become common for AMLO.

The left often differs on how to do politics. On the one hand, its runner-up candidate takes stern policy positions — such as steadfastly opposing reforms to the oil industry, tax system and labor.

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He calls his positions "congruent"; no negotiating with those selling out his principals is permitted. On the other, his main leftist rivals — a PRD faction known as Los Chuchos — prefer pragmatic deal making.

Members of Los Chuchos, who control much of the party apparatus, wished AMLO well and said the PRD was bigger than any one person.

One member seeming bigger than the party has always been a problem for the PRD since its founding in 1989. Party cofounder and three-time presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas — son of a revered former president — played the strongman role initially, until Lopez Obrador displaced him.

Lopez Obrador now appears similarly unenthusiastic about turning over the reins — to someone such as outgoing Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, who appeals to moderates with unfavorable impressions of AMLO.

Whether Lopez Obrador runs again in 2018 remains to be seen. Ilan Semo political historian at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City, sees the left coming together for a new coalition, which would include MORENA.

Lopez Obrador is likely to lack the machine operated and maintained by the PRD, while the PRD is likely to lack a charismatic leader. Even if unsuccessful at a third presidential contest, the party needs someone like AMLO to win votes that translate into legislative seats.

“They have mutual deficiencies," Semo says. "They need each other."