MEXICO CITY – Silvia Mancera has never voted in a Mexican presidential election, figuring the candidates were “all the same.”
But as campaigns concluded for Sunday's vote, the 33-year-old schoolteacher filed into the Estadio Azteca to support a politician she’s convinced will change Mexico: Andrés Manuel López Obrador – the three-time candidate, who leads all polls by double digits.
“The country is on its head in every way imaginable: socially, politically, economically,” she said. “Obviously, he’s not going to achieve total change. But at least I feel like he cares.”
Voters are set to pick a new president, renew both houses of Congress and thousands of public positions in the states. Most are heading to the ballot box angry and ready for something different.
A survey in the Reforma newspaper found 79 percent of voters wanted a change in the party in power. Some 85 percent of voters think the country is on the wrong track, according to Ipsos.
Mexico suffered its most murderous year in memory in 2017 with 29,168 homicides as the longtime drug war shows few signs of abating. Perceptions of corruption have soared as massive acts of graft go unpunished. Economic performance has underwhelmed, prices have climbed, purchasing power continues to erode and salaries stay stagnant.
“It’s a referendum on the last 12 years … on corruption, the drug war and inequality,” said Esteban Illades, editor of the magazine Nexos. “López Obrador is the only one promising something different.”
López Obrador, 64, has pursued the presidency since 2006 – and appears poised to win on his third attempt.
He entered the Azteca Stadium to a crowd of 80,000 supporters Wednesday night. The slow-speaking man – commonly called “AMLO” – took to the stage like a rock star and reeled off promises: increased social spending, fiscal prudence, an end to gasoline price hikes – an issue especially close to Mexicans, who were promised lower prices after the government opened the state-run oil industry to private investment.
López Obrador especially railed against corruption – perceptions of which have worsened as graft scandals engulfed the country’s governors and accusations of conflict of interest, including first lady Angelica Rivera purchasing a $7 million mansion from a crony contractor, sent President Enrique Peña Nieto’s popularity plunging.
“(Our) plan is to uproot this corrupt regime of injustices and privilege,” López Obrador said. “The central problem is corruption, which is the main cause of social and economic inequality, violence and other ills.”
A native of southeastern Tabasco state – where he led protests against petroleum contamination and marches to Mexico City to denounce electoral fraud – López Obrador is no stranger to voters.
He moved to Mexico City and became mayor in 2000 – attracting attention for his austere ways and being chauffeured around the national capital in a small Nissan sedan.
As mayor, he started programs such as providing seniors and single mothers with monthly stipends. He also appealed to the middle class by building elevated freeways.
López Obrador left the mayor’s office early to run for president in 2006. His agenda was putting “the poor first," but he lost a tight election after attack ads branded him a danger for Mexico and compared him with former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. He lost again in 2012.
“In 2006, Andrés Manuel was identified as much more on the left than now,” said Emiliano Ruiz Parra, a journalist who covered AMLO’s 2006 campaign. “He’s been moving to the center and he’s clearly now in the center.”
Details of some of López Obrador’s proposals are still lacking. He has promised to reverse a change in education and mused about reviewing the contracts signed with foreign oil companies. He’s promoted an amnesty for those in the illegal drug business, which would apply to low-level figures such campesinos growing opium poppies, not cartel kingpins.
López Obrador expresses full support for NAFTA and promises cooperation and cordial relations with the United States – while also aggressively defending undocumented Mexicans living north of the border.
“We won’t do the dirty work of any foreign government,” he said on the topic of stopping Central America migrants trying to reach the U.S. border.
“Andrés Manuel wants to collaborate, but also wants our relationship to be more equal,” Olga Sánchez Cordero, a former supreme court justice tapped to be interior minister in an AMLO administration, said in an interview. “He wants it to be different, wants it so the Americans and us have a relationship of dignity on both sides.”
Critics contend López Obrador hasn’t changed much. He tours the country and mocks his opponents as “the mafia in power,” promises to strip former presidents of their pensions and says he’ll sell the presidential airplane to U.S. President Donald Trump.
“He has a polarizing discourse. ... He incarnates a social justice avenger, a redeemer of the poor,” said Fernando Dworak, a political consultant. “AMLO has had consistent strategies over the past 30 years that no one has known how to stop.”
Scare tactics stopped López Obrador at times over the past 12 years, but appear to be dissuading fewer Mexicans this year.
“The deterioration of daily life is such in questions of security, in questions of public services … and the enrichment of politicians is very noticeable and then they tell you: ‘if AMLO wins, it's going to be worse!’” said Aldo Muñoz, political science professor at the Autonomous University of Mexico State. “This discourse of fear has completely collapsed in the face of reality.”