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Populist Message Appears To Be Striking A Chord In Mexico's Presidential Election


All right. To Mexico now, where, if the polls are right, the next president will be a veteran leftist politician who is running for the third time. It appears this year, the populist message is striking a chord with Mexicans who are exasperated with unprecedented violence in the country and with rampant corruption. Here's NPR's Carrie Kahn.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's loyal followers are confident their time has finally come.


UNIDENTIFIED SUPPORTERS: (Chanting) Presidente, presidente, presidente...

KAHN: Shouting "president, president," the crowd at this recent rally celebrates Lopez Obrador's front-runner status. Polls put him with as high as 20 points ahead of his nearest rival, Ricardo Anaya of the right-of-center PAN party. Launching into a standard stump speech and slow cadence, Lopez Obrador says he is nothing like the politicians and elites who have plunged Mexico into such disrepair.



KAHN: "I am just like you. I came from the bottom. And now I'm here to represent you in this historic moment," he says to great applause.


KAHN: Lopez Obrador vows to end corruption. He's short on specifics but says the money saved from his anti-corruption crusade will be put into social programs for the poor, scholarships for students and larger pensions for the elderly. At times, he even sounds like Mexico's main antagonist Donald Trump. Lopez Obrador isn't a fan of free trade agreements and frequently works up his base, those displaced by globalization, vowing to revive Mexico's farms and boost industrial workers' low wages. Sixty-four-year-old Eduardo Garcia de Leon likes what he hears. He says politicians only enrich themselves.

EDUARDO GARCIA DE LEON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "If he can end corruption, Mexico will finally get ahead," says Garcia de Leon. Lopez Obrador's fight against what he calls the mafia of power isn't new. It was a slogan back in 2006 when he lost that race by less than a percentage point and again six years later when the current president won. While Mexico's traditionally conservative electorate may have shied away from his leftist populism then, they aren't now.


LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We are now in a position like never before to finally achieve real change," says Lopez Obrador. Conditions have deteriorated in the past 12 years as voters ping-ponged between Mexico's two other major parties. Homicide rates skyrocketed. Corruption scandals exploded. And the economy isn't so great either.

CARLOS BRAVO REGIDOR: The stars have aligned for Lopez Obrador to have a great performance in this election.

KAHN: Carlos Bravo Regidor is a political analyst at Cide, a public research center in Mexico City. He says voters' contempt for the political establishment outstrips any lingering fear they might have of Lopez Obrador.

BRAVO REGIDOR: More than fear, the predominant feeling, you know, with Mexican voters is anger. And Lopez Obrador has become the candidate around which angry people are coalescing.

KAHN: That hasn't stopped Lopez Obrador's challengers, especially the ruling PRI party's candidate Jose Antonio Meade, from pulling out its old playbook.


HUGO CHAVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

CHAVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: In this campaign ad, a split frame is seen with Venezuela's late firebrand leftist Hugo Chavez on one side, Lopez Obrador on the other. The audio is edited to show each leader pitching similar populist promises. Polls have Meade trailing in a distant third.

And this time around, Lopez Obrador seems to have learned from previous campaign blunders. He's kept in check his temper, has been appeasing the business class and has even formed an alliance with the country's far-right evangelical party, shoring up support among conservatives once hesitant to back him. Still with more than a month left before the election, Jessica Ramirez, a housewife in the northern state of Nuevo Leon, says she hasn't decided who to vote for.

JESSICA RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "For me, combating crime is top on my list. That's what is affecting us most these days." And so far, she hasn't heard any of the candidates give specifics on how they're going to stop the violence.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.