Viva López!

The dramatic political crisis that had menaced Mexico's nascent democracy for the past month is settled. As a result, the country's next president may well be a populist from a left-wing party -- a prospect that gives heartburn to Washington and Wall Street.

For the past year, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the mayor of Mexico City, has consistently led all other potential candidates in polling match-ups for the 2006 election. To counter this threat, the two major conservative parties in Mexico's congress -- President Vicente Fox's Partido Acción Nacional and its erstwhile rival, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which ruled Mexico for 71 years before Fox's election in 2000 -- passed a law in early April aimed at indicting López Obrador on a trumped-up charge involving a minor land dispute. This would have prohibited him from running.

The plot backfired when citizens became outraged at such a transparent attempt to undercut López Obrador's right to be on the ballot and, by extension, their right to choose the next president. Protests sprung up all over the country; Fox was insulted wherever he went; and on April 24, almost one million demonstrators filled Mexico City's main square. Worried about political instability, the international financial community -- although hostile to López Obrador -- advised Fox to back off.

So he did. Disassociating himself from the congress, Fox forced his attorney general to resign; had his new one drop the charges; and, in effect, promised not to deny López Obrador a place on the ballot.

This left the congressional wing of both the PAN and the PRI with egg on their faces; their alliance has degenerated into mutual recriminations and public name-calling. Meanwhile, López Obrador has emerged as the country's wiliest politician and the defender of its democracy.

The episode revealed two things about that democracy: first, the determination of millions of Mexicans to keep from returning to the old days, when the PRI ruled through sham elections; second, that the system is still run from the top down. Fox simply annulled an act of congress in order to protect his political hide. Clearly, the rule of constitutional law in Mexico needs some refining.

Nevertheless, Fox's decision served the larger democratic cause; the people will be able to consider a candidate who represents an alternative to the crony capitalism that pervades both the PAN and the PRI.

The son of a small-town storekeeper, López Obrador (often referred to by his initials: AMLO) is from the southern state of Tabasco. He began his political career championing causes of the poor, among whom he lived. He ran for governor twice as an independent in elections that many claim were stolen by the PRI. Later, he moved to Mexico City to chair the newly formed leftist Partido de la Revolución (PRD) and was elected mayor five years ago.

His immediately launched job-creation projects, put more money into health and education, and provided subsidies for the elderly. In one well-publicized move, he forced several millionaires to give up property they had illegally taken in the city's largest public park. He lives modestly; he drives an old car; and he holds press conferences at 6:30 in the morning to dominate the day's news.

López Obrador is a home-grown populist. He has called for a greater stress on domestic economic growth; greater equality of opportunity; and wants to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement (which has devastated much of Mexico's rural areas and failed to produce the promised jobs in the cities). Unlike many on the Latin American left, he has little interest so far in international issues and rarely talks about the United States. Yet, like Lula in Brazil, Chávez in Venezuela, and Kirschner in Argentina, he represents a growing disenchantment with the free-market fundamentalism that successive U.S. administrations -- in alliance with local elites -- have imposed on Latin America in the past two decades.

If elected, López Obrador would certainly be more like Brazil's Lula who has toned down his populism to accommodate the international financiers -- than like Chávez. As mayor, López Obrador has worked well with much of the city's business community, brought in new investment, and even hired Rudy Giuliani to advise on how to curb street crime.

But the Washington establishment these days shoots anything that even mildly moves left. It is tone-deaf to the failure of corporate neoliberalism to fulfill its promises to relieve poverty and exploitation south of our border -- stubbornly insisting that the way to eliminate poverty is through "reforms" that make the rich richer. The recent unprecedented rejection of the U.S. candidate (the present foreign minister of Mexico) to head the Organization of American States reflects that the disappointment with U.S. leadership has reached into the governing classes as well.

With the Mexican presidential election more than one year away, the outcome is of course far from certain. López Obrador's party is organizationally weak in many parts of the country; his opponents will have more money; and the Mexican oligarchs are skilled in manipulating election returns. But so far he has proved himself a formidable politician.

In any event, American progressives should watch this closely. Who knows? A victory for AMLO in 2006 might help inspire a more populist politics north of the border in 2008.

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