Many Latin American nations, including Argentina, Brazil and most notably Venezuela, have drifted left in recent years, electing leaders with unfavourable views towards the United States and skeptical opinions on the liberal economic policies it advocates.
Until last week, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the populist mayor of Mexico City and the leading contender in next year's presidential election, stood poised to take Mexico in the same direction, capitalizing on discontent over years of meager economic growth and ineffective governance.
A four-member committee of federal deputies threw a potential roadblock in his path to power, recommending last Friday the mayor be stripped of his immunity from prosecution – a privilege enjoyed by most politicians – for his alleged tardiness in obeying a court order in a land expropriation case. Anyone facing criminal charges is
ineligible to pursue elected office. The Institutional Party of the Revolution (PRI)-dominated lower house of Congress votes on the recommendation later this week in a process known as desafuero(removing a privilege).
The emergence of a free-spending, left-leaning populist who could undo recent economic liberalization and stall necessary energy-sector reforms unsettles the Mexican business and political classes.
President Vicente Fox – himself ineligible to seek a second term in office – in an obvious reference to Lopez Obrador's populist tendencies, remarked: "Here come the messiahs who offer the earth and the sky … populists with magic recipes for everything.
"In the end they are only cheating people."
Emotions run high over the desafuero across Mexico. U.S. officials have even taken notice. CIA director Porter Goss cited unrest in Mexico resulting from a contentious 2006 election as a concern. President George W. Bush later clarified things, saying he would work with whoever was elected.
Since being elected in 2000, Lopez Obrador has spent generously on social programs and infrastructure projects, running up large budget deficits in the process. The Mexico City government now cuts each senior citizen a small cheque. To pacify the middle and upper classes, it constructed new viaducts to ease traffic gridlock. Large groups, bolstered by seniors and city employees, regularly flood the streets at Lopez Obrador's beckon, decrying legal and legislative verdicts against the mayor.
Aloof and tough to read, his antics confound many. He has made few policy announcements, spare expanding his social programs beyond the capital and keeping Pemex, the notoriously inefficient oil monopoly, in government hands. He lives in a modest apartment and drives a 1999 Nissan Sentra to work.
Lopez Obrador has accumulated enormous political capital and popularity through his governing style and enormous deficit spending. He currently tops virtually every opinion poll by at least ten points. In recent weeks, Mexicans have rallied across the Republic against the desafuero. Banners and pro-Lopez Obrador stickers blanket Mexico City. Even the Judas character in the country's biggest passion play (Easter
week re-enactments of Christ's crucifixion) wore an anti-desafuero ribbon.
Lopez Obrador's legal problems stem from land expropriated to build an access road to a hospital. He allegedly disregarded a court decision, ordering his government to address the original property owner's complaints. The attorney general has promised to charge Lopez Obrador the moment the mayor loses his immunity from prosecution.
For many Mexicans, the case against the mayor reeks of sleazy politics – especially in a country where many crimes go unsolved and justice is dispensed slowly. The desafuero also puts two of Mexico's major parties in awkward positions, appearing to sideline the presidential front-runner for purely political reasons.
The ironies are hard to ignore. The PRI, after decades of dirty tricks, now advocates enforcing the law. President Fox's National Action Party (PAN), which only recently toppled the PRI, is seen to be thwarting a rival. For Lopez Obrador's Democratic Party of the Revolution (PRD), it's falling short of power once again; it led the early returns in the 1988 election until a mysterious computer crash wiped out the results.
In the meantime, the desafuero has united the normally disparate PRD and buoyed the mayor's poll numbers.
Ultimately though, the campaign against Lopez Obrador could backfire.
If convicted, Lopez Obrador promised to campaign from behind bars, seemingly anxious to play a martyr's role. A spell in prison could work in his favour, making him a stronger and more sympathetic candidate.
Published in the Calgary Herald.