Trump critic seeks boost in state elec­tion

Pena Ni­eto’s party on ropes in cap­i­tal re­gion

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY GUY TAY­LOR

The “Trump ef­fect” at the bal­lot box will get a crit­i­cal test this week­end — in Mex­ico, where polling sug­gests the op­po­si­tion party of An­dres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a sharp critic of the U.S. pres­i­dent, may cap­ture a key state-level gu­ber­na­to­rial race and pro­vide a dra­matic boost for the left­ist leader’s chances in next year’s pres­i­den­tial race.

A vic­tory by Mr. Lopez Obrador’s Na­tional Re­gen­er­a­tion Move­ment, known as Morena, on Sun­day would deal a se­ri­ous blow to cur­rent Mex­i­can Pres­i­dent En­rique Pena Ni­eto’s cen­trist In­sti­tu­tional Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Party (PRI), which has ruled the State of Mex­ico for nearly 90 years but strug­gled

to main­tain pop­u­lar sup­port there since win­ning the Mex­i­can pres­i­dency in 2012.

Mr. Pena Ni­eto has also strug­gled to find his foot­ing against Mr. Trump, whose plans to build a bor­der wall — fi­nanced by Mex­ico — and re­vamp the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment have sparked a pop­u­lar back­lash in Mex­ico. His pop­u­lar­ity has also been rocked by a se­ries of cor­rup­tion scan­dals that have hit his ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Ana­lysts say the stakes are par­tic­u­larly high be­cause the State of Mex­ico is the most pop­u­lous of Mex­ico’s 32 fed­eral states, mean­ing a vic­tory there would pro­pel Morena’s ag­gres­sively anti-NAFTA agenda — as well as Mr. Lopez Obrador — to cen­ter stage ahead of the July 2018 pres­i­den­tial vote.

“In an en­vi­ron­ment where we’re con­stantly look­ing for bell­wethers of po­lit­i­cal shifts, this will cer­tainly be a har­bin­ger of the con­test to come for the Mex­i­can pres­i­dency,” said Christo­pher Sa­ba­tini, a pro­fes­sor at Columbia Univer­sity and ed­i­tor of the anal­y­sis web­site “Latin Amer­ica Goes Global.”

“This could be the ve­hi­cle for the rise to the pres­i­den­tial level of the left­ists in Mex­ico,” Mr. Sa­ba­tini said in an in­ter­view Wed­nes­day.

De­spite the pres­i­dent’s strug­gles, polls say the race re­mains ra­zor-close in what has long been a PRI strong­hold. The Re­forma news­pa­per in a poll re­leased Wed­nes­day gave Morena can­di­date Del­fina Gomez 31.9 per­cent of the vote to 30.7 per­cent for the PRI’s Al­fredo del Mazo, while a sec­ond poll pub­lished by El Uni­ver­sal gave Mr. del Mazo a slight lead. Un­der Mex­i­can law, Wed­nes­day was the last day of cam­paign­ing ahead of Sun­day’s vote.

Mr. Sa­ba­tini said the vote could heighten ten­sions be­tween Mex­ico City and Wash­ing­ton, giv­ing Mr. Pena Ni­eto lit­tle ma­neu­ver­ing room to strike a com­pro­mise with the new U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“Right now, Mex­ico un­der Pena Ni­eto is clearly try­ing to en­cour­age Trump to re­con­sider his po­si­tions on NAFTA to take a more in­cre­men­tal ap­proach to chang­ing the agree­ment rather than trash­ing it,” Mr. Sa­ba­tini said. “If you throw into the mix an in­fa­mously hot­headed op­po­nent of NAFTA … it def­i­nitely changes the dy­nam­ics.

“Any sort of mod­er­ate pos­i­tive con­struc­tive change on NAFTA would prob­a­bly be out the win­dow.”

Mex­ico’s Nader

But it could well be that Mr. Lopez Obrador’s own out­spo­kenly anti-Trump and anti-NAFTA rhetoric has pro­pelled the peren­nial left­ist pres­i­den­tial chal­lenger to new promi­nence dur­ing re­cent months.

Wash­ing­ton’s for­eign pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment has long viewed the for­mer Mex­ico City mayor as a Ralph Naderesque out­sider — an an­tag­o­nist who rep­re­sented the op­pressed in Mex­ico but was too far to the left to garner the broad sup­port needed to win the pres­i­dency.

Mr. Lopez Obrador, 63, drew global at­ten­tion in 2006, when, as the can­di­date of the Party of the Demo­cratic Rev­o­lu­tion (PRD), he nearly brought the na­tion to its knees with mas­sive street protests af­ter nar­rowly los­ing that year’s pres­i­den­tial con­test to Felipe Calderon of the cen­ter-right Na­tional Ac­tion Party (PAN).

He was back again in 2012, com­ing in sec­ond to Mr. Pena Ni­eto, who led the PRI’s re­turn to the sin­gle-term, six-year pres­i­dency af­ter 12 years of PAN rule. Some say Mr. Trump’s rise in Wash­ing­ton could be just the cat­a­lyst to pro­pel Mr. Lopez Obrador to vic­tory this time around.

“The lat­est polls show that Trump’s Mex­ico-bash­ing has had the pre­dictable ef­fect of cre­at­ing a na­tion­al­ist back­lash in Mex­ico, which is help­ing” Mr. Obrador, Mi­ami Her­ald opin­ion writer An­dres Op­pen­heimer wrote in a re­cent col­umn. “Trump’s false claims about an al­leged up­surge in il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion from Mex­ico … and other un­true as­ser­tions about Mex­ico have given Lopez Obrador the per­fect am­mu­ni­tion to cast him­self as the only one who can save Mex­ico from its ag­gres­sive north­ern neigh­bor.”

In March Mr. Lopez Obrador blasted Mr. Trump’s “cam­paign of ha­tred” against Mex­i­can im­mi­grants, called the plan for a bor­der wall “pro­pa­ganda” and said he couldn’t wait to han­dle the rene­go­ti­a­tion of NAFTA.

“Pena is too quiet. And Don­ald Trump speaks very loudly,” he told Bloomberg News in an in­ter­view at the time. “One doesn’t beg for lib­erty, one seizes it.”

He said he sup­ports free trade and as­serted that Mr. Trump’s threat of in­sert­ing tar­iffs into NAFTA makes no sense. But he also em­braced a non­cha­lant tone to­ward the 23-year-old trade agree­ment, say­ing that while it “didn’t hurt” Mex­ico, it’s “not our sal­va­tion” ei­ther.

Adding in­sult to in­jury, Mr. Pena Ni­eto’s po­lit­i­cal base was the State of Mex­ico, where he served in var­i­ous posts, in­clud­ing gov­er­nor of the state from 2005 to 2011. The rul­ing PRI is al­ready reel­ing from the loss in 2016 of four other gov­er­nor­ships.

Iberoamer­i­can Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Ivonne Acuna told The Associated Press that the State of Mex­ico has long been a key source of the PRI’s so-called “voto duro,” or hard vote — vot­ers it can count on year af­ter year, most of them from a lower so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus, less ed­u­cated and many older than 50.

A Morena vic­tory would give Mr. Lopez Obrador “an im­mense ad­vance in his quest for the pres­i­dency in 2018,” Ms. Acuna said, al­though she added the op­po­si­tion vote will be shared among sev­eral can­di­dates, which will make it dif­fi­cult to over­come the PRI’s deeply rooted or­ga­ni­za­tion.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Left­ist Mex­i­can politi­cian An­dres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a critic of Pres­i­dent Trump, is run­ning for a statewide of­fice.

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