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  February 14, 2018

Leftist Hopeful's Lead Signals Upheaval for Mexico

Leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador enjoys a double-digit lead in Mexico's presidential race despite an active smear campaign against him. A tactical alliance between divided leftist groups might still be possible, says John Ackerman
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John M. Ackerman is a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Editor-in-Chief of the Mexican Law Review and a columnist with both La Jornada newspaper and Proceso magazine. Blog: Twitter: @JohnMAckerman


SHARMINI PERIES: It's the Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Latest opinion polls in Mexico show that leftist candidate for president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, enjoys a 2 digit lead over his opponent. López Obrador is often known just by his initials, AMLO. He is running for the presidency for the third time. This time, under the banner of a new political party known as the National Regeneration Movement or MORENA.

AMLO’s support is at 34% compared to 23% for Ricardo Anaya from the conservative National Action Party and 18% for José Antonio Meade of the long dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party.

The presidential election is scheduled for July 1st. Joining us now to discuss the upcoming election is John Ackerman. John is professor at National Autonomous University of Mexico, UNAM and editor-in-chief of the Mexican Law Review, and a columnist for both La Jornada Newspaper and Proceso Magazine. Good to have you with us, John.

JOHN ACKERMAN: Thank you, Sharmini. A pleasure as always to be with you at The Real News.

SHARMINI PERIES: John, let's start off with López Obrador. Who is he? What's his political platform? And what's his political history?

JOHN ACKERMAN: Well, López Obrador is a politician who has been working to democratize Mexico for a long time. He is interesting because he's now 64. He's not old, but he's on the older side of the group of politicians. But he actually has a more refreshing kind of outsider view on politics.

I would say that he's actually similar to Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn, people who have been in politics for a long time but are really finding a much more important presence today than they have before, even though López Obrador has been in the center of politics for a long time but he's now got a lot more support based on this wave of anti-establishment politics.

So, his poll numbers are, that poll number you mentioned is 34 to 23, and then Meade at 18. But that doesn't quite add up to 100, you notice. You've got about 30 or 40% supposedly undecided voters and those are going to most likely break towards López Obrador here. We could be really warming up to a landslide on July 1st.

López Obrado, it's true, he's run before in 2006 and 2012. Theoretically lost on both occasions. 2006, it was pretty blatantly fraudulent. 2012, there was also very irregular, unequal elections. But this time around, it looks like the conditions are very different.

SHARMINI PERIES: And he was also a very loved mayor of Mexico City once.

JOHN ACKERMAN: Yes, of course. Specifically, López Obrador is from Tabasco. He's from the southern part of the country. He worked with indigenous communities for a long time, was in the government in some post in the 80's and 90's.

But then, his real sort of coming out as a leading national politician was when he became president of the PRD, which was a left wing party. It still exists but it's just not on the left anymore. The PRD was the left wing party in the 1990's. He was president of the PRD, really challenged the authoritarian system during 96', 97', 98', the big bank bailout, the fraudulent bank bailout. He was the most important voice against that corruption at the end of the 90's.

Then he became mayor of Mexico City. Coming from Tabasco, he was a real outsider then too. He was mayor between 2000 to 2005. And in the run up to the 2006 elections, Vicente Fox and the other politicians who were in control at that time, did everything possible to get him out of the race. They tried to impeach him. They did actually impeach him as mayor of Mexico City, which only turned him into more of a national hero.

And then finally, they stole the election from him. Felipe Calderón became president in 2006 based on electoral fraud. And since then, he has not occupied a single government post. He could have been senator, or a house member, or governor of some state because he was a major national politician.

But since 2006 until today, the last 12 years, he has been, not on the campaign trail, but on the political movement trail, visiting every single municipality from the smallest one to the largest one in the entire country. He's gone around the country at least three, four, up to five times, some municipalities.

And so, he's just been building up this grassroots movement for the last 12 years, and it looks like now it's finally going to bear fruit, the struggle for so many years to become president. Not just to become president, but to actually bring democracy to Mexico. That's the real challenge.

SHARMINI PERIES: And John, you mentioned that he was impeached once. What was that about?

JOHN ACKERMAN: Well, the whole deal there, the idea was to make him ineligible for the presidency in 2006 because according to Mexican law, if you are not convicted, not even if you're convicted, if you're just formally submitted to criminal proceedings, you're not eligible to register as a presidential candidate.

And so, Vicente Fox, who was the president, falsely accused López Obrador on trumped up charges that he had somehow disobeyed a judicial order and built a highway towards a hospital. This was the ironic thing. He was accused of illegally constructing a road to bring access to a hospital in Mexico City.

Even that wasn't correct. The judicial order didn't say what Fox said it was supposed to say but that's a different question, the issue is that they trumped up charges against him and they kicked him out of Mexico City government.

But then, they eventually had to take the charges away because they were just turning him into a major martyr and in the end, he ended up being the candidate. As I mentioned, they found another way to prevent him from actually occupying the national palace.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right John, so who are his main opponents in this election? And, what do they stand for?

J. Ackerman: Well, just about everybody's against López Obrador. This campaign is about López Obrador against the rest of them. There are four or five different candidates out there in the field who are trying to challenge him. All of them are way below him in the polls.

The most important candidate in terms of publicity, is José Antonio Meade. He is the candidate of the PRI, which is the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which is neither institutional nor revolutionary. It's not even a party either. It's just sort of a group of corrupt technocrats who have been controlling the country for the last 30, 40 years.

Meade is very close to sitting president, Enrique Peña Nieto. He went on the campaign trail in December. He was named their candidate. Although he's officially only in the primary's, but he's already their candidate and his poll numbers are terrible. He's just a terrible candidate. He has a technocratic public position but he is incredibly uncharismatic. He has no connection with the people and he has not been able to actually create any kind of mass support.

The other candidate Ricardo Anaya. He is from the PAN. This is the right wing, Christian, democratic party, the same party, which brought us Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón. This is the right wing. He has neo fascist ideology. His family lives in Texas, actually, in the United States. That's not a problem in and of itself, lots of Mexicans live in the United States, but this is an elite oligarchic family who has escaped from Mexico and prefers the United States to Mexico.

So, it's a vision toward Mexico, which is very much neocolonial, neo imperialist, and Ricardo Anaya has also been accused of serious corruption scandals. And so, he's got his support. He's got 25%, which is sort of the bastion of the right. But, you can't see a whole lot of excitement around him either in terms of the mass population of Mexicans.

And, there are some other people out there who are trying to repeat the Trump story. Individual business men are trying to become president of Mexico and a model of Trump, but that's not really working either.

There's Felipe Calderón's wife, Margarita Zavala, she wants to be president too. But really, these are all different versions of the same thing, and they're all attacking López Obrador, and probably, eventually, they're going to come together and join forces against López Obrador and that'll be the big challenge the end, to see whether they have enough strength between all of them to defeat López Obrador.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, López Obrador, do you think he'll maintain this lead? July 1st is a long time away in the scheme of things. So, he has to sustain this campaign and the lead that he has. Do you think he'll be able to do it?

JOHN ACKERMAN: Things look generally optimistic. In 2006, he was also way ahead in the polls around this time. He was about 10 points ahead, similar. And then, the regime, the government, put together this incredible smear campaign, illegal advertising, an incredible amounts of violations of electoral law in order to stop him. And this worked in the end. In the end, they had to even do a fraud.

And so that's the risk, that the system will once again, these five other candidates will come together, support one candidate to defeat López Obrador. They will try to use negative campaigning, fear tactics, fake acts of violence to scare people so they don't go out to vote. This all might happen and fraud is very much a common practice in Mexico.

So, that's going to be the real challenge in these elections. Will the Mexican people actually be able to decide who their next president is going to be? If there is democracy this year in Mexico, I have no doubt in my mind that it will be López Obrador. None of these other guys have any kind of real popular support.

But, money, power, Trump, the United States, all of that together, they are conspiring against López Obrador and that's a real risk. So, I couldn't dare to say that his triumph will actually be recognized by the powers that be. That's the big question.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, speaking of smear campaigns, I've seen some effort to compare López Obrador to Hugo Chávez, have Hugo Chávez’s posters in the background, trying to liken him to Hugo. Is this having a negative or a positive impact? In fact, Hugo Chávez was quite loved by some sectors of the population in Mexico.

JOHN ACKERMAN: Well, this goes way back from 2006, which was his first presidential campaign. That was actually the most important strategy fear campaign against López Obrador, trying to compare him to Chávez, who was of course, alive then. But now all of a sudden, this is one of the great news. The dominant television companies in Mexico no longer control the agenda for discussion.

Social networks have actually taken a very significant place in the national political discussion. People are opening up their eyes to the fact that López Obrador actually has very little to do with Chávez. I think that there is a general current in Latin America of discontent, which, in Venezuela may have brought in Chávez. But in Mexico, we have very different political dynamics. López Obrador has been very explicit. Very, very, very explicit about that his international models are more Franklin Roosevelt or Lula da Silva.

The problem here is that there is a very strong influence in Mexico of this sort of American US ideology, which thinks that anything that has been happening in Venezuela for the last 20 years and everything is negative, and violent and corrupt. There's a lot of ignorance. And so, López Obrador has very much separated his message from that.

SHARMINI PERIES: And there's also a lot of talk about certain alliances of López Obrador to Russia. In fact, you, being a supporter of López Obrador has come under scrutiny yourself for being a Russian agent. So, explain what this is all about and whether it's having any effect in the country.

JOHN ACKERMAN: Yes, special agent Ackermanoski, they call me now. Yeah, it's pretty crazy. This is just a desperate attempt by particularly, Luis Videgaray, who is Peña Nieto's foreign minister, who's trying to get the United States involved, basically. He's trying to get the Trump administration, but particularly the hawks, these Washington hawks worried about Mexico because supposedly Russia has its hand in there.

First of all, there's no evidence at all that the Russians are doing anything in Mexico, or are even interested, or planning on anything involving elections. The only supposed evidence they have is that myself, John Ackerman, I happen to have a weekly video column with RT on social networks. I'm not even on the television. RT does actually have a television channel in Spanish that comes out in Mexico, and Argentina, and Brazil.

I'm not on that. I just have a little video column two minutes a week, which goes out on Facebook and twitter, in which I talk about the need for Mexico to become more democratized. And I'm there because there's no other spaces in Mexican media. Mexican media is absolutely censored, much more closed than Venezuela, for instance, and Venezuela has criticisms...against the president. And in Mexico, recently it's been changing, but generally, the private television and radio is totally pro-regime and pro-establishment. And so, they're trying to make up this idea that somehow the Russians, through Ackerman, are trying to intervene in Mexican elections.

But what I've written in plenty of spaces recently, I have an essay in The Nation about this and other issues, that if the Russians were really interested in wreaking havoc on the US-Mexico relations and destabilizing North America, they would not be supporting López Obrador. They would be supporting Enrique Peña Nieto and his candidate Meade because those are the guys who are creating violence, and conflict, and destruction in institutions in Mexico while López Obrador is trying to defend democracy and institutions.

So, it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense. The real story is that there isn't an intervention. What there is is a struggle for democracy in Mexico and a struggle for media plurality. And in general, in Mexico it's very interesting because, these accusations come obviously from Videgaray and this kind of anti-Russian hysteria, which exists in the United States. But in Mexico, we don't have this. There isn't this kind of Russia-phobia in our history or our present.

So, I'm actually really happy because my readers, and my audience, and followers on twitter have been incredibly supportive. This is just taken as a big joke in Mexico and it has not actually affected anything in terms of my own prestige, or López Obrador's campaign because it's very clear what we're all about and that we're independent people looking for democracy. López Obrador, myself and millions of Mexicans.

SHARMINI PERIES: And, let's take up the left critique of López Obrador, such as from the Zapatistas movement or EZLN, have said that López Obrador is a phony and has lost touch with social movements. What is the response to such charges?

JOHN ACKERMAN: They've been saying this for a long time. I myself personally am a Zapatista at least in spirit. My wife and I, we met in Selva Lacandona... the Zapatistas organized in Chiapas some 22 years ago in 1996. But for the last 15, 20 years, they have been very critical. Not only of López Obrador, but any kind of political electoral left and they have a right to be so.

Over the last 15 years, the PRD, which still exists but is no longer left party, the MORENA party is now a left party, the PRD sold out and they squandered their opportunity of using elections, electoral politics, and parties to change things. And so, the diagnosis is right. Historically, recently, we have seen that electoral politics doesn't make a difference.

But that, of course, does not mean that in the future, it couldn't actually make a difference. And 2018 is an incredible opportunity to start again, try. Try this path once again. And the Zapatistas themselves, not the Zapatistas but the Congreso Nacional Indígena, the National Indigenous Congress, which is related to them but not the same, they are actually, I think, recognized in this, finally, by launching their own candidacy.

Marichuy is an indigenous woman who is campaigning or trying to get onto the ballot as an independent candidate, and by that act, by actually participating in elections, they themselves are recognizing that electoral politics is a legitimate sphere for doing politics and struggling for social justice.

And so, I think that with a big change because beforehand, they would just scoff at the idea of elections and now they're actually participating in electoral space. So, I think this is good news and I hope that in upcoming months, there will be much more closeness between the Zapatistas and MORENA, which is López Obrador's party, than there have been in the past because in 2006, Marcos actually publicly came out saying that López Obrador was his enemy. He used those words. In 2012, there was also lots of distance between Zapatistas and López Obrador. The hope is that this year, given the profundity of the crisis of corruption, and violence, and neoliberal destruction of Mexico, that at least temporarily for a few months, we might have a tactical alliance in order to have a political change at the top, which should have to then be pushed from the bottom to turned into a real change from the bottom as well. Of course, it's not enough to just win the elections. You need to do a lot more.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. John, I thank you so much for joining us today and hope to ride this election with you, and your analysis.

JOHN ACKERMAN: Of course. It would be a pleasure. You have to come down, you guys, to visit us during the campaign. The campaigns officially start on April 31st and go for three months to July 1st. So, it would be wonderful to have you guys come down from Baltimore. Take a trip. It's close. We're only like four hours or something, a flight from New York or DC to Mexico City. So, it could be very exciting!

SHARMINI PERIES: I'm sure there's a lot of people out there who want to take you up on your invitation but we'll certainly try. Maybe we'll have a specific campaign to raise money so that The Real News can go down to cover it for our audience.


SHARMINI PERIES: I thank you so much for joining us, John.

JOHN ACKERMAN: Thank you Sharmini. Always a pleasure.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.


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