A Resurgent AMLO and the Choice Facing the PRD

Oct 12, 2011

Duncan Wood
Office of the Simon Chair

On Monday October 10, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) began a short visit to the United States, during which he spoke in both Washington, DC and Chicago. López Obrador arrived in the United States on the back of new poll data that shows him increasing his lead over his PRD rival, Marcelo Ebrard, in the preferences of PRD supporters. Although he continues to be a hugely controversial figure both within the party and across the Mexican electorate, AMLO now seems to be the obvious choice for the PRD.

The numbers and the tour also coincide with an apparent change in AMLO’s tone in public statements. In recent speeches he has adopted a more conciliatory line to investors and the rich, as well as using the language of social harmony rather than conflict. An excellent piece by CIDE’s Jorge Chabat highlights these changes and argues that the only way in which we will discover who the real AMLO is, the moderate or the extremist, will be if he actually wins the presidency in July 2012.

Of course this remains highly unlikely. Despite his improved poll numbers among both leftist voters and the population at large, either of the PRD contenders remains a long shot for the Presidency. Enrique Peña Nieto remains the clear leader with around 48 percent of popular support. Nonetheless, AMLO´s talks with Mexican business leaders over the past two weeks should be seen as an attempt to pacify them and to reassure the Mexican electorate that an AMLO-PRD victory would not lead to attacks on the private sector or investors, nor would it lead to an economic crisis. In that sense they have been partially successful. A debate has now begun among opinion leaders in the country about the impact of this change of tone, and opinion poll data show that there is less outright rejection of AMLO than before he reached out (his positive/negative opinion balance has improved by almost 5 percentage points).

At the moment Marcelo Ebrard has been affected most by AMLO's rising profile. Within the PRD his numbers have fallen dramatically (from 27 percent support to 18 percent), according to the latest poll from Mitofsky, and if AMLO is indeed gaining momentum in the public eye, it looks as though Ebrard will have a very tough time recovering. Ebrard this week made a pact with "los Chuchos" (the PRD faction directly associated with Jesus Ortega, the president of the party), but it seems to be insufficient to turn the situation around. This may not be such a negative outcome for Ebrard; it has been suggested by political analysts that he has recognized the significant obstacles in the way of a PRD victory in 2012 and is saving his political capital for 2018.

If these political pundits and the polls are correct, and the PRD has minimal chance of winning in 2012, then why does AMLO's rising profile matter? Working class PRI voters who are not convinced that the party has changed, who are not persuaded that the party will represent their interests, may well decide that AMLO would be a better choice. Not enough, surely, to turn the tide in favor of the man from Tabasco, but maybe enough to reduce the PRI's lead in the polls and to open a window of opportunity for a PAN candidate who could generate enthusiasm among the middle classes and who could raise the specter of a resurgent PRI as a return to the "bad old days" of recurring crisis and authoritarianism. It is far from clear that such a candidate exists at this point in time, but Josefina Vázquez Mota increasingly looks to be an aggressive campaigner and a woman who can lead the PAN into 2012 with at least a glimmer of hope.