When Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto took to Twitter on January 26 to cancel his meeting with US President Donald Trump, he was probably hoping this show of defiance would help him with a serious domestic problem: a near record-low 12 percent approval rating. Entering the final two years of his six-year term, Peña Nieto is no stranger to public discontent. Due to several large-scale fiascos – such as the mysterious disappearance of student protesters at the hands of police on September 26, 2014, shady personal deals, and the mysterious escape of drug lord Joaquin “el Chapo” Guzman in 2015 – Peña Nieto watched his approval rating fall drastically from a respectable 54 percent to a bleak 35 percent in 2015.
Amidst the multiplicity of scandals that have rocked Peña Nieto over the course of his presidency, one of his biggest failures has been his inability to deal with Trump’s threats to the satisfaction of the Mexican people. When he extended an invitation to then-candidate Trump last August, only to later defy Trump in their ensuing twitter war, Peña Nieto faced enormous criticism for granting Trump “recognition and treatment of a higher state” despite Trump’s humiliation of the Mexican nation. This proved to be an enormous misstep for Peña Nieto; at the time, one poll by the newspaper Reforma found that only 3 percent of Mexicans wished for Donald Trump to be the next US president. In the aftermath of his gesture towards Trump, Peña Nieto’s approval ratings dropped to a new low of 24 percent.
Trump’s subsequent election victory proved to be even more detrimental to Peña Nieto’s popularity. Following Trump’s election, the Mexican peso plunged to a historic low against the US dollar, throwing the Mexican public into a state of concern over the economic implications of a Trump presidency. Additionally, the end of 2016 saw the nationwide implementation of gasolinazo, a 20 percent hike in gasoline prices, essentially overnight. 2017 opened with nationwide protests over dissatisfaction with the government’s leadership and frustration with the ailing economy, causing Peña Nieto’s approval rating to reach that historic 12 percent low.
The controversies that have plagued the Peña Nieto’s presidency have had adverse effects on the prospects of his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the 2018 election cycle. When Peña Nieto won the presidency in 2012, he ran on the promise of revitalizing the PRI, which had governed Mexico for the bulk of the 20th century but has faltered early in the 21st. However, as reflected by his abysmally low approval ratings, Peña Nieto has not come close to living up to this campaign promise, leaving significant room for rival parties to gain political ground. This was made abundantly clear in the 2016 gubernatorial elections when the PRI lost six of the nine governorships it held going into that election cycle. The cycle also gave rise to the expansion of the leftist Morena party of the radical Andres Manuel López Obrador, commonly known as AMLO.
In his third bid for the presidency, AMLO has undoubtedly capitalized on the downfall of Peña Nieto, focusing on what he considers to be Peña Nieto’s “soft” tactics in handling Trump. AMLO has branded Peña Nieto’s PRI (as well as other political rivals) as “traitors to Mexico” for their reactions to Trump. A strong anti-Trump sentiment, coupled with enormous distrust of the current Mexican government, has fueled a newfound sense of Mexican nationalism that has benefitted AMLO, who has identified with and represented this surge.
As stated by Jose Crespo, a political analyst at the CIDE University in Mexico City, “[the Peña Nieto administration] is a very weak, very unpopular government, with no credibility, and that’s the government that will face the Trump challenge.” Perhaps this is cause for a regime change. After narrowly losing the presidency in 2006 and 2012, López Obrador may have found an opening in this surge of public hatred, both of Donald Trump and of the sitting Mexican government, as he is commonly seen as the only figure truly willing to fight back.
Not only has Trump’s electoral win resulted in widespread disapproval and distrust of the current Mexican government, but it has also seen a resurgence of Mexican nationalism that the country has not seen in decades. Trump’s “America First” philosophy has fueled its Mexican counterpart, leading to movements such as a campaign to boycott US products and companies, notably Starbucks. Additionally, protesters have marched in dozens of cities, their marches headed by “grotesque effigies” of President Trump. On February 12, thousands of people across Mexico marched as part of the Vibra Mexico protests, a self-described nonpartisan march organized by 70 civic groups, universities, and organizations. With this existing momentum of nationalism, AMLO has utilized strong, anti-Trump rhetoric to amass a support base of Mexicans – both in Mexico as well in the US.
Although López Obrador has not yet officially announced his candidacy for the 2018 presidential election, he has tapped into this nationalist backlash to gain in popular opinion polls; according to a 2017 poll by the newspaper El Financiero, López Obrador now has a 33 percent approval rating – 4 points higher than he was in November and 6 points ahead of his closest trailing rival, former first lady Margarita Zavala of the conservative National Action Party (PAN). AMLO specifically is now a top candidate because this nationalist backlash, while primarily targeted at the election of Donald Trump, has also focused on criticizing the current Mexican government.
For example, although the Vibra Mexico protests were primarily aimed at uniting Mexicans against Trump, many protesters remained divided in their support for the Mexican government. Some feel that the country must rally behind President Peña Nieto in opposition to Trump, while others, such as history professor Ilán Semo, believe “the main problem for most Mexicans is Peña Nieto.” Looking forward to the 2018 Presidential election, López Obrador is the only candidate that appeals to both those opposed to Peña and the political establishment, as well as those strongly opposed to Trump.
In spite of his successful stint as governor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005, AMLO has been criticized in the past as a political outsider, holding radical and leftist positions. However, widespread distrust of the Mexican government, along with a nationalist movement rooted in opposition to President Trump, has paved the way for AMLO to come to the forefront of the national political scene. Unlike the larger political parties such as PRI and PAN, AMLO’s far-left Morena Party can essentially direct all of its resources towards promoting him during the election. Additionally, because this party is both relatively new (it was formed in 2014) and in stark opposition to the existing political establishment, it is highly unlikely that López Obrador will be tainted by the legacies of others.
While AMLO is campaigning primarily against Presidents Peña Nieto and Trump, his other policy positions are rooted in opposition to the modernization of the economy. For example, he, like President Trump, is a stark opponent of NAFTA. AMLO has also spoken out against the privatization of energy, stating that if elected he will hold a referendum on energy reform. However, although AMLO caters to publicly popular policies such as these, his term as Mexico City Governor demonstrates an inconsistently in his ability to institutionalize effectively. Juan Pardinas of the IMCO think tank concluded that “[López Obrador] was not an institution builder.”
The current political climate of Mexico has declined to such a degree – as a result of violence, corruption in the Peña Nieto administration, and Trump’s threatening policies – that Mexican citizens may not fear the change a more radical AMLO presidency might represent. López Obrador has provided the Mexican people with an “anti-Trump” figurehead and has appeased those who deeply oppose Peña Nieto and the existing political establishment of Mexico. In all his past bids for the presidency, AMLO has campaigned against corruption. However, distrust of the sitting Mexican government now is the highest it has been in decades, and the election of AMLO would also come with the promise of an “alpha” in opposition to Trump – perhaps these factors combined will propel him to victory in 2018.