How the president of Mexico won over the working class

Like many older Mexicans, Eleazar Flores is still working in his 70s. But the butcher from the town of Contla, Tlaxcala, said one thing had changed in recent years: a government pension that gave him a little more money to help his family.

He thanks one person: President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

“He is the best . . . he is helping those who have the least,” Flores said at his store in the textile town whose streets are lined with decorative tissue paper.

Flores is one of approximately 25 million people in Mexico who now receive benefits from a social program, according to government figures. Cash transfers have been a centerpiece of the president’s political project.

López Obrador, 70, began his life in politics as a protest leader in his home state of Tabasco before becoming mayor of Mexico City in 2000. He then spent a decade campaigning across the country, losing two presidential votes. but building a base among the workers. class, helping him win a landslide victory across all demographics in 2018.

As he prepares to hand over power after next week’s election, he remains widely popular, with approval ratings around 60, despite stagnant growth, one of the region’s worst excess mortality in the pandemic. Covid-19 and record murder numbers.

The president, known as “Amlo” by his initials, has retained fierce loyalty among poorer Mexicans, who have long resented what they see as a political class that is out of touch and tainted by corruption, but who do not see the president as part of her.

Eleazar Flores, butcher in Contla, Tlaxcala © Christine Murray/FT

López Obrador turned down the president’s jet and mansion and says he doesn’t have a credit card. The president, who is limited to a single six-year term under Mexico’s constitution, barely travels abroad and is known for traveling in a white Volkswagen Jetta and eating in modest bars and cafes.

Tlaxcala, Mexico’s smallest state after the capital, has large tracts of agricultural land and some factories, indigenous communities and high levels of poverty. The president won here in all three elections in which he participated, including nearly three-quarters of the vote in 2018, the second-most votes after his home state.

“He is a simple, friendly boy, he comes here for the typical food like huazontles,” a native plant sometimes called “Aztec broccoli,” said Bonifacio Herrera, a 59-year-old waiter.

He showed off a photograph of the leader’s recent visit to the restaurant where he works. “He likes being with people,” Herrera said.

The government’s social programs (aimed at the elderly, some farmers and young people) are crucial to López Obrador’s popularity. Social spending has risen 30 percent in real terms since he took office and is heavily skewed toward cash transfers, which are more than three times larger, according to public policy think tank IMCO.

Broader coverage under López Obrador compared to his predecessor means more people benefit, but the poorest receive relatively less than before.

López Obrador also oversaw a doubling of Mexico’s paltry daily minimum wage to 250 pesos ($15), with few negative economic consequences. That helped lift millions of Mexicans out of moderate poverty: The rate fell to 36 percent in 2022, from 42 percent when he took office. However, extreme poverty increased slightly.

López Obrador’s critics see a polarizing figure seeking to restore a hegemonic party and undermine democracy. Urban centers like Mexico City are divided, and some who thought he was a decent mayor argue that he has since taken a more radical and intolerant turn.

Middle- and upper-class voters are concerned that López Obrador is weakening democracy, and in recent months hundreds of thousands of people have marched in defense of institutions such as the Supreme Court and the electoral authority.

López Obrador’s base sees it differently. “Now there is more democracy because people participate more,” Flores said.

Central to López Obrador’s power is the “morning”, an hour-long morning press conference held every day of the week. It dominates the airwaves in a country where much of the media depends on government advertising. Friendly journalists often ask fawning questions.

“You cannot explain what is happening today in Mexico, neither the popularity (of López Obrador) nor his electoral preferences, without the morning”said Roy Campos, president of the Mitofsky polling group. “At the end of the day, (people) want a president who will stand up to the powerful and stand up for the poor, and that’s the narrative he presents every day.”

Like other populist leaders with a gift for communication, López Obrador has coined phrases that have entered the local lexicon. He likes to condemn the “conservative and bourgeois media” and, when confronted with unflattering statistics, he says that he has “different data.”

Critical commentators call him the “Teflon” president, who explains his own failures in terms of obstacles placed in his path by “elites.”

Polls show that security is voters’ top concern in this election, with more homicides and missing persons recorded during López Obrador’s term than any other president in Mexican history. His supporters agree that he has not solved the problem, but believe that he wants to do so and that the task is too difficult, or that others are responsible for the increased bloodshed, such as local officials and the judiciary.

“Mrs. Piña, the judge, lets the criminals out, what can the president do?” said Germán Rojas, who runs a cleaning supplies store in Tlaxcala, referring to Supreme Court President Norma Piña, who was vilified by López Obrador at his conferences after magistrates annulled laws passed by her party. .

López Obrador’s protégé Claudia Sheinbaum, the favorite for the next presidency, has promised broad continuity in his policies and polls suggest she could win a similar share of the vote.

Two-thirds of those who receive their social programs plan to vote for Sheinbaum, while almost half of those who do not will vote for the opposition candidate Xóchitl Gálvez, according to an April survey by the newspaper El Financiero.

Many voters have a negative view of opposition parties, particularly the PRI, which is associated with decades of one-party rule and corruption, a narrative that López Obrador feeds in his conferences. The PRI is part of the coalition led by Gálvez.

“The PRI sold the country,” said Doroteo Xelhuantzi, an artisan who makes blankets in Tlaxcala. “The roads were sold to the Canadians and the oil was distributed to the Americans.”

The June elections, which are also for Congress and tens of thousands of local offices, have become a referendum on López Obrador’s political project, even though the man himself is not on the ballot for the first time in more than two decades.

Although she has promised to continue with her project, Sheinbaum will have to deal with a large fiscal deficit and the former academic lacks her mentor’s natural communication style.

The president has said he will retire to his ranch, but many of his supporters say they wish the president could run again.

Of Sheinbaum and other national leaders of Amlo’s Morena party, Flores the butcher said: “They will maintain López Obrador’s movement for now, but in the future, who knows.”

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