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Last updated on April 23, 2014 at 17:30 EDT

Mexico leftist conquers capital, runs for president

July 28, 2005

By Kieran Murray

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico City’s left-wing mayor
failed to tame its notorious kidnap gangs or reduce poverty but
he steps down this week with his popularity sky high and as the
favorite in next year’s presidential election.

Despite a reputation for populism and intolerance, Andres
Manuel Lopez Obrador, a former Indian rights activist, is
Mexico’s most popular politician, helped by welfare programs
and public works projects he has pushed since taking control of
Mexico City in late 2000.

He is expected to resign as mayor on Friday to run for
president next July.

He holds a wide lead over his rivals in opinion polls and
has promised to overhaul government policies in favor of the
poor while forcing austerity on government, including a 50
percent cut in the president’s salary.

“I have nothing to do with the criminals of politics,” said
Lopez Obrador, 51, this week. “I never got rich in public
office and I end my term as mayor without businesses or a
fortune, which used to be the custom.”

Even as he promises fiscal discipline, the combative Lopez
Obrador rails against two decades of free market policies. His
own style is austere — he rises for work before dawn, lives in
a modest apartment and drives a no-frills car.

His attacks on the corruption and riches of previous
presidents and promises to cut privileges like clothing
allowances also play well in a country where there is growing
disillusionment with the U.S.-backed free market model.

Lopez Obrador is a sure bet to win his leftist Party of the
Democratic Revolution’s nomination. Although he might struggle
to win over the rest of Mexico, he is sure to carry the
capital.

An opinion poll this week showed 84 percent of the city’s
residents approve of his leadership, and 55 percent said they
would vote for him for president.

The poll also showed that residents still see crime and
unemployment as their most serious problems, unchanged since
Lopez Obrador took office.

“The problems are the same as when he arrived. But he is
given credit for working hard and for making an effort,” said
Leon Felipe Maldonado of the Consulta Mitofsky polling firm.

KIDNAP AND MURDER

Mexico City is one of the world’s worst spots for
kidnappings with gangs targeting anyone from businessmen to
housewives. Some murder their victims even when a ransom is
paid.

Experts also say poverty levels have barely moved, although
the mayor won huge support for introducing pensions of about
$64 a month to everyone over 70 years old,

President Vicente Fox, a conservative former Coca Cola
executive, has clashed with Lopez Obrador.

His government tried to put the mayor on trial in a land
dispute case that could have knocked him out of the
presidential race. The case was finally dropped when it
threatened to plunge Mexico into a political crisis.

“They wanted him out because they know he will bring real
changes. He is the first politician to care for the people, for
the poor,” said Eduardo Trevino, a 30-year-old salesman who has
never voted before but plans to back Lopez Obrador in 2006.

Despite his popularity, Lopez Obrador has his critics.

Business leaders worry his welfare programs and plans for
massive public works programs could wreck economic stability.

Lopez Obrador worries others with his intolerance when
faced with criticism, accusing his detractors of plotting
against him.

When 250,000 people marched to demand protection from
violent crime, he portrayed them as middle-class whiners and
alleged that organizers were in the pay of politicians and
businessmen out to stop him.

“Lopez Obrador’s discourse was about generating a class
struggle,” said critic Maria Elena Morera of the group Mexico
United Against Crime. “It is a very damaging message.”