June 27, 2006

Leftist “messiah” crusades for Mexican poor

By Alistair Bell

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - He lived for years in an
earthen-floored hut in an indigenous town and now his crusade
against poverty has taken Mexican leftist Andres Manuel Lopez
Obrador to the verge of winning the presidency on Sunday.

Lopez Obrador, the son of small shopkeepers who struggled
financially, has a deeply ingrained sense of injustice and a
zeal that led one biographer to describe him as the "Mexican

Promising to lift millions out of poverty, the former mayor
of Mexico City is slightly ahead of conservative Felipe
Calderon in opinion polls for the July 2 election after a
campaign marked by mutual mudslinging.

Lopez Obrador, 52, rejects comparisons to populist
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez but his often-colorful
rhetoric still scares members of Mexico's powerful upper class,
which fears he will take from them to give to the poor.

He vowed on Tuesday to shake up Mexico's political system,
dominated in recent decades by pro-market parties.

"We have to put many years of traditional politics, the
usual politics, behind us. We have to remove outdated power
structures," he said on his breakfast television show.

Lopez Obrador says his plans to slash government spending,
give pensions to the elderly and cut fuel prices are far from
radical and are needed to redress the balance in a country with
a huge gap between rich and poor.


Scarcity during his childhood and years spent as a welfare
officer in a poor Chontal Indian town in the marshes of
Tabasco, where he lived in a hut with his young wife, shaped
Lopez Obrador's view of the world.

"Since then he has been fighting for poor people," said
Ricardo Monreal, a top political aide. "His motivation comes
from his origins, the countryside and seeing the suffering of a
lot of people."

The leftist lost an election for governor of Tabasco in
1994 amid widespread allegations of ballot rigging by winner
Roberto Madrazo, ironically now one of his opponents in the
presidential race.

Lopez Obrador was so incensed by that vote result that he
led a march of hundreds of people from Tabasco to the capital,
more than 560 miles away.

He is expected to contest the presidential election result
if he loses narrowly to Calderon, raising the specter of
political instability in a key emerging market and main oil
exporter to the United States.

Huge popularity in Mexico City, which he ran for 4-1/2
years until quitting last year to run for president, is the
base of Lopez Obrador's support.

He won over even some middle-class voters by giving monthly
pensions of around $70 to people over age 70 and building a
second tier to a freeway that eased the city's infamous traffic

"I like what he did in Mexico City -- the second tier and
the pensions," said television worker Beatriz Sanchez at a
diner in the lower-middle-class district of Mixcoac.

Critics complain that Lopez Obrador's public works projects
put the city in heavy debt although the capital's leftist
government disputes that.

"He likes making monumental works like they did in the
times of the ancient Egyptians but he did little to solve the
city's problems," said Miguel Angel Toscano, a federal deputy
from Calderon's National Action Party.

Lopez Obrador's temper and sharp turn of phrase can often
backfire on him. He lost support in opinion polls in March by
angrily calling President Vicente Fox, from Calderon's party, a
"chachalaca," a type of wild turkey that screeches.

Despite promising to tone down his attacks on Fox, he later
described the popular president as a U.S. plaything.