We’re living in an absurd time when Earth-shattering events—a cosmic roll of the dice by people so desperate for change that they’ll take a gigantic leap of faith on an unknown quantity—can be summed up in one word.
That last one comes courtesy of our friends south of the border. The acronym refers to El Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (The National Regeneration Movement), which has evolved into Mexico’s newest—and most exciting—political party.
The tale of the left-wing Morena is a Cinderella story. It has defied expectation, and its popularity is growing by the day.
Its candidate, Delfina Gomez, came in a close second in Sunday’s gubernatorial election in the state of Mexico, the country’s most populous state and home to Mexico City.
Alfredo del Mazo, the candidate of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the center-right party that has run Mexico for most of its history, barely eked out a victory. It should have been a smoother ride for del Mazo given that the PRI controls the presidency. Instead, for the last several weeks, he has been in a dead heat with Gomez.
With 98 percent of the ballots counted, del Mazo had 34 percent of the vote compared to Gomez’ 31 percent.
Mexico state isn’t Las Vegas. What happens there doesn’t stay there. The state, which encircles Mexico City on three sides, is often a launching pad to the presidency. About a fifth of the Mexican electorate lives there.
Moreover, Morena—which as an English word refers to a dark-skinned woman, not unlike the patron saint of Mexico, the Virgen de Guadalupe—isn’t taking defeat lying down. Party leaders have asked for a complete recount, insisting that the election was tainted by “vote buying” and “ballot box-stuffing.”
But even if the outcome holds, the leftists have cause to celebrate. A second-place showing in a gubernatorial election in such an important locale puts Morena in a very strong position to win all the marbles in next year’s presidential election.
It says that Mexican voters are willing to gamble. It also shows that, for candidates, having a vast amount of political experience has gone from an asset to a liability.
All this is quite an accomplishment—especially for a party that is only three years old. And doubly so given the circumstances under which the party was created back in 2014.
The party’s founder, and spiritual father, is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, better known as AMLO to political reporters and voters alike. A hard-charging leftist who ran for president twice unsuccessfully under the banner of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), Lopez Obrador was once a national laughingstock south of the border.
After his loss in 2008 to Felipe Calderon of the rightist National Action Party (PAN), AMLO refused to concede and set up a shadow government complete with cabinet members, department heads, top lieutenants, and other high-level officials.
In 2012, Lopez Obrador ran again—and lost again, this time to the PRI’s Enrique Pena Nieto. With Barack Obama in the White House, AMLO’s anti-U.S. rhetoric didn’t always stick.
Shortly thereafter, Lopez Obrador deserted the PRD as formed Morena—initially as a movement and then, in 2014, as a full-fledged political party.
But until recently, political observers in Mexico didn’t give Morena much of a chance. The party seemed more likely to make a spectacle than an impact.
Now Morena is gearing up for 2018, rallying around its preferred candidate. And who’s that? Who else? Lopez Obrador. And according to the experts, this could be his race to lose. Don’t be surprised, they say, if AMLO takes the whole enchilada.
That’s an incredible reversal of fortune for a party, and a politician, in a relatively short period of time.
Why is that? Because Trump happens.
Just when we thought that Americans had exhausted the list of jobs that Mexicans could perform for them—from cooking food to cleaning houses to cutting lawns to raising our children to tarring roofs—Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump found another use for this hard-working demographic: acting as a campaign foil.
Trump repeatedly used the imagery of a Mexican criminal to scare up voters from white voters, especially working-class whites in states like Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania who had the additional fear of losing their factory jobs to Mexican immigrants.
Mexicans immediately took notice. And, before long, Trump was persona non grata in that part of the neighborhood. Suddenly, Mexican storekeepers had a new problem on their hands: It was impossible to keep in stock those Donald Trump pinatas. Mexicans of all ages couldn’t wait to beat them enthusiastically with a broken broom handle until candy spurted out.
And the more Mexicans grew to loathe Trump, the more they began to demand a more forceful and aggressive response from their own leaders. After Pena Nieto welcomed Trump to Mexico, the Mexican president’s approval rating plummeted.
Enter Lopez Obrador, who took a page out the Trump’s playbook of political scare tactics. Trump had turned Mexicans into a boogeyman, so Lopez Obrador very shrewdly did the same thing to him. Here was this rich American businessman with no understanding of U.S.-Mexican relations threatening to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and insisting on a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
In a recent op-ed for The Washington Post, AMLO ripped Trump as a propagandist who exploited “the frustrations of sectors of U.S. society burdened by unemployment, poverty and creaky, inefficient public institutions” in order to “deflect attention from those very real problems and focus instead on imaginary enemies.” He also accused Trump of shamelessly “promoting racial hatred, mass paranoia and an imperial arrogance that is obsolete in today’s world.”
No surprise there. This sort of harsh rhetoric is par for the course when Mexican leaders talk about Trump. The angrier, the better. It often feels like a contest, in fact.
But then Lopez Obrador did something that Mexican leaders rarely do: He held up a mirror and demanded that Mexico roll up its sleeves and improve its economic offerings so that its citizens no longer feel as if they have no choice but to migrate north and put themselves at the mercy of the whims of the immigration debate in the United States.
“Regardless of Trump’s decision to stir up xenophobia and racism, we think the best way to defend migrant workers is to offer them opportunities for a decent life in Mexico so that they will not be forced to leave,” he wrote. “To do this, Mexico must restart economic growth, create jobs and improve general living conditions. This means taking steps to reenergize agricultural production, boost the productive sectors and raise wages if we hope to make a dent in the migrant flow.”
Those words have a distinctive ring to them. They’re familiar, but they also harken back to a much earlier and simpler time. They’re like an old favorite song that Americans haven’t heard in a long while. They radiate something that we haven’t seen much of in the first six months of the Trump presidency—or frankly much of the eight years of the Obama administration. It’s a rare commodity these days.
I believe we used to call it leadership.