Bringing Mexico Closer to God

Should Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the front-runner in Mexico's presidential race, emerge victorious on Sunday, it could usher in a form of Latin American leftism as yet unseen: messianic populism. Mexico's fragile democracy could become its first casualty.

Outside of Mexico, people ask which Latin American leader Mr. López Obrador most resembles: Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia or Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil. The truth is that he's not like any of them. He does not have the military stamp of Comandante Chávez or the indigenist roots of Mr. Morales. Nor is he a born compromiser like Mr. Lula who, as some Brazilians say, seems to "know the value of 10 percent." Mr. López Obrador is different: he always strives for 100 percent. And he has higher models to emulate.

Earlier this year an interviewer asked him what religion he followed. "I'm Catholic, fundamentally Christian," Mr. López Obrador responded. "The life and work of Jesus fill me with passion. He, too, was persecuted in his time, spied on by the powerful of his era, and he was crucified."

The interviewer was surprised (there is an unwritten rule that Jesus is never mentioned in Mexican politics) and asked him whether he intended some parallelism. "Not at all," he said. "I say it because sometimes it is forgotten."

Many thought his comment was a cynical appeal to win the hearts of the religious Mexican people. Others, including myself, believe, however, that his words were a sincere reflection of the way he sees himself: "I am calling together a movement of consciousness, a spiritual movement," he told a reporter in 2004. "Many people see me, humble people, what they tell me is that they are praying for me . I am very democratic and very mystic."

Millions of poor Mexicans, particularly in the center and south of the country, see in him what he sees in himself: a bestower of manna who will provide the poor with cash handouts and all the services of a great welfare state. His oratory increasingly blends the theological with the revolutionary: he has repeated that he will "purify national life," inaugurating a new era of "historic transcendence" in which "those on top," "those with money," will no longer oppress "those on the bottom." Believe him: he's a man of his word.

Mr. López Obrador should be strongly commended for placing the fight against poverty at the center of his social platform. But his numbers don't add up. He has said repeatedly, for example, that he will finance his proposal with the more than $9 billion a year to be shaved from the budget by cutting salaries or firing top members of the bureaucracy. However, if the salaries of the 4,000 top officials of the executive branch were cut in half, it would yield scarcely 4 percent of that sum.

Mr. López Obrador has also talked of revising Nafta's agricultural provisions and subsidizing exporters with cheap fuel (a practice prohibited by Nafta). He has declared that he will "allow" private investment, but not national or foreign interest in strategic areas that urgently require it, like oil and gas.

His platform is full of unrealizable initiatives: a microcredit program (a very promising project) but for a whopping eight million people (consider that the successful Grameen Bank of Bangladesh has taken on fewer than six million borrowers since 1976); bullet trains from Mexico City to the northern border (which would not only be expensive, but also face competition from low-cost airlines).

But more troubling than his economics is his political messianism, which could undermine our democracy. As the Mexican writer Gabriel Zaid pointed out last week in the newspaper Reforma, Mr. López Obrador, a former member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000, wants to return to the political structure of the old days. When the P.R.I. held power, the president controlled the country's legislature, judiciary, natural resources, state-run businesses, electoral system, monetary policy and federal budget and could place limits of freedom of expression.

But there would be a disturbing novelty to the process as revived by Mr. López Obrador: his presidency wouldn't be institutional and bureaucratic like the old regime, but instead bound to his personal charisma. One of his most insistent proposals is to amend the Constitution to allow for referendums and plebiscites, so that halfway through his prospective term (in 2009) "the people" would decide whether he goes or stays.

Knowing that he would take the microphone daily to report on his government's progress -- as he has said he will -- it's easy to imagine the result of such a plebiscite. And after that, who is to stop him from altering the law of the land and being re-elected indefinitely, or remaining the power behind all powers, if "the people" demand it? Redemption won't be achieved in the constitutionally allotted six years. A messiah needs time.

With the uncharismatic P.R.I. candidate, Roberto Madrazo, running third in the polls, Mr. López Obrador's main obstacle for Sunday is Felipe Calderón of the center-right National Action Party. Where Mr. López Obrador is strong, Mr. Calderón is weak: he has failed to convey real concern for Mexico's poor.

But in economic matters he seems more coherent: a young lawyer who studied at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Mr. Calderón seeks to reform the remains of the old corporate structures and the country's traditional inward-looking mentality.

His idea is for Mexico to carve out a competitive niche for itself in a globalized world (as has been done, at different times, by other backward Catholic countries like Chile, Ireland and Spain) and thus generate productive jobs and growth. Mr. Calderón has let it be known that if he wins, he'll call for a coalition government with the P.R.I. and even Mr. López Obrador's Party of the Democratic Revolution.

It is not impossible that Mr. Calderón could win -- some recent polls have the race too close to call. But even if he does, he'll face great obstacles. While Mr. López Obrador has said publicly that he would acknowledge the official results no matter what, he always hedges such claims with a "but" -- such as making it conditional on the voting being without irregularities.

As the race has tightened, he has taken to criticizing the federal electoral institute and has told the crowds that he suspects "intentions of fraud." This raises fears that he will acknowledge defeat only if Mr. Calderón wins by a significant margin, say, greater than 5 percent.

If Mr. López Obrador were to dispute a Calderón victory in the streets and at the tribunal, the P.R.I. would be likely to join him. If the tribunal cannot name a winner to take the oath on Dec. 1, the day President Vicente Fox Quesada must step down, the national legislature has to name an interim president who would have to call a new election. Mexicans would live in a state of political volatility and our electoral institutions would be discredited.

This would be a serious setback for democracy. But would it be worse than a López Obrador victory? "Mexico has yet to console itself for never having been a monarchy," the Nobel Prize-winning poet Octavio Paz told me in his last years, with great sadness. Maybe his words will prove prophetic. In the long run Mexico will find no consolation in a monarchy cloaking itself in the trappings of democracy and harboring messianic ambitions.

Op-Ed Contributor Enrique Krauze is the editor of the magazine Letras Libres and the author of "Mexico: Biography of Power."

Publicado en The New York Times, 28 de junio de 2006.

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