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Mexico's populist enigma closes in on the presidency

Barring a shocking turn of events, leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador will be elected Mexico's president on Sunday.

Data: Consulta Mitofsky; Note: Survey of 1,000 voters; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Between the lines: AMLO, as he is known, has played the roles both of rabble-rousing revolutionary and common sense pragmatist — it's not always clear which version Mexico is about to elect.

The long-time standard-bearer of the Mexican Left, AMLO left the Mexico City mayor’s office in 2005 with sky-high approval ratings and a reputation for consensus-building. One year later he shut down highways and declared himself the “legitimate president” after narrowly losing the presidential race.

Roberta Jacobson, until recently the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, told the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson: “Honestly, my strongest feeling about him is that we don’t know what to expect.”

What to know

  • AMLO has been successful in turning the election into a referendum on what he calls "the mafia of power," which has been weakened by years of insecurity and corruption scandals. “I will govern for everybody, but the poor will always come first,” he said at a recent rally, per the Telegraph.
  • His personal incorruptibility and humble lifestyle feed into his messianic aura — his supporters chant that it's an "honor" to support him. His faith in himself is also well-documented. Asked if he can ever live up to his promises, AMLO told the New Yorker, "We are going to make history, I am clear about that."
  • "His concern for the poor and wish to improve their lot is sincere. However, Mr López Obrador has a shaky grasp of economics ... and he has little respect for rules or institutions," the Economist notes.

What to expect

  • Foreign policy: With his choice of advisers, AMLO has signaled a non-interventionist approach that would see Mexico disengage from the world, Richard Miles writes in Foreign Policy.
  • Immigration: AMLO said at a recent rally that he’ll defend the “human right” of immigrants “who need to leave their towns to go and make their life in the U.S." He has also said that rather than focusing on stopping migrants entering Mexico from Central America, as the U.S. wants, he’ll focus on the welfare of “our immigrants.”
  • Economic policy: AMLO says he won’t raise the national debt, won’t raise taxes, but will nonetheless carry out ambitious development plans in the poorer south of the country (he says he’ll pay for them by slashing corruption and government salaries). His positions on energy and NAFTA are less clear cut, but past statements have spooked many business leaders.
  • On Trump: AMLO published a book called “Oye, Trump” ("Listen Up, Trump"), and has been sharply critical at times, as have his rival candidates. He told the New Yorker his general view is, though, that it’s “not prudent to take him on directly.”

The bigger picture: More than 120 Mexican politicians and political activists have been killed in the lead-up to the election, with hundreds of others pulling out or declining to run out of fear. Today, the entire police force in the town of Ocampo was detained over suspicions it was involved in the murder of a mayoral candidate.