Ex-Enemies, Evangelicals and a Soccer Star: Top Mexican Candidate’s New Allies


MEXICO CITY—Andrés Manuel

López Obrador,

a nationalist who built his career blocking oil wells and railing against the political elite, is trying a third time to achieve what he failed to do twice before: win the Mexican presidency.

The 64-year-old leftist candidate is leading in the polls ahead of the July 1 election after trying to reinvent himself with a new party, unlikely allies and as a champion of national unity who doesn’t threaten Mexico’s traditional economic powers.

Although once a member of the ruling party and a Mexico City mayor, Mr. López Obrador is benefitting from an outsider image at a time when Mexicans are weary of the violence, corruption and a slowing economy that has hurt the ruling party’s popularity.

The stakes for the U.S. are substantial.

Mr. López Obrador has supported the North American Free Trade Agreement but has warned that the current renegotiations between the U.S., Canada and Mexico should be suspended until after Mexico’s election. As president, he said he would renegotiate any deal that harms Mexico’s interests.

He also has vexed U.S. and other investors by promising to freeze the recent opening of Mexico’s oil industry to private investment while he reviews the 91 exploration and production contracts the government has awarded over the past three years for any signs of graft.

Although Mr. López Obrador says he would keep balanced budget deficits and respect the central bank’s autonomy, his victory would signal a new economic and social model for Mexico. He proposes fostering growth with more government spending, import-substitution policies and higher salaries—shifting from the export-based model that has prevailed here during the last 35 years. Mr. López Obrador says he wants to boost spending on everything from new oil refineries to education and jobs programs for unemployed youth.

Above all, he pledges to fight corruption.

The politician says this is his final try for the nation’s highest office. Five recent polls show him with an average lead of 7.5 points over his nearest rival,

Ricardo Anaya,

the candidate of a right-left coalition led by the conservative National Action Party, also known as PAN. Former Finance Minister

José Antonio Meade,

the candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, is third.

But many Mexicans still view Mr. López Obrador as a hot-headed populist, in part for the disruptive weekslong street protests he lead in Mexico City after narrowly losing the 2006 election—which he’d led in the polls—and charging fraud. After his second try, in 2012, he formed the National Regeneration Movement, or Morena, which means brown-skinned in Spanish.

Now, Mr. López Obrador’s strategy aims to expand his political base, said

Tatiana Clouthier,

his campaign manager. Women, young people and middle-class Mexicans who are still wary of him are top campaign targets, she said.

“López Obrador has learned from his previous campaigns. To win, we need everybody, be it catholic, evangelical, poor or rich,” Ms. Clouthier said.

He also has sought to soften his combative image and inject some humor.

A recent video showed him singing happy birthday to his wife. Following allegations by adversaries that Russia is trying to interfere in the Mexican campaigns in favor of Mr. López Obrador, he shrugged off the comments and jokingly referred to himself as

Andrés Manuelovich.

He is signing up allies from unlikely quarters, including an upstart group of Christian evangelicals who founded a party in 2014. In part because of the growing presence of evangelicals in Mexico, the right-wing Social Encounter party won 1.3 million votes in the 2015 midterm elections, with eight of its candidates elected to the Lower House of Congress.

While Mr. López Obrador, who describes himself as a Christian, has said that abortion and gay marriage aren’t a priority for Mexico, many party members are far more socially liberal. And as recently as June, Mr. López Obrador said Social Encounter was part of a corrupt political system.

“López Obrador is aware that he is vulnerable and that if he doesn’t widen his coalition of voters he could be defeated again,” said

Gerardo Esquivel,

a political analyst at El Colegio de Mexico university.

Others who have jumped to Mr. López Obrador’s campaign include

Alfonso Durazo,

a former high-ranking PRI official and spokesman of former conservative President

Vicente Fox


Gabriela Cuevas,

a PAN senator who called Mr. López Obrador a “criminal” in 2005. She now says that she “misjudged” him.

Alfonso Romo,

a wealthy Mexican businessman, is helping Mr. López Obrador liaison with the private sector and international investors.

“López Obrador is building bridges. That’s positive,” said

Esteban Moctezuma,

a former senior PRI member and likely member of a López Obrador cabinet.

His outreach has raised eyebrows even among his staunchest supporters. Feminist groups have publicly objected to his alliance with the evangelicals.

There are also concerns Mr. López Obrador is linking up with questionable candidates. His party chose

Cuauhtémoc Blanco,

a former soccer star and the mayor of Cuernavaca city, as the candidate for governor of southern Morelos state. Mr. Blanco is being investigated by federal electoral prosecutors for allegedly receiving some $374,000 in illegal campaign money. He has denied wrongdoing.

Others aren’t convinced the politician has changed his combative style. In a recent opinion column, political analyst

Jesús Silva-Herzog

said Mr. López Obrador’s new alliances smacked of opportunism.

Mr. López Obrador criticized

Mr. Silva-Herzog

on Twitter, implying the writer was a “stooge” of the “mafia in power.”

“He seems to be as intolerant as ever,” said Mr. Silva-Herzog.

Mr. López Obrador later apologized.

Write to Juan Montes at [email protected]

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