Will Mexico turn to the left in 2012?

“Mexican politics is the art of swallowing frogs without flinching.”

So said “the old man under the arches,” a fictional former President of Mexico in The Eagle’s Throne, the epic novel of Mexican politics by Carlos Fuentes.  The axiom by the never-named ex-President—who Fuentes portrays as sipping coffee under the arches of an outdoor café in Veracruz and dispensing political wisdom—could well characterize the true-to-life drama being played out in today’s Mexican politics.  

With center-right President Felipe Calderon “termed out” this year, signs are strong that his National Action Party (PAN) will be out of power after national elections this July.  In a four-candidate primary Sunday, PAN chose its presidential nominee:  Josefina Vazquez Mota, an economist and former minister of education whose economic conservatism and technocratic background earn her analogies to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But after twelve years of PAN in power and with Calderon’s all-out offensive against druglords and organized crime yielding modest results, Mexican voters appear not to want a Merkel in the Eagle’s Throne (the official presidential chair).  They instead seem to want a Barack Obama or, very possibly, a Hugo Chavez.

As a result, Vazquez Mota is considered running far behind two general elections contenders considered far to her left:  Mexico State Gov. Enrique Pena Nieto, whose Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was in power for more than 70  years until the election of PAN’s Vicente Fox in 2000, and—more alarming, as far as the U.S. is concerned–Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, former Mexico City Mayor and candidate of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD).

The 45-year-old Pena Nieto has been characterized as the “Mexican Barack Obama.” Like Obama, he sports a slim resume (he has only been governor since ’05), sounds moderate, but is not above forging a partnership with the far-left to advance his agenda.  He won the governorship just over six years ago in part through an alliance with the Greens in Mexico State.

“Amlo,” as Lopez Obrador is known, could be a leader who is downright frightening. When he fell short of Calderon by 0.57 of 1 per cent of the vote in the last election six years ago, an angry Amlo cried “fraud” and hinted his supporters would take to the street to overturn his razor thin loss.  He compared himself to Jesus Christ (honestly), branded as “criminals,” the officials of Federal Electoral Institute who certified his loss, and told the Financial Times, “Watergate is child’s play compared with what went on here.  The most important changes in Mexico have never come about through conventional politics but rather from the streets [emphasis added].”

Writing of Lopez Obrador after he grudgingly accepted the results of the ’06 election, former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda warned ominously: “. . .[I]t is one thing to have Evo Morales in the Andes or Hugo Chavez along the Orinoco and quite another to have a populist on the border.  When the time comes again to take up the bilateral agenda—immigration, border security, water management, and infrastructure, working together at the United Nations and the Oranization of American States, fighting organized crime in both countries—Washington should remember its close call . . . “

That was six years ago.  Now Lopez Obrador is back and those words should be carefully heeded.