MEXICO CITY — Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has left behind his image as an angry leftist for what he's calling his "Republic of Love" campaign in a second try for the Mexican presidency.
The left's candidate for the July 1 election has adopted the slogan "Abrazos, No Balazos," or "Hugs, Not Bullets," putting forth a warmer persona, a more business-friendly platform and an anti-crime program that relies largely on increased jobs and education programs.
But while Mexicans appear ready to boot out the ruling center-right National Action Party, or PAN, it's not Lopez Obrador's Democratic Revolution Party they are turning to for change. Instead, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which governed Mexico for 71 uninterrupted years before the PAN nabbed the presidency in 2000, suddenly looks new, with a fresh-faced candidate and a strong lead in the polls.
And it's Lopez Obrador, and Mexico's left, that look old.
Mexicans voted for change 12 years ago when they tossed out the long-ruling PRI, which had been accused of electoral fraud, repression and economic mismanagement, and chose PAN candidate Vicente Fox, a rancher and former Guanajuato state governor. The conservative party barely retained the presidency in 2006 when its candidate Felipe Calderon won a narrow victory that Lopez Obrador insisted was his. His enraged supporters blocked Mexico City's center for weeks to demand a vote-by-vote recount.
But Lopez Obrador's move to a gentler center this time around may not have been enough for a Mexico that has seen nearly 50,000 people killed in drug violence since the last presidential contest.
He has changed his tune from the 2006 campaign, when the slogan was, "For the good of all, the poor first." Lopez Obrador now courts the middle class and independent businessmen who say Mexico needs a break from the big monopolistic corporations that came to dominate the country under the PRI and the PAN.
"The only ones who have grown are the 20 families involved in monopoly enterprises," said cement importer Ricardo Alessio Robles, "while we, the 6 million independent businessmen, are paying them overly high prices and not growing as much as we could."
It's the kind of strategy that could have put Lopez Obrador over the top in 2006, but now seems tardy.
"It may be late, because if he had done it six years ago, without doubt he would have won," said Manuel Camacho Solis, a former Mexico City mayor who was among Lopez Obrador's campaign coordinators in 2006 and now leads an informal coalition of leftist parties.
Camacho Solis said that for Lopez Obrador it had been "a hard decision, given his personality and political history ... but he realized he had to move to the center, because the left alone was not sufficient to win power."
Six years ago, Lopez Obrador was known for his confrontational stance, and for the supporters who paralyzed downtown Mexico City to protest Calderon's victory.
Lopez Obrador now spends a lot of time apologizing for that.
He's also made some moves uncharacteristic of Mexico's old left, meeting with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and attending a Mass by visiting Pope Benedict XVI in March, along with the other leading candidates. Lopez Obrador is now courting businessmen, a group his party would have scorned in the past.
But although there was no question he was one of the top two candidates in 2006, this time he's running third in the polls behind even the ruling party.
Certainly, appearances play a role: Lopez Obrador is 59, while front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto of the PRI is 45 with movie-star looks. But it goes beyond age. The left still looks to the past, analysts say, fighting old battles such as its losses in 1988 and 2006 elections it says were marred by fraud.
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