MEXICO CITY — Andrés Manuel López Obrador, an anti-corruption crusader, has a commanding lead in Mexico’s presidential election according to several exit polls, positioning him to be the first leftist leader since Mexico began its transition to democracy more than 30 years ago.
Several exit polls gave López Obrador a double-digit lead over his two closest competitors, including the candidate for the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, José Antonio Meade. In a speech to his supporters on Sunday evening, Meade acknowledged he didn’t have the votes to win.
“Andrés Manuel López Obrador has the majority,” he said.
President Trump looms in the background of this vote. He has not been a wedge issue in the election — as all candidates have opposed his policies and anti-Mexican rhetoric — but the new Mexican president will have to manage cross-border relations that are unusually fraught.
López Obrador, a former Mexico City mayor, represents an emphatic rejection of the traditional political parties and politicians whom he regularly calls the “mafia of power.” In recent decades, Mexico has been led by technocrats and pro-American politicians, while López Obrador’s role models are Mexican independence and revolutionary leaders who stood up to more powerful foreign countries.
He was competing against Ricardo Anaya, an ambitious 39-year-old former president of the right-leaning National Action Party (PAN); and Meade, a 49-year-old Yale-trained economist, representing the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Both have lagged in the polls.
López Obrador’s opponents have sought to portray him as a dangerous populist who will lead Mexico back to failed economic models of subsidies and state intervention, while provoking more tension with Trump’s administration.
But the unpopularity of President Enrique Peña Nieto and the PRI — which has ruled Mexico for most of the past century — hobbled the candidate from his party and prompted voters to search for an alternative to traditional candidates.
Lopez Obrador grew up in a middle-class family in the Gulf Coast state of Tabasco and began his political career helping indigenous villagers with public works projects, which exposed him to Mexico’s glaring inequality. He broke away from the PRI in the late 1980s and joined a leftist opposition party. Lopez Obrador grew famous as a protest leader against voter fraud and the abuses of the state-owned oil industry and voter fraud.
Lopez Obrador was elected mayor of Mexico City in 2000, his only electoral victory, where he boosted social spending for single mothers, the handicapped and the elderly. Major projects, such as an elevated highway through the city, and the revitalization of downtown neighborhoods also boosted his popularity.
After two failed presidential bids, Lopez Obrador has tempered his message this year. While he still emphasizes the fight against extreme poverty, saying it will lead toless violence and a stronger economy, he has portrayed himself as more pro-business and pro-American than in the past. His critics worry he would roll back a recent reform to allow private investment in the oil industry and cancel a multibillion-dollar airport project in Mexico City.
Election day began with the head of Mexico’s electoral agency, Lorenzo Cordova, urging all sides to play by the rules. Cordova called voting “the most important tool that citizens have in a democracy to exercise control over power.”
Mexico has a long history of voter fraud, although elections have dramatically improved in recent years. In the past two elections López Obrador has alleged fraud as a reason for his losses. In 2006, he refused to recognize the official results and his supporters occupied a main Mexico City boulevard for weeks in protest. Analysts worry that a closer than expected result, or an upset by one of the other candidates, might lead to new allegations of fraud or even unrest and violence. Election officials insist the voting system is safe and secure.
Voting proceeded without major problems Sunday at the majority of the 156,807 polling but there were reports that some voting booths opened more than an hour late in Mexico City and other states. Around midday, a small fire broke out in the election agency headquarters, prompting a brief evacuation. It did not appear to cause a major disruption.
López Obrador’s critics warn that he will be more combative toward the United States than the current president, Peña Nieto, and that U.S.-Mexico conflict could drastically escalate if he chooses to fight with Trump. In prior years, López Obrador was a critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, but he and his team have insisted they want to preserve it and maintain good relations with the Trump administration.
Trump has regularly attacked Mexico for not doing enough to stop drugs, crime and illegal immigrants from entering the United States. He has also initiated a renegotiation of NAFTA, saying Mexico has stolen American jobs, and intends to build a border wall.
López Obrador, a famously early riser, arrived around 7:30 a.m. at a polling station in southern Mexico City. Hegave a thumbs up to the crowd after casting his ballot.
“This is a historic day,” López Obrador said.
“We represent the possibility of a real change, of a transformation,” he added.
Anaya and Meade voted later in the morning, as did as Peña Nieto. The president said the orderly and peaceful vote showed the growing strength of Mexico’s democracy.
“I’m convinced this will be truly historic for this country and it will reaffirm our democratic vocation,” Peña Nieto said after voting. Mexican presidents are limited to one term.
Sunday’s elections are the largest in Mexico’s history, with voters choosing more than 3,200 positions at all levels of government. Among these are 628 members of the national congress, who will be able to be reelected for the first time in nearly a century; eight state governors; and mayors of more than 1,500 cities, including Mexico City.
López Obrador’s leftist party, the National Regeneration Movement, or Morena, is hoping to capture a majority in congress, which would be a remarkable rise for a party he founded four years ago.
The campaign season has been marked by brutal violence, with some 130 candidates and campaign staff assassinated across the country.
By the time voting was supposed to begin in Ecatepec — a working-class city north of Mexico’s capital — over 100 people were at the gate of a local cultural center serving a polling station. As election officials waited for poll workers, the crowd started to whistle to demand that the gates be opened.
“If they don’t pay attention to us now, do you think they’ll pay attention to the votes?” shouted Miguel Angel Serrano, 67, at the front of the line.
Mexico state has traditionally been a stronghold of the PRI, and it is also the home state ofPeña Nieto. Such areas are seen as barometers for the shifting political mood in Mexico, and its poverty and widespread violence are glaring examples of the most pressing issues in this year’s vote.
“The PRI has won here for many year, but this year it’s going to lose, because dissent is high,” said Luis Valdepeña Bastida, 51, as he waited to cast his ballot.
Valdepeña had voted for López Obrador in the past two elections and planned to do the same on Sunday. He said he was tired of daily murders, and the poor education system.
“Voting is the only tool we have to ensure that this corrupt system changes,” he said. “The people are fed up.”
Others found López Obrador’s promises for change unrealistic.
Keila Gonzalez Garcia, 33, who works in a company that produces personal hygiene products, said she was preparing to cast her vote for Anaya, because she felt that the PAN would prevent a disastrous presidency.
“I’m voting for him to make sure the peje does not win,” she said, using López Obrador’s nickname. “He has a rose-tinted idea of the world, but I don’t think it’s possible … Where is he going to get all the money for his plans?”
Averbuch reported from Ecatepec.