MEXICO CITY — Riding a wave of populist anger fueled by rampant corruption and violence, the leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected president of Mexico on Sunday, in a landslide victory that upended the nation’s political establishment and handed him a sweeping mandate to reshape the country.
López Obrador’s win puts a leftist leader at the helm of Latin America’s second largest economy for the first time in decades, a prospect that has filled millions of Mexicans with hope — and the nation’s elites with trepidation.
The outcome represents a clear rejection of the status quo in the nation, which for the past quarter century has been defined by a centrist vision and an embrace of globalization that many Mexicans feel has not served them.
The core promises of López Obrador’s campaign — to end corruption, reduce violence, and address Mexico’s endemic poverty — were immensely popular with voters, but they come with questions he and his new government may struggle to answer.
How he will pay for his ambitious slate of social programs without overspending and harming the economy? How will he rid the government of bad actors when some of those same people were a part of his campaign? Can he make a dent in the unyielding violence of the drug war, which left Mexico with more homicides in the past year than any time in the past two decades?
And how will López Obrador, a firebrand with a tendency to dismiss his critics in the media and elsewhere, govern?
In the end, the nation’s desire for change outweighed any of the misgivings the candidate inspired.
“It is time for a change, it’s time to go with López Obrador, and see what happens,” said Juan de Dios Rodríguez, 70, a farmer in the state of Hidalgo, a longtime bastion of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which has dominated politics in Mexico for nearly his entire life. “This will be my first time voting for a different party.”
In his third bid for the presidency, López Obrador, 64, won in what officials called the largest election in Mexican history, with some 3,400 federal, state, and local races contested.
A global repudiation of the establishment has brought populist leaders to power in the United States and Europe, and conservative ones to several countries in Latin America, including Colombia after an election in June.
“The recent elections in Latin America have exhibited the same demand for change,” said Laura Chinchilla, the former president of Costa Rica. “The results are not endorsements of ideologies, but rather demands for change, a fatigue felt by people waiting for answers that simply have not arrived.”
López Obrador, who has vowed to cut his own salary and raise those of the lowest paid government workers, campaigned on a narrative of social change, including increased pensions for the elderly, educational grants for Mexico’s youth, and additional support for farmers.
He said he would fund his programs with the money the nation saves by eliminating corruption, a figure he places at tens of billions of dollars a year, a windfall some experts doubt will materialize.
Realistic or not, the allure of his message is steeped in the language of nostalgia for a better time — and in a sense of economic nationalism that some fear could reverse important gains of the past 25 years.
In this way, and others, the parallels between López Obrador and President Trump are hard to ignore. Both men are tempestuous leaders, who are loath to concede a political fight. Both men lash out at enemies, and view the media with suspicion.
And even as the electoral rage propelling López Obrador’s rise is largely the result of domestic issues, there will be pressure for the new president to take a less conciliatory line with his US counterpart. The current government, led by President Enrique Peña Nieto, has suffered a string of humiliations at the hands of Trump with relative silence.
But López Obrador is not the typical Latin American populist, nor does his branding as a leftist convey the complexity of his ethos.
In building his third candidacy for the presidency, he cobbled together an odd group of allies, some with contradictory visions. There are leftists, unions, far-right conservatives, and endorsements from the Catholic Church. How he will manage these competing interests remains to be seen.
López Obrador will inherit an economy that has seen only modest growth over the past few decades, and one of his biggest challenges will be to convince foreign investors that Mexico will remain open for business.
If he fails to convince the markets that he is committed to continuity, or makes abrupt changes to the current economic policy, the country could find itself struggling to achieve even the modest growth of prior administrations.
There is some evidence that López Obrador knows what is at stake. Though political rivals have painted him as a radical on par with Hugo Chavez, the former socialist leader in Venezuela, Mexico’s president-elect has vowed not to raise the national debt and to maintain close relations with the United States.