domenica, febbraio 19, 2006

Andres Oppenheimer - Mexico's presidential front-runner moves even farther left

Mexico's presidential front-runner moves even farther left
By Andres Oppenheimer

MEXICO CITY -- The most surprising thing about Mexico's presidential race is that leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who is leading in the polls, is shifting farther to the left.

Normally, presidential hopefuls try to woo the most extreme wings of their respective parties during their primary campaigns. Then, once proclaimed their parties' nominees, they shift to the center in hopes of winning moderate votes in the national campaign.

Yet, judging from his latest speeches, López Obrador seems to be going the other way. He is toughening his rhetoric as we get closer to the July 2 elections, raising questions over whether he has changed his mind about his earlier vows that he would not be a revolutionary hothead if elected.

When I interviewed him a little more then a year ago, López Obrador sounded like a cross between Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King. ''I am a humanist. . . . I'm not proposing a radical project. . . . We should maintain our macroeconomic policy, with a new addition, of speeding up economic growth,'' he said then.

But in my latest visit here, López Obrador sounds more like an old-fashioned populist. In a Feb. 13 speech to members of Congress, he lashed out against the free market reforms that legislators have been debating over the past five years to jump-start the country's lackluster economy, and make it more competitive with fast-growing China and India. At the same time, López Obrador has suddenly called off meetings with the major business groups, and is bragging about it.

''We must set aside what has been pompously called structural reforms,'' López Obrador told Congress members, referring to long-debated government proposals to, among other things, open up Mexico's energy sector to the private sector, and make labor laws more flexible to encourage business owners to employ more workers.

A day earlier, López Obrador, a former Mexico City mayor, suggested he would call for ''a revision'' of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has allowed Mexico to substantially increase its exports. Referring to a NAFTA provision that would allow U.S. producers to export corn and beans duty-free to Mexico starting in 2008, he said, ``We are not going to allow that!''

Former Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda told me that López Obrador is a new version of Luis Echeverría, the former populist, anti-American president who in the early '70s created hundreds of thousands of government jobs, while sinking the country into huge debt for decades to come.

Close advisors to López Obrador deny that. Unlike Echeverría or Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, he is calling for a reduction of government spending, they say. In addition, he would not scrap NAFTA, but invoke provisions already in the treaty to make special exceptions for corn and beans, as has been done in other cases, they say.

On the opening to the private sector of Mexico's oil industry, which most economists say is essential to revamp exploration and prevent Mexico from becoming a net oil importer as early as in 2010, top advisors to López Obrador say he would indeed increase the state intervention in the country's oil monopoly. That would allow Mexico to lower domestic oil prices, and benefit other oil-related industries, they say.

López Obrador would open up to the private sector other areas such as oil transport, warehousing, logistics, railroads and infrastructure, says Rogelio Ramirez de la O, the candidate's top economic advisor. ''In those areas, there would be a greater opening than now,'' he told me.

Campaign insiders and independent pollsters say López Obrador's latest shift to the left may be a tactical move. He has less campaign money than his rivals, and he may be trying to assert himself as the anti-establishment candidate to generate headlines, and get bigger crowds at rallies. In the final weeks of the campaign, he will probably shift back to the center, they say.

My conclusion: Perhaps so. If not, López Obrador's latest statements are troubling. If López Obrador were elected and failed to push for the kind of reforms that have helped China, India, Eastern Europe and Chile attract investments, increase exports and reduce poverty, Mexico will fall farther behind its competitors, and its number of poor will grow. | 02/19/2006 | Mexico's presidential front-runner moves even farther left