Mexico City's mayor rides populist crest -- despite criticism
BY MARK STEVENSON
MEXICO CITY - Reveling in his role as a stand-up populist who cracks dry one-liners at his daily 6:30 a.m. news conferences, Mexico City's mayor is riding high as one of the most visible early contenders to succeed President Vicente Fox in 2006 elections.
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador appears to enjoy playing a role known here as ''Daddy Government,'' handing out everything from free school supplies and circus tickets to advice on how to smile. What he doesn't enjoy, critics say, are the niceties of law, democracy and dealing with opposition.
Last week, Lopez Obrador sent police into the city's tunnels to crush a threatened strike by subway workers. The mayor, of the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party, brushed off comparisons between the subway workers' movement and the often violent blockades of government oil wells that he led as a young political activist in the 1990s.
''That was different,'' he said. ``We were defending the national interest. These people are criminals.''
Earlier, he rejected an agreement with union leaders. He said
they wanted to negotiate ''with a squeeze of the hand, when we perhaps
should be squeezing some other
part'' of their anatomy.
Lopez Obrador is no stranger to contradictions. He rails against
the strikers (''No one has the right to block the city's transportation'')
but allows leftist protesters to block the city's main boulevards for hours
each week. He praised a machete-wielding group of protesters who wounded
two city policemen for ``their restraint and good
While he may be polarizing the western hemisphere's largest city,
no one has ever accused Lopez Obrador of a lack of political skill -- the
main accusation leveled
against Fox and his stalled reform agenda.
''Lopez Obrador's political style is more rooted in the socioeconomic
reality of the country'' than the business-oriented Fox, said political
scientist Denise Dresser of the
University of Southern California's Pacific Council on International Policy.
Fox focuses on what he believes people need, something that hasn't won him many popularity contests. Lopez Obrador focuses on what people want.
When his approval rating began to lag a little in August, slipping
to a still-enviable 64 percent, Lopez Obrador used city funds to set up
a circus -- complete with tigers,
giraffes and free tickets -- in front of the metropolitan cathedral in the city's sprawling central plaza.
'It's like the Roman emperors said -- `Give the people bread
and circus, and keep them happy,' '' said Salvador Estrada, 52, who lined
up with his family and hundreds
of other Mexico City residents for four hours to get into the circus tent.
Estrada, like many other city residents, likes Lopez Obrador for his decision to give elderly residents $60 a month in cash.
Programs like that have raised the city's debt, and some compare them to those of the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Lopez Obrador was once a member of the PRI, which maintained power for 71 years by trading small favors for votes before being ousted by Fox in 2000.
Lopez Obrador insists there are no strings attached to his largess.
But senior citizens do turn up at his events in surprising numbers, some
looking for the ''attendance
list'' that used to be passed out at government events to secure favors.
His rhetoric is never dull.
When bank robberies became commonplace, his administration cracked
down -- not on the thieves, but on the banks. It accused them of not providing
and of cooperating with bank robbers.
Given that most Mexican banks are foreign-owned and charge high interest rates, they are easy targets for populist wrath.
Lopez Obrador spent much of his political capital his first year
in office battling Fox in a quixotic campaign over daylight saving time,
threatening to put Mexico City in a
different time zone from its suburbs. The Supreme Court finally ruled against him.
Lopez Obrador rules largely by decree -- ''informational orders'' that don't need approval from the local legislature, which is dominated by Fox's party.
He refused to debate his proposal to build double-decker freeways
in a city choked by expressways and subject to powerful earthquakes, and
he agreed to call a
referendum only when it became clear the idea had become a political embarrassment.
Lopez Obrador also seems to think violence has a natural place in Mexican political life.
When an angry mob in a village on the city's outskirts beat a suspected thief to death, the mayor called it an expression ``of the deep, genuine Mexico.''