Correction: An earlier version of this article gave the incorrect name for the the candidate of the conservative incumbent National Action Party.
When Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador lost the presidential election by a sliver of a percent in July 2006, he cried fraud. His supporters took to the streets, and the most fervent blocked the capital city’s major boulevard for weeks.
After the protests, there were more protests.
Lopez Obrador donned the presidential sash, declared himself the legitimate leader of Mexico and called on Mexicans not to recognize the victor, Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party.
Many of Lopez Obrador’s voters have never forgiven him for the spectacle.
Now the former mayor of Mexico City is back for a second run, this time as the less confrontational Democratic Revolutionary Party candidate who calls for a “loving republic” as he seeks to repackage himself as the wise uncle that Mexico needs to take itself into the 21st century.
But his campaign is failing to ignite.
Which raises one of the most interesting questions in Latin America: Why isn’t a candidate from the moderate left more popular in Mexico, a developing country struggling with high numbers of disenfranchised and a deep divide between rich and poor?
Center-left moderates have been elected in Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Chile and El Salvador in recent years. Voters in those countries are increasingly inclined to believe economic growth can be fostered by reformist, activist politicians who are business-friendly but push for social programs to alleviate poverty and foster upward mobility.
In Brazil, more than 20 million people climbed out of severe poverty during the two-term presidency of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — affectionately known just as “Lula” — and the country is now the eighth-largest global economy and the envy of Mexico’s political class.
Argentine voters handed center-left president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner a landslide reelection victory in 2011, crediting her with economic recovery, and she followed up by nationalizing oil interests.
So where is the love for Lopez Obrador, whom everyone calls “AMLO” for short?
Lopez Obrador is stuck at about 20 percent of the vote just weeks before the July 1 election, while the onetime authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is leading with a handsome party stalwart, Enrique Peña Nieto.
Josefina Vazquez Mota, the candidate of the conservative incumbent National Action Party, is locked in a virtual tie with Lopez Obrador for second place.
“In view of the Chilean and Brazilian examples, I think Lopez Obrador missed the opportunity to present himself as a more moderate centrist leftist. A lot of people don’t believe his transformation to a loving leftist,” said political science professor Denise Dresser.
“We can’t say there is not a vigorous left in Mexico,” said Sergio Sarmiento, one of the country’s leading columnists, who writes for the newspaper Reforma. “Why isn’t his candidacy stronger?”
This time around, AMLO is presenting himself as a moderate who will combat corruption and create jobs and economic growth. He has pledged to take on the monopolies that stifle competition and make services such as cellphone access more expensive in Mexico — a proposal that has won praise from members of the business community who feel the oligopolies hold the country back.
Lopez Obrador says he will trade Calderon’s U.S.-backed drug war for a policy that addresses the root causes of violence in Mexico — lack of opportunity and bad schools — and withdraw drug-fighting army troops from the streets within six months.
“When we speak of a loving republic with a social dimension and a spiritual grandeur, we are proposing the regeneration of public life in Mexico, with a new politics guided by three governing ideas: honesty, justice and love,” Lopez Obrador said recently at a meeting of business executives.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Lopez Obrador said he believes he can win. He said polls that show Peña Nieto 20 points ahead are “not true” and are part of the “management of the regime” that controls most of the media and has “manufactured” the PRI candidate.
Lopez Obrador defended his decision to lead his supporters to the streets in 2006 as the only way to avoid violence.
But it hurt him. “The takeover of Reforma,” the main boulevard in Mexico City, “is part of his black legend,” said Sergio Aguayo, a political columnist and professor at the Colegio de Mexico. “He has tried to exorcise it, but he hasn’t succeeded. Who advised him to propose a ‘loving republic’? It is very risky.”
“I miss the angry AMLO,” said author and commentator Guadalupe Loaeza, who said she would vote for him anyway. “All this ‘loving’ business — no one believes it.”
“Six years ago he represented a big change,” Loaeza said. “Now he represents somebody who is getting old, who doesn’t understand the world.”
Lopez Obrador still has prestigious backers. The popular Mexican intellectual and writer Elena Poniatowska, whom he named as a future culture secretary, said she supports him because “he cares about the people that have always been ignored, the poor.”
But in an election in which Mexican voters — most of them independents, many of them in the tenuous middle class — are signaling they seek change, fewer voters appear to be buying AMLO’s version.
In some ways, Lopez Obrador may also be partly a victim of his past success, analysts say.
As mayor of Mexico City, he initiated programs to aid the elderly and single mothers. At the time, “he was criticized as a populist. But now all the governors have programs to help the elderly, and even the president,” said independent pollster and analyst Roy Campos.
“They’ve stolen his issue,” Campos said. “You could say that Lopez Obrador has already succeeded, because he has caused everyone else to embrace social programs to help the poor — no matter what party. Even Calderon.”
But his achievements are overshadowed by an “image problem,” Campos said.
Critics say Lopez Obrador’s leadership style remains reminiscent of the populism of the left wing of the old PRI, where he got his political start. George Grayson, a professor at the College of William and Mary, labeled AMLO the “Mexican Messiah.”
“His vision is still premodern. His discourse is old-fashioned,” said Jorge Chabat. “He is a caudillo,” a strongman, “and he thinks he’s right, and he makes the decisions, because he is the voice of the poor, and he represents the cause of the people, the historical truth. He is a radical at heart. Those kind of politics no longer work in Mexico. He’s using outdated software.”
Lopez Obrador, 59, a shopkeeper’s son from the small city of Macuspana in the southern state of Tabasco, was a highly popular mayor of Mexico City in the early 2000s. He began programs to help seniors, single mothers and the handicapped, opened a university, and partnered with private enterprise to gentrify the historic city center.
Back then, he won approval ratings as high as 84 percent.
“He won the presidency. There was fraud,” said Mario Mejia Perez, 57, one of the cab drivers caught in traffic jams caused by the 2006 protests. “I voted for AMLO. I thought he would change Mexico. I regretted it when they blocked off Reforma. Many people got laid off at hotels and bars. People didn’t matter to him. Power did. Now? Maybe I’ll vote for Josefina.”