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Business, diplomats wary of Lopez Obrador

MEXICO CITY—Some diplomats and businessmen are spooked by the possibility that former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador will become Mexico's next president.

But with three months to go before the election, most admit that they have little hard information on how an administration led by the tough-talking leftist would affect Mexico's attitude toward business and foreign investment.

In a country where the average wage is less than $2 an hour and millions have moved to the U.S. in search of better jobs, Lopez Obrador's populist message has been a winner. The 52-year-old widower has led opinion polls for more than two years. A Mitofsky poll conducted last week for the Televisa news network showed him leading with 37.5 percent, compared with 30.6 percent for Felipe Calderon, the candidate for President Vicente Fox's National Action Party (PAN in its Spanish initials), and 28.8 percent for Roberto Madrazo of the once-dominant Institutional Revolution Party (PRI).

His harshest critics have likened Lopez Obrador to Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, who likes to call President Bush a "donkey" and "Mr. Danger."

Lopez Obrador aides laugh off the comparison and say the only people who should worry are corrupt politicians and their special-interest backers.

"Since they can't stop him, they are waging a campaign of fear. That is their great weapon," said top campaign adviser Manuel Camacho Solis. "It's coming from the group in Mexico that doesn't want to lose its privileges. Many of them are linked to corruption and want to keep their protection."

The campaign is going out of its way to reassure jittery foreign investors and stress the importance of maintaining good relations with the United States, Mexico's largest trading partner and host to millions of Mexican immigrants.

"Every week we are meeting with U.S. investors precisely because we do not want to generate nervousness, and so far the Mexican stock market has not changed greatly," Camacho said. "We are going to be very prudent to transmit a message of calm."

Still, the candidate's penchant for secrecy and passionate rhetoric—he recently told Fox to "shut up, screeching bird"—worries many.

"He is trying to divide and polarize people instead of bringing them together," said Enrique Coppel, who heads one of Mexico's largest retail chains and supports the conservative Calderon. "Whoever is not with them, they attack. They don't respect the liberties of others. There is fear that with Lopez Obrador, we'll take a step backwards."

The official U.S. position is that the administration will work well with whomever Mexican voters pick on July 2.

Lopez Obrador promises to return Mexico to a strict nonintervention stance—a slap at Fox's alliance with the United States over human rights in Cuba—and says he wants to pull out of a free-trade provision that would let American corn and beans flow into Mexico duty-free by 2008.

But what kind of leftist Lopez Obrador would be as president is the unanswered question. Many here recall that business leaders wrung their hands over the election of Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former union leader, only to see Lula adopt a model that was friendly to business.

Lopez Obrador has released few details about his proposals, and he grants few media interviews—his campaign said that at least 120 requests are pending. Only a single term as Mexico City mayor provides any insight into his governing style.

"He is extremely secretive and has a small cadre of people around him," said George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Virginia and the author of an upcoming book on Lopez Obrador called "Mexican Messiah." "It's what you make of his record."

As the "jefe" of Mexico City's sprawling government, Lopez Obrador developed a reputation as a sometimes autocratic leader with a tendency to ignore bureaucratic procedures, Grayson said.

But his programs have been very popular with many people. He distributed cash stipends to poor single mothers and the elderly, built roads and playgrounds and whacked down bureaucratic perks.

Before huge crowds all around the country, Lopez Obrador calls government leaders corrupt "pillagers" to great applause. He says he'll chop the salaries of top bureaucrats, including his own, and use the money for his other proposals: more social welfare programs, lower prices for gasoline and electricity, and government subsidies for job creation.

He even promises to find cheaper digs than Los Pinos, the presidential residence, which he wants to convert into a museum.

It's all in keeping with his carefully crafted image as can-do outsider. He flies commercial to campaign events, and as Mexico City mayor, he delighted voters by riding around in his white Nissan Tsuru, one of the cheapest cars in Mexico. He's proud to wear the "Made in Mexico" label.

"Our opponents say he shouldn't be president because he didn't study in an Ivy League school and because he doesn't use the language of globalization," Lopez Obrador adviser Camacho said. "The (previous presidents) spoke good English and went to good universities, but their programs weren't positive; they didn't generate growth or reduce poverty."


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Lopez Obrador

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