ON A quiet street in central Mexico City is a bright-yellow building claiming to be the headquarters of the “Legitimate Government of Mexico”. This curious outfit is run by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a charismatic leftist who narrowly lost the presidential election of 2006, which he believes was fraudulent. In the weeks after the election his followers brought the capital to a standstill with a protest that inspired millions of Mexicans and infuriated millions more. Mr López Obrador, known to friends and foes alike as AMLO, is still a polarising figure. His party’s decision on November 15th to select him again as its candidate in next year’s presidential race added uncertainty to the contest and to the party’s own future.
Mr López Obrador began the 2006 campaign as the favourite. This time, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), under whose banner he will run again, languishes a distant third. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for 71 years until 2000, leads the pack and looks set to return under the slick candidacy of Enrique Peña Nieto, a former governor of Mexico’s most populous state. The ruling centre-right National Action Party (PAN) of Felipe Calderón is clinging on to second place, buffeted by soaring crime and a subdued economy.
The outlook for the left under Mr López Obrador is grim. Granted, he is one of Mexico’s most famous faces: some 96% of the population knows his name, according to Mitofsky, a pollster. He still fills a plaza as few others can. But half his fame is infamy: he is the only major presidential candidate with a negative approval rating. Though he has moderated his economic views and is as conservative as most Mexicans on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, his radical history and the 2006 debacle mean that “he has a terrible image problem” among moderates, says Joy Langston of CIDE, a Mexico City university. “There are voters who would consider the left as an option, but not with AMLO.”
For that reason, many PRD leaders preferred Marcelo Ebrard, the moderate mayor of Mexico City. But the party’s polls suggested that Mr López Obrador had slightly more support from voters, and so Mr Ebrard—who at 52 is young enough to bide his time—stood aside. Rival parties are privately relieved. The big question now, says Marco Cancino of CIDAC, a Mexico City think-tank, is which party will attract liberals put off by Mr López Obrador’s “noisy left”. The ideologically amorphous PRI will swoop on the centre-left territory that Mr Ebrard would have occupied, Mr Cancino predicts. The same party may prove popular among the over 10m young Mexicans able to vote for the first time, who are too young to remember the corruption and stagnation of the PRI era and have borne the brunt of the violence and unemployment that have dogged the PAN.
All parties face some obstacles. Mr Peña Nieto has so far seemed impervious to attack. But the president of the PRI, Humberto Moreira, is embroiled in an accounting scandal in Coahuila, where he was governor until January. With a federal investigation under way into millions of dollars in unexplained debts, it is surprising that Mr Moreira still has his job.
The PAN still lacks a firm candidate, though Josefina Vázquez Mota, a former education secretary, is emerging as the favourite. The drug war, Mr Calderón’s signature policy, continues to be costly. On November 11th the government suffered another setback when Francisco Blake Mora, the interior minister, died in a helicopter crash along with four other officials and three crew members. Early tests found nothing suspicious in the wreckage.
Whatever happens in the presidential race, the PRD has deeper concerns. The number of states it controls is dwindling: last year it lost Zacatecas, and on November 13th it lost Michoacán, coming third behind the PRI and the PAN (which fielded the president’s sister as its candidate). Not including a handful of states where it has a hand in a coalition, it now controls only two of Mexico’s 31 states, plus the Federal District, which makes up the centre of Mexico City. Polls show that it could lose its grip on the capital next year, when Mr Ebrard’s term expires. Whereas the PRI is planning to field Beatriz Paredes, a well-known figure with close ties to her party’s machine in the capital, the PRD has struggled to unite behind a strong candidate. It is likely that, in return for bowing out of the presidential race, Mr Ebrard has secured a promise from Mr López Obrador to back his choice of successor in the capital. But it will be an uncomfortably close race.
Mexico’s electoral rules mean that losing territory hurts parties’ capacity to compete in future, because party funding and television airtime in presidential campaigns are allocated mainly according to votes in recent general elections. Doing well in legislative contests requires recruiting and campaigning for hundreds of candidates. Losing governors means parties lose coat-tail effects and the opportunity to exploit state resources for congressional campaigns, which in turn makes it harder to gain financing and airtime. “If you don’t have many governors, you’re in trouble. The PRD is in serious trouble, and will be in even worse shape if it loses the Federal District,” says Ms Langston. For Mexico’s left, there is far more at stake next year than just the presidency.