Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mayor of Mexico City and runner up of World Mayor 2004

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Andrés Manuel López Obrador
Mayor of Mexico City

By Nick Swift, Deputy Editor

Like the sauce by the name of which most North Americans, at least, will know the part of Mexico that is his home state (Tabasco), there is one thing no one could ever say about Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mayor of Mexico City and runner-up in City Mayors’ World Mayor 2004 competition: and that, of course, is that he is insipid.

Showing himself more committed to his citizens’ biological clocks than to the mechanical ones, he stood against the imposition of Daylight Savings Time, declaring that the ability to change the hour was beyond the power of President Vicente Fox; he instituted a free circus with exotic animals in front of the city’s main cathedral; when a suspected thief was killed by a raging mob just outside the city, he reflected that their action was the real Mexico expressing itself, and that village traditions should not be interfered with; when the city was plagued by bank robberies, he criticized the banks for having inadequate security.  Most recently, he has found the honesty that has always been his watchword assailed, and isolation seems to have begun to be added to his portrait like a new colour.

University educated in political science, Mr. Obrador – or AMLO, as he is sometimes called – supported native Tabascans through the work of an institute he oversaw, and “The good of all, but most of all, of the poor”, has been his credo ever since.  It was he who, even before becoming the third elected Mayor of Mexico, transformed the lot of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which was created in 1989 after the expulsion from the ranks of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had held power for seven decades and under which the office of mayor of the capital had always been an appointment, of Cuauhtemoc Carderas.  (Carderas had attempted to further democratic trends, and the presidential election he lost in 1988 was rigged.  He became the first elected Mayor of Mexico in 1997.)  During the presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Mr. Obrador exercised what has been widely acknowledged as his stellar organizing abilities, and nurtured and consolidated strong support for the PRD in Tabasco, and garnered 40 per cent of the votes in the 1994 race for governor, even when (it has since been revealed) his opponent spent some 60 times the total allowed by law on his campaign.

He created the ‘Brigades of the Sun’, after the PRD party’s symbol of the Aztec sun, to knock on doors and offset the PRI’s teams, which offered gratuities in exchange for votes, with the thought that it is more important for the future to eliminate corruption.  One result was that AMLO was elected PRD president by an overwhelming majority in 1996.

In the following months, Mr. Obrador used the same strategy to win states and, then, throughout the entire country.  In the course of this campaign, he transferred focus of attention and expenditure to electronic media, a new development for Mexico, and implemented sophisticated polling, consulting and advertising techniques, with great success for the PRD, which, in September 1996, joined the Socialist International Movement as a full member.

The flight of elements of the crumbling PRI to the party of the risen sun stimulated Mr. Obrador to take measures to prevent them bringing old habits with them, placing stringent limits on salaries and privileges, and speaking against others, such as the keeping of mistresses.

After a campaign another theme of which was the need to act against the crime that the people of Mexico City made clear was their greatest concern, he was elected Mayor of Mexico on 15 December 2000 for a term of six years.  Since then he has become well known for, among other things, the way he starts each day:  at five o’clock, with a press conference by 6.30.  Among his first moves were social assistance allowances for the elderly, the handicapped, and single mothers with school age children, and another programme for youth in high-crime areas.  He has, as of this date, seen the start of construction of Mexico’s first state university, and has built enough new high schools to serve nearly 9,000 children.  He brought Rudy Giuliani to put into practice the zero tolerance approach to crime that he used as Mayor of New York City, and switched city computers from Microsoft to free Linux operating systems, with the money saved to, again, be used to help the economically disadvantaged.

The increasing of Mexico City’s landscape has for many years been an unruly process, so that a complete reorganization is necessary, whereby new housing will be built where it is most needed, and not where vested interests would have liked it.  About this challenge too Mr. Obrador seems enthusiastic and, halfway through his term, told the Mexican national assembly that his programme to meet it was half completed.

Two of his most visible accomplishments have been the construction of the two-level Distribuidor Vial, an overpass connecting a number of highways in a cloverleaf; and the remarkable saga of the restoration of the lost parts of Chapultepec Park.  Over the years the wealthy and powerful had the unfortunate tendency to move into properties surrounding the park, and then, quite simply, take some of it.  Mr. Obrador sent in the bulldozers.  ‘No special interest groups,’ he said, ‘have any claim on us.  We lick no one’s boots.  Deliver to the people – that’s all we have to do.’

He did finally, however, accept the practicality of Daylight Savings Time, and apologized to the already-yawning journalists who see him in the morning.

Apprehensions may be proving true that the moral energy of the PRD and the success that has flowed from it have depended to too great a degree on AMLO’s own mind and character, his integrity and logistical gifts, and the corruption he has made his enemy would appear to have infiltrated, and be undermining, the political structure on which he stands.  Videotapes have been broadcast showing senior PRD figures accepting large amounts of money in briefcases and negotiating payoffs, and the city finance officer in Las Vegas gambling away millions in American dollars of Mexico City’s money.  Mr. Obrador, whose own record is as impeccable as his stated principles, has reacted with fury, a disavowal of knowledge, and accusations of conspiracy. There is more at stake, he says, than his own reputation: there is the future of Mexico. 

It is a widely held belief in Mexico that Mr. Obrador is likely to run for president in 2006.  Although he has not declared such an intention, a number of other developments instantly become more intelligible if he does, and if his claim is true that much of the opposition to him is to the end of preventing it.  Foremost among the expressions of that opposition has to be the attempt to commence impeachment proceedings against him on the grounds that the Mexico City municipal government ignored court orders not to have a couple of roads built on land the ownership of which is in dispute.  If the charges are formally laid, and still in place in 2005, he will be disqualified from running for president.  Mr. Obrador has, with characteristic energy, pointed out that innumerable similar court orders have routinely been ignored by other officials, who have not been prosecuted, and in the case of one of the roads in question (which was to provide access to a hospital), at least, an alternative road has since been built.

At a press conference Mayor Obrador produced a copy of a U.S. government report the contents of which it had shared with the Mexican government but that was otherwise supposed to be confidential, that proved that the Mexican federal government knew about Mr. Obrador’s former finance minister’s embezzlement before Mr. Obrador did.  The fact that they did not tell Mr. Obrador, but have, he says, tried to use it to tarnish his own reputation since then, is evidence of the conspiracy against him.

Foreign onlookers may be inclined to ridicule Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s use of a series of comic books to convey his and his party’s vision of current political realities in Mexico City (and Mexico the country and, even, beyond) that seem almost to mythologize the forces and some of the individuals involved.  It may help if they remember that the education they enjoy is still something of a luxury for many Mexicans, where Catholicism is a powerful and pervasive cultural fact.  It may help them appreciate some of the context, too, if they know that members of the federal government used comic books to communicate their points of view to the public well before Mr. Obrador ever did.

Crime continues to be a major problem in Mexico City, and a public demonstration in 2004 against it was even larger than the one in defence of Mr. Obrador in August.  His detractors say the anti-crime march was anti-Obrador:  to which Mr. Obrador has replied that, while no one could maintain there is not still a great challenge in that regard, statistics show that crime in Mexico City has, in fact, gone down during his mayorship.

Mexico City with its cathedral to the left of the photo (Photo by Arrakeen)

World Mayor 2006

The World Mayor project is now in its third year. As in 2004 and 2005, this year’s World Mayor will again be seeking out mayors who have the vision, passion and skills to make their cities amazing places to live in, work in and visit. The World Mayor project aims to show what outstanding mayors can achieve and raise their profiles. It honours those who have served their communities well and who have made contributions to the well-being of cities nationally and internationally. The most outstanding mayor of 2006 will be presented with the World Mayor award.

In 2004, Edi Rama, Mayor of Tirana, won the Award. The 2005 winner was Dora Bakoyannis, Mayor of Athens and now Greek Foreign Minister.

Between January and May each year, citizens from across the world are invited to nominate mayors for the World Mayor Award. They are also asked to provide reasons for their choice. After the close of the nomination stage, City Mayors, the organisers of the contest, prepare a shortlist of mayors who go forward to the second round of the World Mayor contest. In 2006, the list of finalists includes 50 mayors from North and South America, Europe, Asia, Australasia as well as Africa.