MEXICO CITY – “Women and children to the centre,” a woman shouts repeatedly, reacting to another rumor that supporters of Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador were planning to attack the anti-government protest camp in Mexico City’s main Zócalo square. No attack ever came.
Supporters of López Obrador, also known as AMLO, arrived later in well-managed waves, separated by riot police and metal barriers from the recently-installed camp of the National Front Against AMLO, or FRENA, which sits in front of the presidential palace.
The camp is the most visible of a number of recent developments that seek to challenge AMLO, one of Mexico’s most popular presidents.
AMLO maintains significant popularity, seeing a slight rise to 62 percent in September, though significantly below the 77 percent popularity he saw when he was elected in December 2018 with over 53 percent of the vote.
His party, Movement for National Regeneration or Morena, won in every single state of the republic, bar one. Ricardo Anaya, his rival from the conservative National Action Party (PAN), gained only 23 percent of the vote in the same election.
Two days after FRENA set up camp in the Zócalo on 19th September, Anaya announced his return to political life, calling AMLO’s government “disastrous”. Former PAN president Felipe Calderón is also trying to register a new political party, México Libre, or Free Mexico, which Mexico’s electoral commission rejected in early September due to suspicions over funding.
Another public challenge to AMLO’s presidency came on in mid October, with the creation by the president of a prominent business umbrella group called COPARMEX of a “new movement” called Sí por México, or Yes for Mexico.
Alongside FRENA’s street protests, Anaya and Calderón’s return to political life and Sí por México, efforts by Mexican conservatives to form a broad opposition to AMLO’s government are growing.
The president’s political party Morena has maintained a steady popularity, suggesting it is the president’s character that is contributing to his slight drop in popularity, not his party’s politics. His confrontational personality and a string of controversies have added to criticism of the president, though he has largely gone unchallenged, some argue.
“There is no clear opposition. There are many complaints. There are many claims. But nothing exists in a coherent way”, said Alejandro Ánimas, a professor of political science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). “Political parties have refused to occupy the space for one reason or another.
Among the chief criticisms of AMLO are his government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, rising levels of violence and a shrinking economy, with some predicting the Mexican economy.) will slump by between eight and 13 percent.
As of October 13, Mexican government figures estimate 95,615 deaths and 821,045 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the country, though the true extent of the country’s crisis is likely much worse). The president has been heavily criticized for his initially blasé attitude - he initially urged Mexicans to “live life as normal” and extolled the use of religious amulets against the virus.
“[President] Andrés Manuel has to be seen in the global historical context”, explained Fernando Belaunzarán, a former politician for the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, which AMLO was a member of before forming Morena.
He said AMLO was from “the same litter” as right-wing populists US president Donald Trump, UK prime minister Boris Johnson, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, and also Venezuela’s president, left-winger Nicolas Maduro.
“They’re illiberal populists. And Andrés Manuel is an illiberal populist. He is taking advantage of this indignation with the status quo to empower himself tremendously,” Belaunzarán argued.
The president is also accused of further militarizing the country with the creation of the National Guard, a military-style police force. While the National Guard has been deployed by AMLO in operations against organized crime, it has also been heavily criticized by human rights organizations for its use against migrants, especially on Mexico’s southern border.
Other controversies centre on ambitious infrastructure projects, including the cancelation of a partially-built $13bn airport to be replaced by a different, new airport near Mexico City; and plans for an $8bn oil refinery in Dos Bocas, which critics say is economically unviable and environmentally destructive.
Also under fire are plans for the Train Maya railway project through the Yucatan peninsula, and the Interoceanic or Transístmico megaproject which aims to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by a high-speed rail link and continuous industrial zones in the states of Oaxaca and Veracruz.
Critics say both projects will irreversibly damage ecosystems, lead to exploitation of resources by Mexican and multinational companies, and especially harm indigenous communities.
In Mexico City, FRENA hopes to provide an oppositional voice to AMLO, though its camp remains modest: an organizer told VICE News that on an average day there are 680 tents and 980 protestors filling half of the Zócalo square.
“It’s a movement which is peaceful, non-violent, but which is very firm in what we want. It’s nonnegotiable: señor, resign! Everything is worse than it was before”, Gilberto Lozano, businessman and FRENA’s founder told VICE News, predicting that FRENA could maintain the camp in Mexico city for between three to four years.
FRENA has so far received messages of support from ex-presidents Vicente Fox and Calderón, both of whom were members of the conservative PAN.
Calderón remains a contentious figure in Mexico, particularly for his decision in 2007 to launch a militarized crackdown on drug trafficking organizations; the so-called ‘war on drugs’ which he admitted at the time is “unwinnable”.
The crackdown launched by Calderón’s and continued by his predecessor Enrique Peña Nieto, has seen at least 275,000 people killed, at least 61,000 people forcibly disappeared and an estimated 345,000 people internally displaced.
This year, after two years under AMLO, the country is on track to see its most violent yet.
“He thinks kisses and hugs are the way to get away from criminality”, said protestor Claudia Prevost, an English-language teacher from Celaya in the state of Guanajuato, referring to AMLO’s public policy of ‘hugs not bullets’ as a way to confront violence in the country.
Soaring levels of homicides tied to organized crime and the drug trade are combined with an epidemic of femicides that continues to see women murdered with impunity, which has led to violent protests across the country.
But there is little common ground between FRENA’s social conservatism and many of the feminist groups who regularly protest.
Despite denials of being religiously conservative, public displays of Catholicism were prominent in FRENA’s camp, with dozens of people kneeling and praying at regular intervals, sometimes in Latin, as well as literature distributed which pleaded for divine intervention to stop ‘Judeo-Masonic’ and communist plots.
Many analysts also argue the president is in fact much closer to FRENA’s social conservatism than either would publicly admit.
"The president is deeply conservative, even if he calls others conservatives. It seems to be simply a way of trying to categorize others as the ‘rival’”, Ánimas said.
While it remains to be seen if FRENA can extend its influence into wider Mexican society, Belaunzarán argues that AMLO caused its rise.
“[AMLO’s] logic of confrontation, of social polarization, has created his nemesis. FRENA is kind of a mirror of the president and his discourse, in which practically all the traits he has are replicated on the opposite side,” the ex-politician said.
Regardless of the similarities between AMLO and Mexico’s conservatives, it is unlikely the president will opt for a conciliatory approach to their criticisms.
Cover: President of Mexico Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speaks during a press conference at the National Palace in late September. The president is facing more pushback from conservative groups, who object to his handling of the COVID-19 crises, insecurity and the economy. Credit: Hector Vivas/Getty Images.