politics

A Mexican Corruption Cleanup Wouldn't Touch This Man

  • Presidency frontrunner offers an olive branch to the old guard
  • Soft on corruption, say critics; polls suggest clemency works

For years, Manlio Fabio Beltrones had his own intro music on a Mexican radio show: the theme from “The Godfather.”

Graft scandals swirled around the powerful politician. He seemed impervious. Beltrones was never convicted of anything but, rightly or wrongly, he became one of the faces of what many Mexicans saw as a culture of backroom deals.

Manlio Fabio Beltrones

Photographer: Lucia Godinez/El Universal via AP Images

Now, voters are set to punish their establishment by electing a clean-hands outsider as president. You’d think that would spell trouble for Beltrones and his many peers. Signs indicate the opposite: The Godfather won’t be going anywhere under an Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador government. He might even thrive.

When they’re asked what’s wrong with the country, Mexicans regularly put corruption at the top of the list. All politicians promise to tackle it. The two leading contenders for the July 1 presidential vote are no exception -- but their strategies are very different.

Lopez Obrador emphasizes that outside of a few special or ongoing cases, he won’t target members of the outgoing administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto and his PRI party. He’ll focus on preventing graft in the future.

Going Soft?

Critics say the leftist frontrunner, known as AMLO, has gone soft on corruption and is cozying up to the PRI. But the conciliatory tone is attracting voters from rival parties. His poll lead keeps growing.

A sign reads “ AMLO vs The Corruption”

Photographer: Cesar Rodriguez/Bloomberg

“He’s consciously widening the tent to take in members of the PRI who are dissatisfied,” said Andrew Selee of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. That could help Lopez Obrador, whose presidential victory looks increasingly assured, win a majority in Congress too, said Selee.

All About Mexico’s Populist Presidential Candidate: QuickTake

It’s easy to see how Beltrones, or someone like him, could be useful to an AMLO administration. One aide describes him as an octopus, with tentacles in every party. As PRI leader in the lower house, he played a key role reaching across the aisles to get Pena Nieto’s energy and education reforms through. His personal assistant in Congress, Canek Vazquez, has since joined Lopez Obrador’s Morena bloc, which may need allies to push through an ambitious economic agenda.

Running a distant second in the polls is a right-left coalition headed by Ricardo Anaya, who’s taken a much more aggressive line. He’s pledged to investigate Pena Nieto for corruption, fight for fully autonomous prosecutors, and strengthen anti-graft institutions.

Anaya’s campaign spokesman Fernando Rodriguez Doval told Bloomberg that Pena Nieto is “negotiating impunity” with Lopez Obrador. PRI president Rene Juarez called such talk an “urban legend,” and AMLO said it was a sign of desperation.

Vehement But Vague

Yet for all his tough talk, Anaya’s ties to previous administrations have undercut his promise of a break from the past, while head-on clashes with the PRI have left him isolated.
Bloomberg’s latest poll tracker shows Anaya 26 percentage points behind Lopez Obrador -- and only slightly ahead of PRI candidate Jose Antonio Meade. (Meade, who isn’t even a party member, was nominated as the PRI’s best shot at decoupling from its own scandal-tainted term in office. The plan hasn’t worked.)

When it comes to corruption, Lopez Obrador is vehement but vague. He promises to centralize all the federal government’s procurement, and generally to lead by example.

Lopez Obrador, center, during a rally.

Photographer: Cesar Rodriguez/Bloomberg

In that case, some Mexicans wonder, why are AMLO’s aides defending ruling-party stalwarts like the Godfather even when they’ve been mired in scandal?

Ricardo Monreal, one of Lopez Obrador’s campaign coordinators, has praised Beltrones as an honorable politician. More recently Yeidckol Polevnsky, the leader of Lopez Obrador’s Morena movement, defended an official who’s on trial for allegedly siphoning off government money to the PRI. Rumors swirled of a pact between the parties. Polevnsky quickly apologized and said she was misquoted.

‘A Certain Forgetting’

There are signs of “a sort of strategic coordination” between the ruling party and its likely successor, said political scientist Carlos Bravo. “It might be hard to swallow” for some Mexicans, he said, but it’s “not unheard-of. Regime-change projects sometimes have required a certain forgetting or forgiving of past sins.”

That clemency appears to include people like Beltrones, who’s served in both houses of parliament, governed Sonora state, and led the PRI. He survived a New York Times expose in the 1990s linking him to alleged drug traffickers. Beltrones and later the Mexican government denied he was involved in any wrongdoing.

Other prominent PRI-istas tipped to be key interlocutors for a new government include Juarez, Senator Emilio Gamboa and former Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio.

‘The Angry Vote’

Lopez Obrador will need as much cross-party support as he can get for his economic plans, according to Aldo Munoz, a political analyst at the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico. Redistributing wealth is the candidate’s priority, judging by his 400-odd page “Plan for the Nation,” filled with new social programs.

That’s probably one reason why, even as he castigates big business over abuses, the likely next president is calling on Mexicans to respect Pena Nieto’s transition out of power.

“With this discourse he can win over some of the undecided,” said Munoz. “He has the angry vote already.”

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