Mexico’s billionaires and businesses are warning workers about the country’s runaway presidential frontrunner

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at a rally in Rio Bravo, Tamaulipas, Mexico, April 6, 2018.

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Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at a rally in Rio Bravo, Tamaulipas, Mexico, April 6, 2018.
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REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

  • A month before Mexico’s presidential election, leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s lead continues to grow.
  • Business leaders and wealthy Mexicans are dismayed, and they’ve tried to warn voters away from the frontrunner.
  • But such warnings are unlikely to persuade Mexicans who are backing AMLO.

Mexican presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s lead has only grown, and with just a month until the election, business leaders are cautioning their countrymen about the potential consequences of his victory.

Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, was runner-up in the two previous presidential elections but appears to have the 2018 race in hand, buoyed by widespread dissatisfaction with the political establishment and the direction of the country.

Polling firm Parametria put his support at 45% at the end of May, up 6 points from an April poll. Polling by newspaper Reforma over the same period put his support at 52%, 4 points higher than a late-April poll.

Ricardo Anaya, running for a coalition of the conservative National Action Party and the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, was second in both polls, slipping 5 points to 20% in the Parametria poll and falling 4 points to 26% in the Reforma poll. Jose Antonio Meade, of the governing centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party, was third in both, holding steady at 14% in Parametria’s poll and up 2 points to 19% in Reforma’s poll.

Lopez Obrador, who ran for the PRD in 2006 and 2012, is campaigning at the head of the leftist National Regeneration Movement, a party he started in 2014.

Lopez Obrador poses for a selfie with a supporter after a rally in Patzcuaro, Michoacan state, May 31, 2018.

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Lopez Obrador poses for a selfie with a supporter after a rally in Patzcuaro, Michoacan state, May 31, 2018.
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REUTERS/Alan Ortega

“AMLO’s lead has grown in recent weeks,” James Bosworth, founder of risk-analysis firm Hxagon, told Business Insider.

“For a large majority of Mexican voters, this election is about who is the best alternative to remove the PRI from the presidency, and voters have chosen AMLO over Anaya,” said Bosworth, whose firm’s polling average showed Lopez Obrador 12 points ahead.

‘They want to create fear’

In a letter published this week, Mexican billionaire German Larrea, head of mining and rail company Grupo Mexico, warned about the risk of a “populist” president and cited the economic struggles of Venezuela, Argentina, and Cuba.

“If this populist economic model, in which everything supposedly belongs to and comes from the state, and in which people are given things without working for them, ends up being imposed on Mexico, investment will be disincentivized, seriously affecting jobs and the economy,” the letter said.

The letter did not mention Lopez Obrador by name but did reference his more contentious proposals, including rolling back the energy and education reforms of current President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Lopez Obrador at a rally in Patzcuaro, Michoacan state, May 31, 2018.

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Lopez Obrador at a rally in Patzcuaro, Michoacan state, May 31, 2018.
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REUTERS/Alan Ortega

Lopez Obrador responded the day the letter was published, telling a rally he understood “that German Larrea doesn’t want change, because he’s done very well.”

At end of May, executives at Palacio de Hierro, a chain of luxury stores owned by Mexico’s second-richest man, billionaire Alberto Bailleres, gathered staffers at a store in Mexico City for a mandatory meeting in which they emphasized that voting for the candidate most likely to beat Lopez Obrador was “the best chance we have of preserving the economic system that allows us to employ you,” according to Bloomberg.

“It’s not fair,” a Palacio de Hierro worker, who requested anonymity, told Bloomberg. “They want to create fear.” In a statement, Palacio de Hierro denied it was trying to influence the election or doing “any proselytizing activity.”

Aeromexico planes at Benito Juarez international airport in Mexico City, Mexico, November 28, 2017.

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Aeromexico planes at Benito Juarez international airport in Mexico City, Mexico, November 28, 2017.
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Thomson Reuters

Supermarket chain Grupo Comercial Chedraui has put election materials in the workers’ areas of some stores, which it told Bloomberg are meant to “lawfully inform employees about the importance of the election.”

The materials include posters noting Cuba and Venezuela are the only countries in the region that don’t hold free, democratic elections. Conditions in Venezuela are often used as a cudgel against Lopez Obrador, with critics casting him as a Hugo Chavez-style populist who will lead Mexico to ruin

The chief of Coca-Cola bottler Femsa warned in a video of “catastrophic effects” created by Mexico’s past populist leaders. The head of manufacturer Grupo Vasconia told staffers that anger about corruption, impunity, and lack of opportunity “can cloud our judgment and could lead us down the road of populism.”

Leaders from food company Grupo Herdez and construction firm Grupo Chihuahua issued similar warnings. Cinema company Cinepolis de Mexico and airline Grupo Aeromexico also advised employees to carefully consider their votes.

‘Mafia of power’ vs. ‘good and honest people’

Lopez Obrador has said he will target corruption, reduce violence, reinvigorate the economy, and address chronic inequality if elected president, though he has offered few concrete policy details.

His detractors describe him as a dangerous authoritarian statist with retrograde ideas, though his tenure as mayor of Mexico City is generally considered a successful one marked by pragmatic, moderately progressive policies.

He has butted heads with corporate leaders, saying they were trying to unite his rivals, and he frequently criticizes a “mafia of power” as working to protect its privileges at the expense of “good and honest people.”

But he has towed a more moderate line during this campaign. He has said he would be a market-friendly president, promising to respect investors and not to expropriate businesses. In May, he told a business forum that Mexico needs “businessmen to get this country going.”

Mexican billionaire business magnate Carlos Slim.

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Mexican billionaire business magnate Carlos Slim.
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Eloy Alonso/ Reuters

Lopez Obrador’s threats to cancel to a $13 billion airport project in Mexico City drew criticism from business leaders, including Mexico’s richest man, billionaire Carlos Slim, with whom Lopez Obrador collaborated as mayor of Mexico City. In March, however, he dropped that opposition.

At a rally that month, he waved a white handkerchief to symbolize the “peace and love” he wanted to have with the business community, saying his conflict was with a small group that had benefited from close ties to government, rather than businesses in general.

Such comments by businesses and their executives aren’t necessarily illegal. But, while the race is not over, it seems unlikely those comments will sway voters.

“Six years ago, Peña Nieto was supported by the business community, which has harmed the business community’s credibility,” Bosworth told Business Insider.

Under this administration, he added, “Mexico’s citizens have seen poor economic growth, a major drop in the peso’s value, and rising inflation. Over 60% of Mexican voters believe the economy has worsened in the past year.”

The peso’s falling value and rising inflation have driven down most Mexicans’ purchasing power, making basic goods harder to get. Human-rights groups have warned about the country’s economic inequality and paltry wages.

“That is why warnings that an AMLO win will hurt the economy ring hollow to most voters’ ears,” Bosworth said. “They already think the current government has harmed the economy.”