Mexico Has a President Who Runs Things and One Who Doesn't
Shadow Government of Mr. López Obrador Takes Pretense to New Heights
By NICHOLAS CASEY
MEXICO CITY -- Like a lot of countries, Mexico has a federal government. It meets in a number of imposing colonial and modern buildings around the country. But Mexico has another body, the so-called "Legitimate Government," which claims to be running the republic, too. It meets here in the capital every 15 days in a former garage at 64 San Luis Potosí St.
There, on a recent evening, sat Bernardo Bátiz Vázquez, the Legitimate Government's attorney general, shuffling papers on a foldout table. Not far away was Health Secretary Asa Cristina Laurell, a half dozen other ministers, representatives from various Mexican states, and handlers. At the head of the table sat Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
"You may call me the Legitimate President of Mexico," he said in an interview.
Some countries like the U.K. have shadow governments, complete with shadow cabinet members made up of the opposition. But these groups usually don't claim to be the actual government, as is the case with Mr. López Obrador and company.
It all began in 2006 when the former Mexico City mayor almost became Mexico's real president, losing the election by a hair. He cried fraud, launched street protests, and excoriated the winner, President Felipe Calderón, as a "presidential usurper." Then, as a culminating gesture of defiance, he held a mock inauguration in the country's main square, donning a replica of Mexico's red, white and green presidential sash and took a pretend oath of office.
With this, many assumed they had seen the last of Mr. López Obrador -- at least until the next election in 2012.
But while the leftist has faded from international headlines, he never really went away in Mexico. He went on to found a parallel executive branch of government that proposes new laws, issues statements, holds elections, officiates during Mexican Independence Day, and even circulates its own form of identification card for Mexicans (some 2.8 million Mexicans carry them, according to a Legitimate Government spokesman).
Nowadays, Mr. López Obrador tours the country giving presidential speeches where he is introduced as the real McCoy. After three years of this, he will soon have visited all of Mexico's 2,438 municipalities. That would make him, he says, the first politician -- indeed, maybe even the first man -- ever to have done that.
Mr. López Obrador's countryside gatherings are part populist rally, part earnest policy discussion. No one betrays any hint of not taking this completely seriously.
"We are in a land run by oligarchs," Mr. López Obrador began one recent morning in Nacajuca, a tiny Mayan village deep in Mexico's southeastern jungles. As the temperature rose, so did his voice as he railed against high prices for tamales, corporate tax loopholes and political corruption, all of which he vowed to fight off with new legislation and decrees.
The following Monday he was in the capital trying to deliver on his promise. Outside Congress -- Mexico's real Congress -- he stood before a crowd and introduced a pair of laws, one for the Senate that would reduce government salaries, the other in the Chamber of Deputies targeting tax loopholes for big businesses. He appeared to be in luck: Two friendly congressmen showed the bills to their colleagues shortly afterward. But as has often been the case, they were immediately shelved for "further study."
Some Mexican newspapers have journalists assigned to cover this imaginary government. "I've been doing this for years," says Heliodoro Cárdenas, a reporter from the Mexico City daily El Milenio. Did he volunteer for the beat? "No, I was sent." He adds: "It's difficult to cover, shall we say, Mexico's political ugly duckling."
While Mr. Cárdenas thinks there was a strong likelihood of fraud in 2006, he says Mr. López Obrador understands he's not actually running the republic. "It's a strategy to raise his political profile," he says. If so, it hasn't paid dividends. Support for the leftist hovers at around 16% of the population -- about half what he got in the 2006 election -- according to a June poll in the Mexican daily La Reforma.
'Legitimate Government' Seal
Members of the Legitimate Government spend hours discussing the direction of Mexico's future. Over a recent lunch in a bohemian Mexico City neighborhood, two cabinet ministers, Economy Secretary Luis Linares and Political Secretary José Agustín Ortiz Pinchetti, discussed ways to redistribute more money from state oil monopoly Pemex to the poor. But pressed on how the Legitimate Government might actually go about this, a different look spread across Mr. Linares's face. "We have no control over Pemex," he allowed. "There are some things we can do and others we can't."
Providing salaries for cabinet members qualifies as a no can do. Since the Legitimate Government can't tax Mexican citizens, it has no real source of revenue. It used to pay members a small salary by asking congressmen and senators from Mr. López Obrador's party to pay a tithe on their official salary. But eventually some of them complained. "Now we are all volunteers," Mr. Linares said.
Imaginary executive branches of the government have their problems, too. Héctor Vasconcelos, the secretary of international affairs of the Legitimate Government, has had trouble getting any country to recognize his title, despite his many trips abroad, including one to Ecuador to fete the presidential inauguration of leftist Rafael Correa.
When the professor, concert pianist and former Mexican ambassador to Norway joined Mr. López Obrador, he says requests from Mexican television shows to be a guest evaporated, along with dinner invitations and even a few childhood friends. "It's like you cease to exist," he said. But he says, "la lucha," or the struggle, is "the best I've had in my career."
Perhaps no event captures the Legitimate Government's audacious style better than Sept. 15, the night of an age-old Mexican Independence Day tradition known as "el grito," or "the cry (of independence)." A half million Mexicans flood the main square as the president waves a flag and yells out revolutionary slogans, re-enacting the call to arms that brought Mexicans to rebel against Spain 199 years ago.
This year, as President Calderón performed his "grito," Mr. López Obrador could be found with his cabinet a few miles away in another plaza, giving what was called the "alternative" grito. Flags were waved on stage. Men and women, some with faces painted in the country's tricolor yelled "Viva Mexico!" as the rain fell. Mr. López Obrador looked on in a suit and tie, a wide smile on his face. "Only the people can save the people!" he shouted to the crowd.
Days later, Mr. López Obrador was back on tour in his home state of Tabasco. He sat in the passenger seat of his white SUV as it hurtled through a banana plantation at 90 miles an hour. But it was getting dark, and Mexico's Legitimate President had two more speeches to give that night. The following day he would give five more rallies. The only day he rests is Mondays.
Is this harder than being president? "Perhaps," he says.
Write to Nicholas Casey at email@example.com
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A33