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Tapping national rage, Mexican election frontrunner promises to overturn the system

Mexicans go to the polls Sunday for the largest election in the country’s history. But despite Mexico's tense relationship with President Trump, the campaign there has focused almost entirely on domestic issues and anger at Mexican politicians. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    On Sunday, Mexicans go to the polls for the largest election in that country's history; 3,400 local, state, and federal positions are up for grabs, including the presidency.

    Mexico is the leading source of immigrants entering the U.S., Latin America's second largest economy, and America's third largest trading partner.

    But despite Mexico's tense relationship with President Trump, the campaign there has focused almost entirely on domestic issues.

    And, as foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin reports, the leading candidate is tapping into widespread anger.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Mexico's largest stadium, full of more than 70,000 adoring fans, the man expected to be Mexico's next president described this moment as a transformation.

    Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, widely known by his initials, AMLO, has been criticized as a radical and wannabe messiah. He prefers to label himself a political savior.

  • Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (through translator):

    Our triumph must be convincing. It will be a historical event. The victory of an entire people will be carried out in the face of the immorality and decadence of recent times.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Seventy-year-old Alicia Sepulveda's been rooting for AMLO for decades. In 2006, she protested on his behalf after the first time he ran, and lost, for president. She believes, this time, the third time, is the charm.

  • Alicia Sepulveda:

    He brings one thing that we have lost, which is hope.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That's the same message from the top deck and 28-year-old Lourdes with her daughters. Lourdes is a house cleaner and single mom, and believes only Lopez Obrador would lift her family up.

  • Lourdes (through translator):

    Groceries and economic support, lowered rent, scholarships for my two daughters, that's what he's promised. That way, we can get ahead.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That's Lopez Obrador's main message, overturning the system, reducing government expenditures, and redirecting money he says corruption stole to the poor.

  • Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (through translator):

    Our government will attend to all, but give preference to the poor. In a society as unequal as ours, it is almost impossible to achieve peace without justice and well-being.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He's been a politician for decades. After his 2006 loss by less than a percent, he and hundreds of thousands of protesters occupied part of Mexico City, and called for an alternative government. He lost again in 2012.

    But, this election, he's not only mobbed by crowds in poorer and rural areas. He's expanded his popularity to cities and the middle class by zeroing in on government corruption. He inhabits and unleashes what has become a national rage at the establishment.

  • Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (through translator):

    We're going up against the mafia of power. They're sneaky. They don't want to stop robbing. And they don't want to lose.

  • Denise Dresser:

    This is an election in which anger is more important than fear or inspiration.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Denise Dresser is a Mexican author and political scientist. She says Obrador's popularity has nothing to do with Mexican anger at President Trump's policies

  • President Donald Trump:

    They're bringing crime. They're rapists.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    From his campaign announcement, to criticisms on trade, to his accusation Mexico helps refugees reach the U.S. border.

  • President Donald Trump:

    They walk through Mexico like it's walking through Central Park. It's ridiculous.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Instead, this moment is about Mexican anger at Mexican politicians.

  • Denise Dresser:

    People are so upset with the ruling party, with corruption, with crony capitalism, with soaring inequality, with poverty, and with the economic model that has been in place in Mexico over the past 20 years, which has failed to deliver.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    To understand those failures, there's an area of Mexico City called Iztapalapa, where green hilltops lead to a dense poor neighborhood of two million, where we met 42-year-old Blanca Estela Ceja.

    She lives here with her entire family, including her 15-year-old son, and for the last three years, nearly every time she turns on the tap, it's been dry.

  • Blanca Estela Ceja (through translator):

    We have to buy water that is trucked in when there's a shortage in order to survive.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On her roof, she stores the water she buys. This is not a product of poverty. It's punishment for not supporting the party in power. If she did, she says, the local government would give her water cheaper.

    How unfair do you think this system is?

  • Blanca Estela Ceja (through translator):

    To me, it's unfair because water is a basic necessity. Here, some politicians manipulate that. They have been here as part of the government and they haven't solved anything. Each day, the problems get worse.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And AMLO has turned those problems into support.

    Who will you vote for?

  • Blanca Estela Ceja (through translator):

    Lopez Obrador.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    OK.

  • Blanca Estela Ceja (through translator):

    He understands our problems. He's come here. And when he's come, he's supported us a lot. We think he's more honest.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That's because allegations of corruption dog the current government, led by politicians from the ruling PRI party.

    In Chihuahua, former Governor Cesar Duarte's been accused of embezzlement. In Tamaulipas, former Governor Eugenio Hernandez's been indicted for money-laundering. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto's wife bought a $7 million house from a builder who received contracts from her husband.

    And, in Veracruz, former Governor Javier Duarte is accused of skimming up to $3 billion of public money, and replacing children's chemotherapy with water.

  • Claudia Ruiz Massieu:

    I know people are angry because of these examples, and I tell them, I know you're angry. You should be angry. We are more angry.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Claudia Ruiz Massieu is the secretary-general of the ruling PRI, or Institutional Revolutionary Party, and Mexico's former foreign secretary. The PRI candidate, Jose Antonio Meade, is double digits behind AMLO.

    Do you understand why people might say that you don't understand voters' anger?

  • Claudia Ruiz Massieu:

    They have a right to be angry. We do not live as we would like. We would like families to live better. We would like people to have the opportunity to walk in the streets and feel safe.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But that security is exactly what the PRI and government failed to deliver. In the last 12 years, since Mexico declared its war on drugs, more than 250,000 people have been murdered, and 34,000 people have vanished.

    And this election season, that violence unleashed itself on politicians. More than 100 have been killed, including one that was taking a selfie, and after he promised he would combat a local cartel, was shot in the head.

  • Enrique Krauze:

    We haven't had this kind of violence in a hundred years, since the revolution.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Historian and author Enrique Krauze says the solution to endemic violence is police and justice system institutional reform, not the amnesty that AMLO promises to give low-level criminals.

  • Enrique Krauze:

    And I sincerely don't think he has the knowledge, the understanding, the patience of what institutions are for.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Running in distant second, National Action Party, or PAN, candidate Ricardo Anaya says he does have a plan to fix institutions. At 39, he's the youngest presidential candidate in Mexico's modern era, and has never run for national office.

    But he's still being rejected as a member of the elite, admits PAN strategic adviser and former Foreign Secretary Jorge Castaneda.

  • Jorge Castaneda:

    He was a party president. He was a congressman. He was president of the Congress. He is partly seen still as part of the Mexican political elite, and that political elite is terribly discredited.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    AMLO presents himself as anti-elite and living humbly. He flies coach, and vows to get rid of the presidential plane. But his critics say his social programs are unaffordable, and, if he wins, and his party wins control of Congress, he will rule without a check.

  • Denise Dresser:

    He's going to have a Death Star. He's going to have a lot of power, which we don't know if he's going to use for good or for ill. And it's going to be up to Mexican institutions, to the media, to the Supreme Court, to the opposition parties and to civil society, to erect barriers.

  • Enrique Krauze:

    Absolute power has proven, in — through history to be disastrous for any country. And I can tell you I fear that AMLO will have something very close to absolute power.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, today, his campaign manager, Tatiana Clouthier, argues AMLO's a changed, softer man. And she shows off a campaign slogan, AMLOVE.

  • Tatiana Clouthier:

    I tell him, smile more, smile more. No? Smile more. You don't need to be so rude on certain things. And I think he has learned to use — that personal humor that he uses one to one, he has been able to put it out toward the people.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    AMLO posts lighthearted YouTube videos, and during a debate, when Ricardo Anaya approached, he joked he needed to hide his wallet.

    His supporters say the softer side is stylistic and substantive. As Mexico City's mayor, he governed pragmatically. He promises dialogue with the U.S., but he and his campaign still describe themselves as launching a movement.

  • Tatiana Clouthier:

    I believe that it would be a situation similar to the one you lived in the United States the moment that Barack Obama was elected, in the sense that people were able to open their ears and open their eyes to see the world differently.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For almost a century, Mexico's only known two establishment parties, until this Sunday, when AMLO promises a transformation, and Mexico heads into the unknown.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin in Mexico City.

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