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López Obrador, a leftist, wins sweeping mandate in Mexican presidential election

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, winner of Mexico's presidential election (right), waves during a rally at Zocalo square in Mexico City on July 1, 2018. Bloomberg photo by Cesar Rodriguez.1 / 3
A woman holds a Mexican national flag during a rally for Mexico's presidential election winner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico City on July 1, 2018. Bloomberg photo by Alejandro Cegarra.2 / 3
Supporters react during a rally for Mexico's presidential election winner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico City on July 1, 2018. Bloomberg photo by Cesar Rodriguez.3 / 3

MEXICO CITY - As votes were tallied Monday following a historic election, Andrés Manuel López Obrador appeared close to gaining control of congress as well as the presidency - a resounding mandate for the country's first leftist leader in decades.

López Obrador won more than 50 percent of the vote, the most in the history of Mexico's multiparty democracy, according to incomplete returns. The electoral results will give him broad power to reshape public policy, which has largely been set by pro-American, free-market-oriented politicians in recent decades.

The peso dropped about 1 percent on news of his victory, not as dramatic a slide as some had predicted, but a sign the markets are skeptical of López Obrador's platform, which features a surge in spending on welfare programs. In a speech late Sunday, López Obrador tried to quell concerns, saying he would not increase taxes or the public debt and would respect the country's private sector.

Preliminary results suggested members of his Morena party would take at least 260 of the 500 seats in the lower house of congress and roughly 65 of 128 seats in the senate.

President Donald Trump loomed in the background of this vote. He was not a wedge issue - all the presidential candidates opposed his immigration and trade policies and his anti-Mexican rhetoric - but the new president will have to manage cross-border relations that are unusually fraught.

Although he has spoken bitterly about Trump for nearly two years, López Obrador said he desired a "friendship and mutual respect" with the United States.

López Obrador, 64, a longtime leftist standard-bearer and former mayor of Mexico City, scored a stunning victory by promising to battle corruption and improve the lives of the poor. He has pledged to increase subsidies to the elderly and people with a disability, provide scholarships to students and re-examine a 2013 restructuring to liberalize Mexico's state-run oil industry.

During the campaign, many mainstream politicians and business executives expressed concern that such economic policies could present a danger to Mexico. But after his victory, his rivals struck a conciliatory tone, calling Sunday's result a triumph of Mexican democracy.

One of López Obrador's pledges is to reduce the size of the pensions given to retired presidents. In response on Monday, former president Vicente Fox tweeted a picture of him and other former Mexican heads of state dressed in rags, with the caption: "If it's for the good of Mexico."

An official "quick count" from a national sampling of ballots forecast López Obrador would win with between 53 percent and 53.8 percent of the vote. That put him far ahead of his main opponents, Ricardo Anaya and José Antonio Meade, who conceded Sunday night.

Video: Andrés Manuel López Obrador is Mexico's new president after holding on to his commanding lead in the polls. AMLO campaigned on an anti-corruption platform that struck a chord with Mexico's lower- and middle-income voters.

In his victory speeches, López Obrador called on Mexicans to reconcile and said his government would represent all citizens.

"We will respect everyone," he said at a downtown hotel. "But we will give preference to the most humble and forgotten."

López Obrador's supporters gathered by the thousands Sunday night in the Zocalo, Mexico City's main plaza, chanting the president-elect's name as mariachis performed. López Obrador arrived under a shower of confetti.

"I want to go down in history as a good president of Mexico," he said.

But many Mexicans were dubious.

"There is so much wrong. I think some people voted for López Obrador, but the majority voted for a change that we need," said Fernando Torres, a 23-year-old publicity agent who was walking on Paseo de la Reforma, a major downtown boulevard.

López Obrador's victory represents an emphatic rejection of the traditional politicians whom he regularly calls the "mafia of power." His role models are Mexican independence and revolutionary leaders who stood up to more powerful foreign countries.

López Obrador's critics warn he will be more combative toward the United States than the current president, and the U.S.-Mexico conflict could drastically escalate if he chooses to fight with Trump. In prior years, López Obrador was a critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, but he and his team have insisted they want to preserve it and maintain good relations with Trump.

Trump has regularly attacked Mexico for not doing enough to stop drugs, crime and undocumented immigrants from entering the United States. He has also initiated a renegotiation of NAFTA, saying Mexico has stolen U.S. jobs, and intends to build a border wall.

But Trump tweeted his congratulations to López Obrador on Sunday night, adding: "I look very much forward to working with him. There is much to be done that will benefit both the United States and Mexico!"

López Obrador expressed appreciation for the tweet, telling Mexico's Televisa network it was "very respectful."

"That is what we always want to maintain with the U.S. government, that there be mutual respect," he said.

López Obrador's supporters attributed his victory to the longevity and personal charisma of a candidate who was running in his third consecutive presidential election and has campaigned in every municipality in the country. His message has remained largely consistent - eradicate corruption, invest in the poor, fight inequality - but it got a warmer reception this year because of mounting frustration after a series of scandals in President Enrique Peña Nieto's administration and ever-growing drug-war violence.

Peña Nieto, who was constitutionally barred from running for reelection, is among the most unpopular presidents in decades. His Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) - which ruled Mexico for most of the past century - fared poorly in the elections, and Meade finished in third place.

López Obrador grew up in a middle-class family in the state of Tabasco on the Gulf of Mexico and began his political career helping indigenous villagers with public works projects that exposed him to Mexico's glaring inequality. He broke away from the PRI in the late 1980s and joined a leftist opposition party. López Obrador gained renown as a leader of protests against voter fraud and the abuses of the state-owned oil industry.

López Obrador had only one prior electoral victory. In 2000, he became mayor of Mexico City, where he boosted social spending for single mothers, the disabled and the elderly. Major projects, such as an elevated highway through the city and the revitalization of downtown neighborhoods, also boosted his popularity.

After two failed presidential bids, López Obrador, whose nickname is AMLO, has tempered his message this year. While he still emphasizes the fight against extreme poverty, saying it will lead to less violence and a stronger economy, he has portrayed himself as more pro-business and pro-American than in the past. His critics worry he will roll back a recent restructuring to allow private investment in the oil industry and cancel a multibillion-dollar airport project in Mexico City.

"It's difficult to know if he's changed, if he's now less radical, or if it's just a political decision to become elected," said Andrés Rozental, a retired Mexican diplomat. "AMLO, at least in his rhetoric, represents a shift much to the left of what we've ever seen nationally."

López Obrador says he plans to cut government personnel and salaries and prevent funds from being squandered through corruption. He intends to use those resources to boost social programs for the poor. Corruption experts express skepticism about whether this plan is realistic.

Sunday's elections were the largest in Mexico's history, with voters filling more than 3,200 positions at all levels of government. Among these were 628 members of the National Congress who will be able to be reelected for the first time in nearly a century, eight state governors and mayors of more than 1,500 cities, including Mexico City.

The campaign season has been marked by violence, with some 130 candidates and campaign staff assassinated across the country.

López Obrador was competing against Anaya, an ambitious 39-year-old former president of the right-leaning National Action Party (PAN); and a 49-year-old Yale-trained economist, Meade, representing the PRI.

Author Information:

Kevin Sieff has been The Washington Post’s Latin America correspondent since 2018. Joshua Partlow is The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Mexico. The Washington Post's Maya Averbuch in Ecatepec, Mexico, and Dudley Althaus, and Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.