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What does Mexico’s radical new president mean for the Church?

Supporters of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, celebrate at the Zocalo square in Mexico City (Getty Images)

The election of AMLO, as everyone calls Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, as the next president of Mexico, should come as no surprise to anyone. AMLO has been campaigning for the job for the last 18 years, and everyone is absolutely sick of the PRI, the party that governed Mexico for over a hundred years, and PAN, the party that replaced it a couple of decades ago. Moreover, Mexico is now fast becoming a failed state, with a rising tide of violence and endemic corruption. Not surprisingly, many people have seen AMLO as their only hope, indeed as their last hope.

AMLO himself has made himself more electable of late by muting some of his leftist rhetoric in the search for allies, and being notably silent or coy on some of the issues that are dear to progressive hearts the world over such as gay marriage and abortion. This in itself may point to the fact that AMLO is simply dishonest, or it may be a sign that he is a pragmatist; or it could be sign that he is not hostile to Catholicism, though what his religious beliefs are, if any, remains hard to discern.

One thing should always be remembered, and that is that Mexico, more than any other country, has been scarred by a history of violent anti-clericalism. It is certainly to be hoped that AMLO has the sense to let sleeping dogs lie and not reopen the wounds of the past.

When I was first in Mexico, shortly before the election of 2006, which AMLO lost by a narrow margin, he was viewed with distrust and fear bordering on loathing in many quarters. In those days he was seen as a dangerously revolutionary figure. It now remains to be seen just how much of his radicalism has survived the long march to power.

AMLO has campaigned on an anti-corruption ticket, as one would expect. But the real test will come when he is confronted by the tangled knot that binds Mexican government power at all levels to the drug cartels. What will he do about the drug war that has cost so many lives? In this he has been far from clear about specific policy, but in this matter he has the chance to make a real difference. Let us hope he does. One thing is certain: Mexico does not need more of the same. That has already failed. Everyone must hope AMLO’s courage does not fail, as he will certainly need it; and everyone must hope and pray AMLO will be different: Mexicans certainly need that. What they don’t need is yet another failed populist.

At the time of writing, I can detect no reaction on the website of the Mexican Bishops’ conference to the AMLO victory. Their statement for the election is about “constructing a better Mexico for everyone” which seems pretty safe, but one wonders what they will make of AMLO and he of them. In addition, one wonders how AMLO will get on with the Pope, given the way that their talk about the poor and the left behind has, on the surface at least, much in common, and given too the fact that the Pope’s relations with the Mexican bishops have not always been smooth. Interesting times lie ahead!