Andrés Manuel López ObradorMexico’s populist would-be president

WHEN Andrés Manuel López Obrador winds up a stump speech in the main square of Jilotepec, a small town in the eastern state of Veracruz, the crowd surges forward. It takes him 15 minutes to pass through the commotion of backslapping, selfies and jabbing microphones to reach the car parked outside the tent where he spoke. The point of the rally is to promote Mr López Obrador’s party, Morena, in municipal elections to be held in Veracruz in June. But his main goal is much bigger: to win Mexico’s presidency on his third attempt, in 2018.

That is a prospect that thrills some Mexicans and terrifies others. A figure of national consequence for more than 20 years, AMLO, as he is often called, has fulminated against privilege, corruption and the political establishment. Sweep away all that, he tells poor Mexicans, and their lives will improve. Many others hear in that message the menace of a charismatic populist who would punish enterprise, weaken institutions and roll back reforms. The biggest worriers view him as a Mexican version of the late Hugo Chávez, an autocrat who wrecked Venezuela’s economy and undermined its democracy.

But Mexico, like some richer countries, may now want more drastic politics. Voters are enraged by corruption, crime, which is rising again after a drop, and feeble economic growth. Not long after Mr López Obrador spoke in Jilotepec, the state prosecutor in Veracruz reported that 250 skulls, belonging to victims of drug gangs, had been found in pits near the state capital. Many Mexicans have stopped believing that either of the parties that have governed Mexico this century, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) of President Enrique Peña Nieto or the opposition National Action Party (PAN), will do much about such horrors. And now they face a confrontation with an American president who wants to end free trade, deport millions of Mexicans, build a wall and force Mexico to pay for it.

AMLO proposes to answer graft with his own incorruptibility, and Donald Trump’s nationalism with a fiery nationalism of his own. In Jilotepec he rails against the former governor of Veracruz, now facing corruption charges and on the run from the police. He slams the PRI, the fugitive’s party, as “corrupt and cynical” and the PAN as “corrupt and hypocritical”. The message strikes home. “Mexico is rich, but those who govern us rob us,” says a supporter.

Mr López Obrador has taken his campaign to the United States, where he presents himself as the only politician who can stand up to Mr Trump. In New York on March 13th he denounced Mr Peña for allowing his American counterpart to rain “insolence and insults” upon millions of Mexicans living in the United States. A President López Obrador would mean “alpha males either side of the border”, says Juan Pardinas of IMCO, a think-tank. Voters may like that idea.

Mr López Obrador is the early front-runner for next year’s election (Mr Peña cannot run again). In a one-round election, he could win with as little as 30% of the vote (see chart). If that happens, Mexico will embark on a perilous political experiment.

He began his political career in the southern state of Tabasco as an operative of the PRI, which monopolised political power at the national level from 1929 to 2000. His renegade streak showed up early….