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BREAKING NEWS

Mexican president set to extend power in state votes, despite wobbles

Mexican president set to extend power in state votes, despite wobbles
Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador attends a news conference, at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico, May 21, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Romero -
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HENRY ROMERO(Reuters)
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By Dave Graham

MEXICOCITY (Reuters) – Mexico’s leftist president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is poised to hammer a fractured opposition this weekend in the first electoral test of his strength since taking office, despite presiding over an economy in reverse and rising violence.

Lopez Obrador’s National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) is cruising towards victory in gubernatorial races in the border state of Baja California and the central region of Puebla, the two biggest posts among dozens up for grabs on June 2.

Opinion polls show the vow made by Lopez Obrador to clean up politics, which propelled him to victory last July, still resonates with voters more than warnings from discredited adversaries that his centralizing urges concentrate too much power in one person and are encouraging arbitrary decision-making.

Voter surveys give Jaime Bonilla, the MORENA candidate in Baja California, more than double the support of all rivals. Miguel Barbosa, the Puebla contender, holds a slimmer lead but still was 16 percentage points clear once undecided voters were stripped out in a poll published on Monday.

“The wave from last July 1 is still very strong, the MORENA wave,” Mario Delgado, MORENA’s leader in the lower house of Congress, told Reuters, predicting defeat for the centre-right National Action Party (PAN) still governing the two states.

“These are governments synonymous with what people voted to change,” he said, “governments heavily associated with corruption.”

Lopez Obrador has little to show yet for his fight against corruption but there are signs that may be changing. On Monday, the Finance Ministry said it had blocked the bank accounts of a former boss of state oil firm Pemex, Emilio Lozoya, on suspicion of conducting illegal financial operations.

Lozoya was a close ally of Lopez Obrador’s predecessor as president, Enrique Pena Nieto.

SETBACKS

The six months since Lopez Obrador took office on Dec. 1 have not been smooth sailing.

Some officials say the government’s promise to run a tight budget has created shortfalls in public services including hospitals, a complaint that sparked the first major resignation from the Lopez Obrador administration last week.

Meanwhile, u-turns made by the president on Pena Nieto’s economic policies and doubts about the future of the debt-laden Pemex have rattled financial markets.

He also has failed to curb surging violence and a new national security force has yet to be deployed. So far, murders are on track to surpass the 2018 record of nearly 29,000.

Although he has pledged to lift economic growth, the economy contracted 0.2% quarter-on-quarter during the first three months of 2019.

The setbacks have taken some of the shine off Lopez Obrador’s popularity, which rose as high as 80 percent in some surveys during his first few weeks.

A daily tracking poll by pollster Mitofsky shows that approval for Lopez Obrador has dipped from nearly 68% in mid-April to about 62% at the start of this week.

“The most urgent matter is to pacify the country and make Mexicans feel safe again,” Delgado said. “And secondly, I think government spending needs to be speeded up to counter the (economic) trend of the first quarter.”

At present Lopez Obrador has little to fear from the opposition, which he has relentlessly castigated as the source of political corruption during his daily news conferences.

In an illustration of how the combative Lopez Obrador is remaking the political map of Mexico, some prominent figures long allied to the parties he has pilloried have come out in support of MORENA at Sunday’s votes.

“The opposition is decimated, divided and has no credibility,” said Fernando Belaunzaran, a trenchant critic of the president from the Party of the Democratic Revolution – a centre-left party that Lopez Obrador once led but now opposes him.

(Reporting by Dave Graham; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Bill Trott)

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