As anti-establishment fervor spreads across Latin America, one leader has been spared — Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. But he can’t run again, and polls suggest the man best positioned to challenge his party is a 36-year-old first-term mayor.
The unexpected — and unannounced — opponent has run Monterrey, Mexico’s second-largest city, for less than a year and his nationwide popularity stems not from innovative urban policies but simply from his name — Luis Donaldo Colosio Riojas.
His charismatic father, Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta, was assassinated on the presidential campaign trail in 1994 two weeks after crying “Let’s change!” in a speech calling for the reform of his party, which had ruled Mexico for six decades in what was known as the “perfect dictatorship.” With the major opposition parties in the doldrums, a slew of polls suggests Colosio Riojas from the small Movimiento Ciudadano party might now be the change Lopez Obrador’s detractors are seeking.
“People need to believe in someone and it seems that he’s kind of filling that need,” said Gabriela de la Paz, a political scientist at Tec de Monterrey University. “The important thing is that he’s not associated with corruption.”
With Lopez Obrador out of the running, the two leaders from his leftist Morena Party expected to be candidates are Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard and Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum. They are among the best-known figures in Mexican politics yet in a May poll, 26% of respondents said they’d vote for Colosio, 34% for Ebrard and 33% for Sheinbaum.
And Colosio hasn’t even declared any interest in running.
When asked about his poll numbers by Reforma newspaper, Colosio said he was “grateful” for the support but it would be “premature and irresponsible” to get distracted from his job running Monterrey, the country’s industrial capital.
In an interview with Bloomberg News in his office, Colosio declined to speak about the presidential polls but addressed his popular appeal.
Sharing his father’s name is “a great opportunity to have people take you in and listen to you, but it gives you double the responsibility to be at the top of your game and meet that expectation because we’re at a moment where we won’t tolerate more disappointment.”
He added that, like his father, he believed that “government, above all, should be human and have people’s welfare and leveling the playing field as its first goal.”
Colosio, who dabbled in acting and theater production before becoming a lawyer and auditioned unsuccessfully for “Latin American Idol,” gesticulated dramatically to emphasize his points throughout the interview in Monterrey’s Municipal Palace. A framed Star Wars poster leaned against the wall next to him, apparently yet to be hung.
Part of Colosio’s appeal seems to be that he’s not associated with any recent catastrophe — Covid-19 and the collapse a year ago of a metro line in Mexico City that killed 26 and injured 98. Ebrard built the line when he was mayor and Sheinbaum was in charge of its maintenance.
To have a shot, Colosio would need to unite the main opposition parties, which have formed a coalition that his Movimiento Ciudadano has so far refused to join. The PRI, which was Colosio’s father’s party, is mired in a leadership fight, and its alliance with the conservative PAN and center-left PRD trails far behind AMLO’s Morena party. The big challenge for Morena is to keep dominating Mexican politics without AMLO, as the president is known, at the helm.
In the interview, Colosio, who served one term as a state lawmaker before becoming mayor, didn’t always have the ready answers that come quickly from the lips of more rehearsed politicians. He struggled initially to answer when asked who his political heroes were, before saying he preferred “social” figures who fight for equality like his father, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela.
Colosio has made bureaucratic innovation a central goal in his three-year term, which ends in 2024. He has created an office for open government that, among other things, seeks to create a digital profile on the blockchain for each citizen that he hopes will help people and businesses get through red tape “in a matter of days instead of months.”
Above all, his personal story is compelling. His father was assassinated when he was eight and only months later his mother died of pancreatic cancer. She was pregnant with his sister when diagnosed and, despite the clear risk posed by the pregnancy, she didn’t abort. Colosio says that has informed his own support for abortion in a deeply conservative state.
“My mother had two things that are today denied to most women in Mexico,” he said. “First, the education needed to be able to make the best decision at the time. Second, the right to decide.”
Another issue Colosio faces is water. State water authority Agua y Drenaje has cut access in Monterrey to just six hours a day, leaving many citizens with no water at all. He said the city wants to help provide water sanitation for some parts that are poorly served: “That way we can contribute to more responsible consumption by the municipality.”
He called for “lateral thinking” to solve the crisis, which he argues won’t harm Monterrey’s reputation as a hub for business excellence in Latin America. “This whole region of the country has known how to overcome numerous water crises through citizen restraint, administrative restructuring and the development of our infrastructure,” he added.