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One hopes that Mexico's elimination by Brazil from the World Cup soccer tournament on the day after he was elected president will not prove to be a bad omen for Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leftist who rode a wave of popular outrage over Mexico's corruption and violence to a landslide victory. But the prospects of a populist who makes as many promises as AMLO, as the president-elect is commonly known, are even harder to predict than a tournament as filled with surprises as this World Cup.

Why he won is not the mystery. Killings are at record levels, corruption scandals are ceaseless and nearly half the population lives in poverty. Like populists elsewhere around the world (and also north of Mexico's border), Mr. López Obrador promised a break with the past. So voters not only denied the presidency to the two mainstream parties that have dominated Mexican politics for two decades, they also gave Mr. López Obrador a likely majority in Parliament.

That means Mr. López Obrador, the 64-year-old former mayor of Mexico City, has considerable leverage from the outset. But to do what? Here is where things become more complicated. "Only I can fix corruption," Mr. López Obrador declared in his campaign, but he offered few details. 

Equally unclear is how Mr. López Obrador intends to curb Mexico's endemic violence. A decade ago, the government deployed the military against the powerful drug cartels, yet more homicides were reported in May than in any single month since the government began the current record-keeping system two decades ago, and 2017 was the deadliest year.

Then there's the mystery of Mr. López Obrador himself, a complex politician who defies stereotypes. He can be leftist ideologue and pragmatist, populist and fiscal conservative; he shares a leftist aversion to the North American Free Trade Agreement but has pledged to continue the current government's negotiations.

Conservatives in the United States have raised alarms about a radical leftist in the mold of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez who will send swarms of migrants across the border. Mr. López Obrador's pledges to upend the status quo have also led to inevitable comparisons to President Trump — with whom the Mexican shares a thin skin and irritation at critical news media. Yet unlike Mr. Chávez and Mr. Trump, the president-elect is a lifelong politician with firm faith in democracy and demonstrated pragmatism in his five years as Mexico City's mayor. And Mexico is not the oil-rich petrostate Venezuela was.

One thing is certain: Mexico's relations with the United States will not improve. Mr. Trump is despised in Mexico for all the obvious reasons, and though Mr. López Obrador said he would seek "respectful and cooperative" relations with the United States, he is keenly aware that his predecessor's efforts to forge positive relations with Mr. Trump ended in his humiliation. 

If there is a danger for the United States in Mr. López Obrador's election, it is not that he will move his country radically leftward, but that he will fail to meet the high expectations he has raised. His predecessors promised many of the same things he has but ended up managing crises, not ending them. The predecessors, however, were from established parties; to their promises, Mr. López Obrador has appended the populist promise of profound transformation.

If the Trump administration chooses to make life difficult for him, it will only deepen Mexico's problems and increase the power of the drug cartels and the despair driving people to head north. It is in Mexico's best interest, and therefore in America's, that the new president succeed.

Newsday, July 5

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