By Dave Graham
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The most historic legacy of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a left-leaning resource nationalist who casts his administration as a turning point in the annals of Mexico, may be to pave the way for the country's first woman leader.
Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, a 60-year-old physicist, environmentalist and longstanding ally of Lopez Obrador who has governed as mayor in tandem with his presidency, has emerged as early front-runner to be his party's candidate in 2024, despite hints she could be more moderate than him.
Polls give Lopez Obrador's National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) a commanding lead in the presidential race, currently making the election appear a battle between the ruling party's own contenders. Mexican law bars presidents from re-election.
Lopez Obrador, whose 2018 election ushered in a series of left-wing victories in Latin America, most recently on Sunday with the return of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, has repeatedly stated publicly that he has no favorite.
But five senior aides to the president told Reuters they had no doubt he would most like Sheinbaum to follow him, on the basis she was most likely to cement in history his vision of making the state the principal engine of social change.
Lorena Villavicencio, a former MORENA lawmaker, agreed.
"Claudia guarantees the key programs of the 'Fourth Transformation' will continue," said Villavicencio, using the epithet Lopez Obrador claims for his government as an epochal shift comparable to Mexico's independence from Spain.
Socially conservative, the headstrong president has built his power base on higher welfare spending, state control of natural resources and expanding the role of the armed forces, while pillorying critics as corrupt and self-serving.
He has clashed with some feminists who view him as out of touch. Yet his government and Congress have also seen record female participation in a country where 'machista' culture has long been blamed for relegating women to subordinate roles and higher levels of violence against them than in regional peers.
Sheinbaum, who points to her record of making the city safer for women and providing free daycare for children, wants to take things further, pitching her candidacy as historic for women in Mexico and beyond.
"A woman in charge of the country would open new horizons and unleash the potential of other women. It would break the monopoly of men in public life," said Villavicencio.
Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, the aides said Lopez Obrador did not state his preference for Sheinbaum explicitly. They saw her as favorite based on their dealings with him, what he had said, and their assessment of political developments.
Things could still change if her bid falters, they noted.
Sheinbaum casts herself as the continuity candidate, both as custodian of his legacy and defender of his ideology, while hinting she could work better with investors in one area deemed crucial for Mexico's development: green technology.
She vows to boost renewable energy output in a way that spurs industrial development, thus addressing concerns raised by manufacturers fearful they would struggle to meet emission-reduction targets under Lopez Obrador's drive to prioritize output by Mexico's fossil fuel-dependent state energy firms.
"Our country has enormous potential in renewable energy," Sheinbaum told Reuters. "It's perfectly feasible Mexico is really entering an age of renewable energy."
Nevertheless, she also defends Lopez Obrador's contentious goal of ensuring power generation is split 54-46% in favor of the state in order to protect "energy sovereignty."
Sheinbaum's most prominent rival, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, is expected to be more business-friendly, half a dozen senior executives told Reuters. Still, they are quick to forecast both would be more encouraging to investors than Lopez Obrador.
Four of the aides said they believed the president preferred Interior Minister Adan Augusto Lopez, another MORENA contender, to Ebrard, also on ideological grounds.
Aides stress that what Lopez Obrador wants will be crucial in determining the candidate, even though he publicly denies this. The question is not settled because the president wants to see how the front-runners connect with voters, they say. He says the candidate will be chosen by polling organized by MORENA.
Recent surveys have tended to show voters slightly favoring Sheinbaum over Ebrard.
None of the party's front-runners command Lopez Obrador's political authority, but all are likely to be more conciliatory as leaders, officials, diplomats and MORENA politicians say.
'TIME OF WOMEN'
Sheinbaum cuts a sober and measured figure compared to the folksy and often polarizing Lopez Obrador, who has dictated Mexico's political agenda from 7 a.m. daily news conferences.
Sheinbaum's grandparents were Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, and her election would be a milestone in Jewish history.
While saying she is proud of her heritage, Sheinbaum firmly stresses her Mexican roots, describing herself as a "guadalupana", namechecking the Virgin of Guadalupe, a defining icon of Roman Catholicism in the country.
She and her rivals have vowed to retain Lopez Obrador's welfare programs and his core agenda. They speak less of their own plans than of what they can do to burnish his.
Nationally, Lopez Obrador is far more popular than MORENA, which now controls nearly two-thirds of regional governments, giving it more power to mobilize voters.
"Mexico is at a special moment in its history. President Lopez Obrador's popularity stems from his personal, austere, simple way of governing," Sheinbaum said.
If Lopez Obrador hands power to Sheinbaum, it would help silence his feminist critics, officials say.
The rapid advances of women in Mexican politics plays to Sheinbaum's advantage, said Clara Brugada, MORENA mayor of Iztapalapa, Mexico City's most populous borough.
"It's the time of women," she said.
Sheinbaum has impressed in some areas where the president has struggled. Nationally, homicides have stayed stubbornly high. In Mexico City, she has cut them by half.
Many of Lopez Obrador's biggest public works look increasingly like they will not be completed on his watch.
It will fall to the next president, Sheinbaum says, to consolidate the Mayan Train - his rail project in the Yucatan peninsula - a new oil refinery in Tabasco state, and the inter-oceanic trade corridor he plans in southern Mexico.
The polls to determine MORENA's presidential candidate are expected to be concluded by late 2023.
The perception Sheinbaum is the one to beat is widely held inside MORENA. Ebrard and some supporters have publicly urged MORENA to ensure contenders compete on a "level playing field".
MORENA cannot risk meddling with the polls' results, but how they are organized, structured and the questions they pose will influence the outcome, officials say. It is not yet clear who will be consulted, nor how many rounds of polling there will be.
One cloud hanging over MORENA domination is Mexico City, a bastion of the Mexican left which unites the president, Sheinbaum and Ebrard, who succeeded Lopez Obrador as mayor.
In May 2021, a Mexico City metro overpass collapsed, killing or injuring dozens of people. Ebrard, who built the fateful metro line when he was mayor, and Sheinbaum, whose maintenance of it auditors criticized, both took flak over the tragedy.
The following month, MORENA unexpectedly lost control of a majority of the capital's 16 boroughs in midterm elections that saw the party sweep aside the opposition in most states and record numbers of women securing gubernatorial office.
Lopez Obrador publicly voiced concern at the Mexico City results, which gave him pause about whether Sheinbaum was the right candidate, one of the five close aides said.
Still, opposition politician Alfa Gonzalez, a onetime backer of the president who in 2021 captured Tlalpan, the Mexico City borough Sheinbaum once ran, said it was Lopez Obrador's divisive rhetoric that alienated former supporters.
"The middle class played a crucial part in the opposition winning," Gonzalez told Reuters.
Describing Ebrard as the candidate most likely to take votes off the opposition, Gonzalez argued the degree of identification between Sheinbaum and Lopez Obrador meant their fortunes are now inextricably linked going into 2024.
"They're betting heavily on the president's pull," she said.
(Reporting by Dave Graham; Additional reporting by Diego Ore; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)