By Dave Graham
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has forged a coalition of voters of all stripes in a bid to win the presidency at the third time of asking and now, with victory within his grasp, he must work out how to hold it together.
The 64-year-old former mayor of Mexico City, whom opinion polls give a wide lead over rivals before the July 1 election, will have to balance the interests of leftist economic nationalists, social liberals and religious conservatives.
Aside from loyalty to AMLO himself, as Lopez Obrador is commonly known, the broad group is united by little more than opposition to the status quo and to U.S. President Donald Trump.
Lopez Obrador has made a career of denouncing corruption, electoral fraud and economic mismanagement by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the center-right National Action Party (PAN), which governed from 2000 to 2012.
Yet, a week on Sunday, dozens of former politicians for the two parties will line up alongside him, amplifying his appeal to a wide swathe of the electorate but also creating a divergent platform with no clear center of political equilibrium.
"The cohesive element in this whole mix of elements and ways of thinking is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador," said Abraham Gonzalez, a deputy interior minister in the last PAN government who now supports Lopez Obrador.
"So his actions, his ability to find common points of agreement, are crucial."
So far Lopez Obrador has kept a lid on potential conflict within his alliance by adopting ambiguous stances on contentious issues such as abortion, gay marriage and economic liberalization.
Still, Mexico's next president will face a more challenging start than his predecessors. Murders are at record levels, the peso currency is languishing close to historic lows against the dollar and a trade war has been brewing with Trump.
However, the U.S. president could prove useful. If Trump stays hostile, insisting Mexico will pay for his planned border wall and seeking to repatriate jobs to the United States, it could help Lopez Obrador paper over divisions on how to move Mexico forward.
"If Trump continues on the path he is on, he could easily help Lopez Obrador bring the country closer together," said Andres Rozental, a former deputy foreign minister.
Opinion polls suggest Lopez Obrador could win twice as many votes as his nearest challenger, former PAN leader Ricardo Anaya, who is battling for second place with ex-finance minister Jose Antonio Meade, the PRI candidate.
After his defeat in 2012, Lopez Obrador jettisoned the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and formed the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), which is on track to become the biggest force in Congress after the election.
Built around Lopez Obrador, MORENA entered an electoral pact with the smaller leftist Labor Party (PT) and the conservative, religious Social Encounter Party (PES).
The latter tie-up met with vocal resistance from a number of Lopez Obrador's traditional supporters on the left, uneasy about allying with the staunchly anti-abortion PES.
Aaron Lara, a senior PES official, said the alliance was "strictly electoral" and conceded his party was quite likely to vote differently to MORENA in future "because our convictions are different from theirs".
Excluding votes with cross-party backing, the PES nearly always voted with the PRI and against MORENA until the alliance was announced in December 2017, lower house records show. After that, voting became more aligned but differences persisted.
The electoral partnerships and drift of former PRI and PAN members into MORENA have stirred protests by party faithful.
In the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas, long a bastion of the PRI and PAN, many MORENA candidates have links to the two traditionally dominant parties.
The mayoral candidate for Reynosa, Tamaulipas' biggest city, is a former PAN member of the state congress and brother-in-law to the PAN governor. MORENA's contenders for the cities of Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros and Tampico are all ex-PRI.
Omar Salomon, a MORENA activist in Ciudad Mante in southern Tamaulipas, said "imposition" of candidates had gone too far and MORENA was at risk of being overrun by opportunists.
"We've been invaded by PRI people," he said, branding the PES a "far right" party. Salomon said he would vote for Lopez Obrador, but not MORENA's local candidate for Congress, or for mayor of Ciudad Mante.
Lopez Obrador accused the PAN of rigging the vote to rob him of the presidency in 2006, yet his supporters now include the man who was then chairman of the party, and his successor. He also has the backing of a former PRI interior minister who oversaw the 1988 election of President Carlos Salinas, a man he often depicts as the arch-villain of Mexican politics.
Like many MORENA members, including Lopez Obrador, Salomon opposed outgoing President Enrique Pena Nieto's energy reform, which opened the oil and gas industry to private capital.
However, Alfonso Romo, one of Lopez Obrador's top economic advisers, said the candidate will not overturn the reform, and the new intake of MORENA lawmakers is set to feature former PRI and PAN legislators who voted for the historic measure.
(Reporting by Dave Graham; Additional reporting by Diego Ore; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Grant McCool)