Mexico: The election race to succeed AMLO has started

Voters in next year’s general election will be looking for a third way between the incumbent’s populism and the technocracy of old, writes Vanessa Rubio-Márquez.

The World Today Published 28 July 2023 Updated 26 October 2023 4 minute READ

With elections approaching in June 2024, the race to be president has already begun in Mexico. Once President Andrés Manuel López Obrador leaves office the country will look markedly different after six years of his populist leadership. López Obrador – widely known as Amlo after his initials – has to stand down as the Mexican constitution limits him to a single six-year term, and whatever the outcome of the June election the Amlo phenomenon will not repeat itself.

With President López Obrador’s departure, the populism of Mexico’s political leadership should subside

He is a singular actor in Mexican political life and populism should subside as the main characteristic of political leadership with his departure. But to understand what is to come, it is necessary to first take stock of the Mexico that Amlo’s successor stands to inherit.

Since the 1990s, Mexico has undergone a series of deep transformations ushering in a consolidated democracy. These include the creation of a federal electoral institute to guarantee free and fair elections, an independent central bank, an autonomous statistics bureau and a host of regulatory bodies that oversee everything from economic competition, transparency and energy to telecommunications and social policy.

These tools of democracy made it possible for a change in government in 2000 when, after 70 years of single-party rule under the centre-left Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) won the presidency. 

Institutions under threat

Many of these institutions are now under threat, however. After nearly two decades campaigning up and down the country, López Obrador won the presidency in a landslide in 2018. He finally was able to undertake what he calls the Fourth Transformation of Mexico, showing open disregard for Mexico’s independent institutions, centralizing power in the executive and undermining checks and balances.

As a candidate, López Obrador’s stated goals of ending corruption and ‘putting the poor first’ were well received by a large majority of Mexicans who were frustrated by limits on social mobility and a culture of privilege that has long prevailed in Mexican society. López Obrador and his party, Morena – which stands for National Regeneration Movement but also means ‘brown skinned’ in Spanish – fit squarely with global trends of polarization and populism.

He offers a rhetorical challenge to the status quo by attacking elites and relying on an ‘us against them’ narrative. He proposes simplistic solutions to complex problems and has all but eliminated diversity of representation and opinion from spaces that once benefited from a plurality of voices. For the most part he has overpromised and underdelivered.

During Amlo’s term in office, poverty has increased dramatically, and he has significantly augmented the power of the military. He has also run one of the most fiscally stringent governments in the region despite global calls for financial expansion in response to the Covid pandemic; whereas Brazil spent 8.6 per cent of its GDP in response to the pandemic, Mexico spent only 0.7 per cent.

López Obrador has given the military control over ports, customs authority and construction concessions for key infrastructure projects

Key indicators in economic growth, poverty, violence and crime have all faltered or fallen short of expectations. He promised repeatedly that the Mexican economy would grow by 4 per cent, but instead the country grew by minus 0.2 per cent in 2019,  minus 8.5 per cent in 2020, 4.7 per cent in 2021 and 3.1 per cent in 2022; market expectations for growth in 2023 are around 2 per cent.

Similarly, the technical body that evaluates social policy, Coneval, reported an increase of 3.8 million people living in poverty and 2.1 million in extreme poverty between 2018 and 2020. The share of the population without access to health services rose from 16.2 per cent to 28.2 per cent in the same period – further limiting Mexico’s ability to deal with the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the armed forces have amassed significantly more power. In addition to creating a new National Guard, López Obrador has given the military control over ostensibly civilian domains, from ports and customs authority to construction concessions for key infrastructure projects, such as a new tourism train system, a new oil refinery and an airport project in Mexico City, to name a few.

The expansion of military power has prompted significant pushback from civil society and together with his questionable policy of ‘hugs not bullets’, by which a programme of poverty reduction was supposed to offer a substitute for the war on drugs, has served to accentuate the country’s challenges from organized crime and increased rates of violence.

The 2024 election campaign

The 2024 campaign officially began in June when Amlo set the rules for the selection of Morena’s presidential candidate. Six former officials were invited to participate, including the two most popular: Claudia Sheinbaum, the former mayor of Mexico City, and Marcelo Ebrard, the former foreign minister. Both are campaigning hard for Amlo’s support, but both would be expected to establish their own style of politics before the general election.

Sheinbaum is at heart a public servant. A scientist by training, she would take a less instinctive approach to politics, and rely more on technical expertise than her predecessor. But she is also deeply aligned with López Obrador and represents a strong ideological voice within Morena. For instance, she believes – like Amlo – that far from tools of democracy, Mexico’s electoral institutes have failed to guarantee impartiality and free and fair elections.

On the other hand, Ebrard is at heart a politician, and would be expected to show his pragmatism and progressive thinking in relation to economic growth, minority rights, social programmes and the potential of nearshoring, whereby companies move manufacturing to countries close to their consumer market.

The opposition must offer a third way that is neither the technocratic stone heart of the past or the populism of the present

Opposition parties, meanwhile, recently agreed to field a unified candidate under the banner of the ‘Broad Front for Mexico’ coalition. The candidate will be named on September 3. More than 30 contenders registered as pre-candidates, but only 13 advanced to the next stage. Xochitl Galvez, an intellectually agile engineer with an indigenous background, progressive views and a backstory as a self-made businesswoman and politician linked to the right-wing PAN, has 
recently gained traction.

Apart from her, three well-known figures from the two main opposition parties, PAN and PRI (centre-left), also have a chance: Beatriz Paredes, the most experienced of the opposition politicians; Enrique de la Madrid; and Santiago Creel. The internal politics of Mexico’s traditional political forces will largely dictate who is chosen as the opposition’s candidate in what promises to be a hard-fought campaign against the incumbents.

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Entering the election with a single candidate is a prerequisite for the opposition to contend realistically with Morena. They will need to offer a fresh and engaging vision to convince disenchanted voters that they can offer change both from Amlo and what preceded him – a third way that is neither the technocratic stone heart of the past nor the populism of the present.

A sustainable quadrangle

In short, the candidate will need to convince Mexican families that a sensible and sustainable quadrangle of markets, democracy, social and economic inclusion, and the rule of law really is possible. Given its ties to the United States, elections there will also have an impact on Mexico’s next president. But the vision for Mexico’s development must start at home.

Headwinds during the next Mexican president’s term from 2024-2030 will come from stagnant economic growth, an increasingly compromised fiscal stance, growing levels of insecurity and challenges to domestic governance vis a vis opposition parties, organized crime and other actors. Tailwinds may depend on the outcome of the US election, but should come thanks to a resilient American economy, the growing nearshoring trend and a sound macroeconomic environment.