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Mexico’s democracy is at stake in 2024

May 30,2024 - Last updated at May 30,2024

NEW YORK — Many countries, from the United States and Uruguay to India and Indonesia, will hold elections in 2024. Although pundits, politicians, and political scientists tend to portray each one as “historic” and “momentous”, Mexico’s June 2 presidential election may be one of the few to warrant such superlatives, if only because the country has limited experience with truly democratic votes.

It is not a stretch to say that Mexico experienced its first free and fair presidential election in 2000. This implies that over the course of two centuries of independence, the country has elected its leaders democratically on only four occasions. If things go well, this year’s vote would be the fifth.

But things might not go well, posing a challenge for Mexico’s political and business establishment, the military, and the US, always a key actor in the country. For starters, the playing field is tilted so far in favor of Claudia Sheinbaum, the ruling party’s presidential candidate, that it recalls the heyday of one-party rule under the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Moreover, the outgoing president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), entered office in 2018 with an unusually broad social base and will leave with his popularity intact, becoming the country’s most powerful former president since 1940. Lastly, while the opposition has fielded a competitive candidate, Xóchitl Gálvez, she represents an unholy alliance between the PRI, the right-of-centre National Action Party (PAN), a tiny splinter left-wing party, and a host of civil-society groups, some more representative than others.

Sheinbaum, AMLO’s protégé and a former mayor of Mexico City, enjoys the backing of a large majority of Mexico’s governors, all Cabinet ministers, the media, and the state machinery (including access to the federal budget). The chairwoman of the weakened National Electoral Institute is closely allied with AMLO’s party, while the president of the Federal Electoral Tribunal, the country’s highest electoral authority, was forced to resign in December and replaced with a colleague sympathetic to the government.

Every week, pollsters, many of whom are newly established or have ties to the ruling party, release survey results showing Sheinbaum with a commanding lead, in some cases 60 points, the aim being to convince Mexicans that the election is already a done deal. Why bother voting, or contributing money, or canvassing door to door?

This unlevel playing field raises the question of whether AMLO will leave office if Gálvez ekes out a victory. The president’s drive for power, starting from his first run for governor in his home state of Tabasco in 1988, suggests that the answer may be no, and the electoral authorities would likely be too debilitated to oppose him. Moreover, several analysts have cast doubt on the Mexican military’s loyalty to the Constitution. The armed forces, normally removed from politics, have become increasingly powerful since AMLO took office, building and administering massive infrastructure projects, operating a new commercial airline and running the country’s customs operations.

Even if Sheinbaum wins, currently the most likely outcome, AMLO may seek to maintain his grip on power. Historically, outgoing Mexican presidents who have attempted to extend their rule, Miguel Alemán in 1952, Luis Echeverría in 1976, and Carlos Salinas in 1994, have failed miserably, largely because their base had eroded and they were deeply unpopular by the end of their term.

Already, there are signs that AMLO is stacking the odds in his favour. He has appointed a supreme court justice whom his successor normally would have named; selected the leaders of the senate and lower house should his party achieve a majority; and outlined the constitutional reforms that must be approved during the transition period. Sheinbaum would owe her victory entirely to his influence, and she seems to lack the charisma and stature to break with him.

Lastly, the opposition is facing enormous challenges. Gálvez is a formidable campaigner, but also a micromanager who belongs to none of the political parties that nominated her, giving her little leverage. And she is running against not only Sheinbaum, but also Mexico’s state apparatus.

At the beginning of Gálvez’s campaign, I said that “the message was the messenger”. This has proven true, insofar as her personal history of rising from humble, indigenous origins to become a successful businesswoman, cabinet member, and senator has struck a chord. But it is not enough to win the election, and Gálvez has understandably struggled to find a more substantive message that both resonates with the electorate and placates the parties backing her.

Gálvez’s best option would be to focus on security, law enforcement, and reducing the high levels of violence that have plagued the country during AMLO’s administration, as well as those of his two predecessors. On average, nearly 100 homicides occur each day, and more than 100,000 people have been reported as missing or disappeared. Polls show that this is the most important issue for Mexicans, and that AMLO’s approval rating on the issue remains stubbornly low.

While grave dangers, including democratic backsliding, AMLO retaining his grip on power, creeping militarisation, a largely unproductive informal economy, and an unending cycle of violences lie ahead, this year’s election could put Mexico on a new course. The opposition could win; AMLO could accept defeat; near-shoring could give the economy a much-needed boost; and the cartels could go back to their core business (drugs), bringing a dramatic decline in violence. Admittedly, such an outcome is a long shot, but there is no harm in dreaming.


Jorge G. Castañeda, a former foreign minister of Mexico, is a professor at New York University and the author of America Through Foreign Eyes (Oxford University Press, 2020). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024.

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