On Mexico’s Presidential Election

From Former Ambassador Tony Garza:


Amid persistent chants of “presidente” from his supporters, Andrés Manuel López Obrador took the stage to give his acceptance speech and make history as the country’s first president who was not part of the country’s two major political parties. After leading in the polls since well before the campaigns officially began on March 30, López Obrador swept the country in a landslide victory, clenching first place with 31 point lead over his closest rival, PAN candidate Ricardo Anaya. In a remarkable and impressive series of events, within an hour of the polls closing—and before the preliminary count was announced—all major contenders had conceded defeat, acknowledging López Obrador as the victor.
Jubilant supporters flocked to Mexico’s central plaza—the Zocalo—with a crowd of more than 100,000 gathering to watch history unfold and join in the festivities. Yet, celebrations were also taking place far outside of the capital. Morena gained four of the potential eight governorships–including in the states of Morelos, Tabasco, Veracruz, and Chiapas—and emerged victorious in the Mexico City mayoral race. Perhaps most critically for the new party’s ability to govern, Morena candidates and those from their allied political parties won sizable majorities in Mexico’s Congress, shaking up Mexican politics once more. By contrast, the historically powerful PRI party-machine couldn’t get out the vote, falling now to sixth in party strength in Mexico’s lower house, with the PAN faring only slightly better. So, how did a third-time presidential contender who ran a single-issue race against corruption emerge not only victorious, but with the clearest political mandate to lead Mexico in decades?
First and foremost, Mexicans were weary of the country’s current conditions. The security situation has disintegrated over the past two years, with the number of murders increasing by 55 percent across the country. Worse still, these homicides were not isolated to any one geographic region, with 28 of Mexico’s 32 states reporting increases. Similarly, for your average citizen, thefts and assaults remained high throughout the past six years, impacting people during their commutes to and from work or school and often making it difficult to even operate a small business. Economic conditions also failed to improve during the Peña Nieto administration. Overall poverty levels remained stuck at around 45 percent of the populace, although some of the states that voted most strongly for the president-elect’s party, Morena, report poverty numbers that are much higher.
Second, was López Obrador’s singular focus on corruption. While a one-issue campaign might have felt naïve in another time, the focus on corruption found a receptive and enthusiastic audience throughout Mexico. At the federal level, corruption has remained endemic through the past six years, with high-profile corruption scandals, such as the Casa Blanca scandal in 2014 to the Odebrecht scandal in 2017. Yet while journalists and social media activists are doing a better job than ever at uncovering and documenting corruption, very few of the officials involved faced any serious consequences for their actions. Similarly, lower profile corruption not only sparked outrage, but also made daily life more difficult for many residents. In some cities, hospital resources disappeared through elaborate schemes, roads accumulated potholes as mayors and governors instead built small mansions, and doubled as known associates of organized criminal groups. In this reality, a focus on corruption not only resonated with voters, but felt necessary.
The country’s corruption, economic, and security challenges had already sunk PRI President Peña Nieto’s approval ratings from 54 percent at his 2012 election to just 17 percent today. This anger then bled over into the entire PRI party, weakening the party and moving a large percentage of the populace to a “never PRI” mentality despite the merits of any of their individual candidates. Meanwhile, in the PAN, Ricardo Anaya’s quick ascent up the political ladder cost him key allies within his own party that could have helped promote his platform. He also faced the party baggage of two PAN sexenios (2000 to 2006 and 2006 to 2012) that did not bring Mexicans the level of desired change. Amid many voters’ anti-establishment feelings, neither candidate could make a convincing case for why they would be different from past administrations, opening the door for López Obrador to skyrocket in the polls.
Now, as the celebrations die down, López Obrador has to move off the campaign trail and begin the transition to governing a country of 120 million. So far, he and his team seem up to the challenge. In a shift from his tougher lines on the stump, López Obrador’s acceptance speech appeared to be aimed toward calming nerves across Mexico, especially among those who did not vote for him or his vision. Similarly, his tone during his first morning as president-elect remained moderate, highlighting the importance of the U.S.-Mexico relationship and asking to put members of his team in the NAFTA renegotiations. The country appears to be responding positively to the president-elect’s desire for a smooth transition of power and the need to address any  uncertainty about Mexico’s economic future.
There is a lot yet to unfold in the five-month transition period. Analysts, investors, and Mexicans from all political stripes will be waiting anxiously to hear how López Obrador plans to approach the country’s major challenges and the past administration’s structural reforms. After mixed messages on issues such as future of the 2013 energy reform during the campaign, it will be a welcome change to have the policy positions clearly laid out during this transition process.
For the past year now, Morena’s party slogan has rung loud and clear that it will be the hope for Mexico; now we’ll see if president-elect López Obrador can carry out that promise. The transition period will be critical and one I’ll be following closely from my office here in Mexico City, only blocks from where it will all be happening.  I look forward to hearing from you and hope that you will connect with me on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn. For more on how I can be helpful to you here in Mexico, click here.