Last Sunday, a political earthquake struck Mexico. Running on a platform of change and promises to root out government corruption and address economic inequality, leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his new MORENA party won the strongest mandate in Mexico’s brief democratic history. Here’s what you need to know about these elections.
Mexico’s elections were free and fair
The first thing a U.S. audience should know is that the elections were free, fair and well run. The National Electoral Institute organizes all aspects of federal elections, doles out mass media time by formula (there are no party, candidate or private ad buys), and manages the public financing that accounts for nearly all legal campaign resources. Polling officials are chosen at random, much like jury duty in the United States. More international observers were accredited than for any prior election.
All but 10 of the 156,807 polling stations nationwide opened and operated as planned. This is an astounding feat for a country plagued by extreme levels of violence.
Of course, not everything went perfectly. One hundred thirty-two mostly local candidates have been killed in the last several months. The specialized prosecutor for election crime in the attorney general’s office received 1,106 complaints of attempted vote buying, ballot stealing and other crimes. The outcome of the gubernatorial election in Puebla remains disputed. Nevertheless, these will go down as the smoothest of Mexico’s three general elections since the advent of fully competitive democracy in 2000.
It was a tectonic victory
When the final and official count is finished, leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador (widely called AMLO) will come away with about 53 percent of the vote. That’s a huge victory in a four-candidate race. And it’s a vindication for the left, which came close to the presidency in 1988 — and again in 2006, when AMLO lost by just 0.58 percent of the official vote count.
This year, the second-place finisher, Ricardo Anaya, who represented an uncomfortable coalition of the center-right PAN and the center-left PRD, will be around 30 points below at about 22 percent. José Antonio Meade of the incumbent and formerly dominant PRI will turn in a weak 16 percent. Despite fanfare about Jaime Rodríguez (“El Bronco”), Mexico’s first-ever independent candidate will scarcely peak above 5 percent.
Together with its coalition partners, AMLO’s Movement for National Regeneration (Morena) party will hold a majority of seats in both houses of Congress. This represents democracy’s clearest mandate, and means AMLO will be able to pass ordinary legislation without straining to strike deals. The political capital to pass constitutional reforms is not far from reach. This level of control means that a public hungry for results will hold his government solely responsible for successes, and its shortcomings.
Believe it or not, Trump was not a major factor
Although some readers may be surprised, the election wasn’t about President Trump. All three candidates stood up for Mexico in relations with its northern neighbor, but the contest was between those who supported the sociopolitical system and those who critiqued it.
AMLO argued that corrupt governments and the broader “mafia of power” (a pliable concept that he sometimes used to include business interests and sometimes did not), has caused persistent poverty and inequality, inefficient public services and perilous insecurity. The other candidates struggled to position themselves as responsible reformers (Meade), sensible leaders who would prosecute corrupt officials but leave the socioeconomic system intact (Anaya), and tough guys who would crackdown on wrongdoers violently if needed (Rodriguez).
AMLO waffled occasionally and took some unpopular positions on individual issues. For instance, he said he won’t go after the sitting president for possibly corrupt acts and will consider amnesty for low-level drug offenders. But political attacks didn’t stick to him, while social support did. Many people really love AMLO.
The style and substance of Mexican politics really will change
AMLO will bring a new style to the presidency. His rhetoric will be more down to earth and designed to help ordinary people understand what government is doing. He will likely hold near-daily early-morning news conferences to set the agenda for the day, and thereby control the news cycle. He will forgo the pomp and privileges of the presidency, casting an image of humility and ordinariness that many find appealing.
On policy, we can expect enhanced anti-poverty programs, increased expenditure on infrastructure, greater effort to curb political corruption, and a slower approach to private investment in Mexico’s state-run oil company PEMEX. But significant changes to the economic system are unlikely. That means Mexico’s position on NAFTA will stay roughly the same. Mexico’s continued economic health relies significantly on trade relations with the U.S. How AMLO tackles the 900-pound gorilla — violence and insecurity — remains to be seen. He has announced a Cabinet that many see as competent, including the business community.
Enough with the analogies: AMLO is not Chávez, Trump or Sanders
Some observers have suggested analogies between AMLO and other political figures. Those are tempting when the future is unclear, but the main comparisons fit poorly.
Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez rose from the ashes of a fragile party system; AMLO competed through an established one and an institutionalized electoral system. Chávez benefited from tremendously high oil prices that rely less on cross-national economic ties; Mexico’s economy centers on manufacturing exports. Chávez was able to cow and dismantle core institutions in Venezuela’s democracy; even if AMLO wanted to enhance the power of the presidency, he would be constrained by a better organized state.
By the way, AMLO isn’t Trump or Bernie Sanders either. There is one reasonable comparison to Trump, however. Both candidates benefited from public frustration with the current system and a desire for change.
Mexico’s shifting party system
Although AMLO rose through an organized party system, he leaves an uncertain landscape in his wake. In their scramble to survive against the AMLO juggernaut, the PRD and PAN formed an alliance that undermined their brands. The PRD may not survive. The PAN has some soul-searching to do to overcome internal rifts, but it is well-positioned to counter AMLO in the public debate.
The biggest loser is the formerly dominant and current incumbent party, the PRI. It has struggled for an identity under democracy, eventually promoting itself as the party of experience and stability. Those attributes were roundly rejected in this election. Yet the PRI still holds 13 of 32 statehouses, so whether Mexico emerges with a two-bloc or three-bloc party system will depend on how well these governors coordinate between now and the 2021 midterms.
Kenneth F. Greene is associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of “Why Dominant Parties Lose: Mexico’s Democratization in Comparative Perspective” (Cambridge University Press, 2007).