This will be a decisive year for Mexico. It provides a last chance both for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and for the Mexican opposition. The clash between the two forces will determine if Mexico continues adrift or finds its way out after a terrible performance by both in these past two years. President López Obrador’s own warped preconceptions and ahistorical prejudices won’t help matters.
The factors that will determine this year’s fate are very clear. What is not evident is the shape they will take, how the president reacts to them, and how much present circumstances are aggravated as things unfold.
The great imponderable overall will be the social consequences of the pandemic and vaccine politics. To date, López Obrador has appeared to be decidedly unruffled, assuming that his combination of transfers of money to his political clienteles and his cautious management of public finances will suffice to avert a major crisis. None of that, however, addresses the monumental issue of Mexican unemployment and corporate bankruptcies unleashed by the pandemic. The Mexican government is clearly not to blame for the pandemic but it’s also undoubtedly true that the responsibility for remedying its economic damage lies in its hands. This responsibility is magnified by what López Obrador’s government failed to do at the onset of the pandemic and for disdaining both the virus and the Mexican population. The dogged reality is about to set in.
A second crucial factor that will shape 2021 is a political one. López Obrador’s MORENA party coalition is a highly unstable entity since its inception, compounded by the agendas of dissimilar groups and the natural interests of the 2024 presidential candidate hopefuls. The MORENA coalition merged groups, forces, and interests of the most varied origin, ideology, and objectives, a necessary condition to win the Presidency two years ago. However, the internal rifts, the conflicts at play, and the sheer absence of institutionalization entail that managing this complex entity is virtually impossible, impinging already on its alignment of candidacies. Although everyone wants to win, the internal rifts between groups -many of them of radical origin- will inevitably gain strength little by little. They will consume a good part of the president’s time and energy in the foreseeable future, with potentially dire consequences.
Corruption will be a third crucial theme this year. Disgust with corruption in Mexico was perhaps the core factor that conferred López Obrador with winning legitimacy in 2018. However, his government action has done nothing to curb corruption, as illustrated by countless examples within the administration itself and across MORENA. The only obvious thing is that while Mexico’s ruling party changed, traditional practices remained. In addition, the onslaught against López Obrador’s predecessors will more likely lead to a day of reckoning when his own six-year term ends than to successful legal prosecutions. This realization will incrementally weigh heavily on the spirits of MORENA’s leaders, beginning with the president himself. In the absence of a strategy for eradicating corruption at its roots, the government will be as exposed in the future as its predecessors are now, if not more. Revenge won’t be pretty.
Fourth, and notwithstanding the substantial political headwinds mentioned above, the President’s popularity remains high, which could translate into a less damaging result at the polls than in mid-terms ever since votes are tallied well in Mexico, say around 1997. In every subsequent Mexican mid-term, the party in office lost ground, in some cases dramatically. All in all, it is impossible to see a repeat of the 2018 blowout both because of the natural erosion suffered by incumbent administrations not to mention the challenging economic conditions Mexico will probably face come June. Beyond López Obrador’s popularity, it is impossible to ignore that even in 2018 the parties supporting his candidacy did not come close to winning 50 percent of votes in legislative races. Even a small erosion in voters preferences could imply radical changes to the political landscape.
Finally, although everything in MORENA is about retaining power and preserving internal peace in order to win Congress, internal contradictions are so colossal that the great element of cohesion, López Obrador, will find himself under pressure from all sides. At such a moment of economic and social emergency, Mexico will suffer more polarization, conflict, and poor decisions instead of harmony and peace. None of this will help the López Obrador administration, let alone the country.
The past suggests that MORENA’s future will not be rosy when the midterm election happens June. Much will depend on what the López Obrador government and the Mexican opposition do, of course. The administration has the upper hand and the outlook would be less negative if it overcame its own counterproductive hang-ups, adopted more sensible economic policies in response to a calamitous crisis, and curbed its divisive rhetoric. Yet, the clock is ticking. For their part, if Mexico’s opposition parties nominated candidates to Congress likely to win with a credible and hopeful narrative (and if they refrained from cannibalizing each other as in the state of Puebla in 2019), the result would yield them opportunities for a better future after 2024.
* Luis Rubio is chairman of México Evalúa-CIDAC and former chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI). A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @lrubiof