It is hard to overlook the fact that Mexico’s challenges are piling up in several fronts. In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic badly hit an already sluggish Mexican economy that now struggles to show signs of clear and sustainable recovery. The pandemic’s human toll in Mexico is high by any international standard. The country’s vaccination effort has just begun. Mexico’s most important foreign relationship has now reset with a Biden administration in place. On this front, both governments are being careful and willing, but not necessarily on the same page on how to build a better future for North America. Although 2020 registered a slight dent in the number of violent homicides in Mexico, these remain at an exceedingly high level. The task of addressing insecurity and organized crime is far from over. In addition to this, political and social polarization in Mexico have reached worrisome levels, and the country’s political leadership is seemingly unable to find common ground from which to move the country forward.
Under this scenario, the upcoming midterm elections could be a decisive threshold for Mexico. On June 6, the country will hold elections for the Lower House of Congress, 15 state governorships and a couple thousand local offices. The electoral process -described as Mexico’s most important election of the modern era- is in itself important. However, the real question is what it implies for the future of president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s “Fourth Transformation” government and his MORENA party.
With a comfortable legislative majority, president López Obrador has been largely successful in getting his bills through Congress since taking office in December 2018. On a few occasions -like with the recent pension reform- the president has worked across the aisle and included Mexico’s civil society and private sector. Overall, López Obrador has pushed his legislative agenda without giving any room for compromise or debate, as exemplified by the recent bill to reform the country’s Electricity Industry Law and the annual approval of the Mexican federal government’s budget. The first bill, which the administration sees as a way to strengthen state-run utility CFE, has swiftly gone through Congress, notwithstanding heavy criticism from Mexican environmental groups and the private sector. Respectable experts argue that the enactment of the electricity bill would run contrary to the novel United States, Mexico, and Canada Agreement (USMCA). López Obrador himself has strongly supported the deal which is seen by many as a safeguard for Mexico’s economy. To his credit, the president has allowed issues in the energy sector to be resolved through the courts which have more than not proven independent. In a similar way, López Obrador has gradually implemented his annual budget including a broad system of cash transfers to a variety of social groups to try to stem poverty. There is considerable debate on whether the strategy is good public policy and if these cash transfers can be successful at all. Some voices in Mexico see this as a mere strategy to woo and consolidate the president’s party social base.
President López Obrador undoubtedly seeks to place his stamp on Mexico’s history, and he has every right to do that. But losing his congressional majority would result in a clear obstacle to achieve such a goal and, thus, the stakes are high. As things stand now, the president enjoys high support: most polls put his approval rating at around a healthy 60 percent. Surprisingly perhaps, the Covid-19 pandemic has thus far scarcely scratched the president’s popularity. Yet, those same polls show people increasingly skeptical about the course of the country. For example, a poll by the El Financiero newspaper shows that the percentage of Mexicans who see the country going in the wrong direction has increased from 25 percent in October 2020 to 43 percent in January 2021. As Ian Bremmer recently stated: it is not clear “how long can Andrés Manuel López Obrador defy political gravity” (Time Magazine, February 2021). López Obrador has proven to be a masterful communicator and man of the people, but his plan for Mexico is still in doubt.
As far as the prospects for the election go, the president’s party (MORENA) does lead the polls for most gubernatorial elections and is poised to win a majority in Mexico’s Lower House. As of February 24, polling firm Buendía and Márquez puts support for López Obrador’s party among Mexican voters at 45 percent. Meanwhile the PAN has 17 percent and the PRI has 15 percent. Should these numbers be correct, the president and his allies in Congress will again command the Lower House. The three main opposition parties, PAN, PRI and PRD have joined forces to present candidates for 219 districts and 11 state governorships. However, their prospects are mired by their ideological differences and their past performance in government. It seems that they are facing an uphill battle, although the percentage of undecided voters remains high at around 25 percent.
This year, the Mexican midterm election also raises two important questions: the extent to which MORENA can consolidate as an attractive and successful political option without López Obrador, and whether moderate leaderships can actually arise within his party. The president consistently polls above his party, and at the state and local level MORENA´s governments have pretty much proven to be subpar. At the same time, many Mexicans fed up with corruption scandals, insecurity, and social disparities voted for a change under the notion that López Obrador would govern pragmatically and with a global and modern view of Mexico’s development. Thus far this has not been the case. The president keeps a tight control of the party and MORENA’s 2024 presidential hopefuls have been very disciplined. Yet, the midterms and the lack of substantive results by the López Obrador administration could alter the country’s political board.
If the long arc of democracy tends towards balance, moderation, and the gradual construction of a better future, Mexico is right in the middle of a radical period. This is not unlike what other countries have recently experienced, but Mexico’s medium to long-term prospects remain positive. The midterm election could provide Mexicans an opportunity to put in place difficult but healthy democratic checks and balances.
*Gerónimo Gutiérrez Fernández is senior advisor at Covington and Burling, LLP and partner at BEEL Infrastructure. Twitter: @GERONIMO_GF