The current moment in Mexico’s can be summed up in a tweet published last week: “President (Andrés Manuel López Obrador) prepared himself more thoroughly for (confronting the March 8) women’s march than for the (Covid-19) vaccine rollout”. López Obrador’s decision to build a formidable protective wall around Mexico’s National Palace ahead of the Mexican women’s protest revealed the true perceptions within, it revealed the fear that dwells there. For an administration 100-percent focused on winning Mexico’s upcoming midterm election, its reaction to the women’s protests was tantamount to a confession: the president’s popularity is high, but success is not guaranteed.
President López Obrador stated that Mexican women “have every right to protest, but there are many infiltrated rabble-rousers”. His attempt to justify the construction of a wall around the National Palace was a colossal testament to his fear. Once again, the president proved that he doesn’t understand the gist of Mexico’s feminist movement nor is he willing to learn from it. The women’s protests showed that López Obrador reacts to things that are not under his control like a caged lion. He opted not to make the Mexican feminist movement his own and avoided adding it to the calls for change that characterized his coming to power in 2018. His reaction showed that the president feels threatened. The episode also showed a López Obrador reacting with fear, disdain, and an endless spouting off that exhibits his total disregard for feminist demands. His position offends and alienates even his very own party followers. Dogma first, Mexico’s problems later.
It’s not only that López Obrador shows a lack of empathy towards the feminist grievance in the abstract. Politicians around the world often over pride themselves on leading such effort however falsely. What surprises of the Mexican president is his obstinacy in denying the existence of rape, sexual abuse, and unequal opportunity. Enough already! Rather than seeing it as a legitimate grievance, López Obrador sees feminist protests as a personal affront, leading him to claim it as a provocation.
Is the Mexican president right to be so fearful of the upcoming midterm election?
The polls show two things: on the one hand, a high approval of president López Obrador among Mexicans; on the other, a very low rating for his administration and its policies. Although López Obrador’s high approval is real, it doesn’t differ much from that of most of his predecessors at this stage of the game, but two things stand out. First, on the negative side, the divide between the president’s persona and his administration is unusual. Historically, both generally run parallel, one explaining the other. The results of the 2020 local elections in the states of Coahuila and Hidalgo -where the opposition PRI party won handily- would suggest that López Obrador’s popularity does not translate into electoral support at the local level. This would justify his anxiety.
In another sense, however, the nature of this president’s popularity among Mexicans differs from that of his predecessors. These were commended for what they had achieved so far in their six-year term. López Obrador has forged a personal bond that transcends his administration and that resembles communication based more on faith than on earthly achievement. This connection, the result of an almost religious-tinged belief in López Obrador, makes pollsters’ work very difficult as it incorporates a variable impossible to measure. It’s not surprising that, in this context, the current polls predict an almost absolute victory for the governing MORENA party and its affiliate parties in June.
The pathetic performance of Mexico’s opposition parties in fielding candidates further strengthens the perception that the López Obrador administration doesn’t face a significant challenge in the upcoming midterm election. It would seem to be that the opposition has not only nominated poorly regarded candidates, but that it has alienated those who would have a greater chance of winning a Mexican congressional seat, mayorship or governorship.
In light of all this, it is not an idle question to wonder why so much restlessness on the part of president López Obrador’s team. Do they know something that the rest of us simple mortals do not? Perhaps the explanation lies in something as simple and straightforward as that the veneration that his supporters have for the president does not translate into electoral support. This would be even more true at the local level, where voters’ concerns are far removed from national issues. Moreover, López Obrador is showing the same kind of contempt for Mexican voters that he has shown to Mexican women by assuming that their vote for his MORENA party is guaranteed.
I haven’t the faintest idea who will win or by what margin the Mexican midterm election of June 6. However, I have no doubt that president López Obrador has reason to be concerned. As much as many Mexican people have unshakable faith in him, it is impossible that his administration’s terrible performance regarding the economy, the pandemic, the vaccine rollout, employment, the political environment, and now women, will not impact Mexican citizens’ votes.
More importantly, president López Obrador faces two potentially irrepressible forces. On one hand, weak opposition parties that have lost their bearings and may not satisfy Mexican voters. Mexicans would in turn adopt a much more pragmatic position during the upcoming midterm election favoring any option that penalizes the president and his MORENA party. The other force is the one that president López Obrador himself has unleashed with his very own reaction to the feminist protests. Mexico’s feminism could become the great unifier of grievances, anger, and unfulfilled expectations, among Mexican voters. However, the translation of the feminist movement into something that can alter the electoral scene it is not obvious.
López Obrador’s very own lack of understanding, disregarding, and attempt to belittle Mexican feminist protests is turning into a great rallying cry for many Mexican citizens. Perhaps, this could be president López Obrador’s costlier mistakes and governing dogmas.
* 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: @lrubio