Citizens spoke loud and clear during Mexico’s midterm election. Now, the entire political system will have to adapt to a new reality. In a show of great wisdom, Mexicans ratified its trust in the the country’s independent elections authority (INE), rejected President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s excesses, demanded good sense from political actors, and continued its quest for “a change.” By claiming sweeping victories, party leaders demonstrated a total lack of understanding of the moment, unlike president López Obrador, who undertook an attempt to moderate his approach (though it did not last long), in his own peculiar way and without acknowledging the electorate’s message in the polls. It would have been hard to find a better scenario for Mexico, given the country’s polarized and furious climate threatening to reach fever-pitch by the second.
Since 2018, López Obrador outrageously and immoderately milked the election where he was elected president. Surmising an unassailable endorsement by the polls to do and undo at will, he proceeded to turn the Mexico’s clock back 40 years. López Obrador’s persistence and single-mindedness led him to decisively alter the country’s circumstances, to the point of widespread rejection by the middle classes and investors. This was, in fact, a middle-class rebellion in Mexico’s urban areas against the president’s party MORENA.
The electoral result leaves president López Obrador enough elbow room to save face and to be able to argue that his (huge) losses were not so major. He can contrast the 20 percent decrease in members of his party in Mexico’s Lower House of Congress against the growth in the number of state governorships in MORENA’s hands. However, both the election results and the moment in the presidential cycle herald fundamental changes for Mexico.
First, ever since Vicente Fox announced his candidacy to the presidency immediately after the midterm election in 1997, Mexican presidents lost their old instruments to control and postpone the succession process. This will be especially hard for MORENA given its lack of institutional structures and internal discipline which promises constant intra-party clashes. This fact in itself will amplify the already MORENA’s existing fractures, which will inevitably weaken the López Obrador ability to control the succession process or promote new political or legislative initiatives.
Second, although MORENA will govern more than half of Mexico’s states, the potential for intimidation -the president’s main instrument for keeping the state governors in check- will be diminished. Regardless of their party, the 15 new governors -out of Mexico’s 32 states- will enjoy freedoms vastly superior to those of their predecessors.
Third, MORENA will no longer have the supermajority that it had in the Lower House of Congress, nor will it be easy for it to find a “swing” party to push through constitutional amendments. That changes the Mexican legislative dynamic in several ways. Most of all, it introduces an element of instability to the coalition formed by MORENA, the Green Party and the Labour Party (PT). The results encourage these eccentric allies, especially the Green Party -which never misses an opportunity to profit from the political moment- to contemplate different alliances for the future. No less important, the Lower House will become Mexico’s space for political interaction and negotiation that the supermajority previously held by MORENA made impossible.
All of this creates a new environment for Mexico in which visions and proposals that sketch a less contentious and bitter political future could -indeed, should- flourish. To date, Mexican politics has focused on the past: for some, the 1970s, for others pre-2018, despite the fact that not many Mexicans would like to return to those times. The contrast between the 2018 presidential election and the 2021 midterm election makes it clear that Mexicans want to move forward, towards a more cordial future, with greater progress, and a better distribution of benefits. Early in his term, president López Obrador should have undertaken such effort but he was lost in the confrontational strategy that has not yielded Mexicans results, and even less for him as the midterm election result evidenced. In fact, López Obrador’s political future is now in a difficult position: unless he rectifies course, his ambition to go down as one of the great transformers of Mexican history will have vanished.
President López Obrador has been falling into a not unusual paradox, frequent among those who accumulate power without a vision that can attract and marshal the citizenry. The more power he amasses, the less power he can exert. More power could tempt him to follow a more radical route risking crises, thus destroying his whole project. Perhaps there is no better example of this than the risk that Mexico devalues its currency, something López Obrador has said won’t happen. Something similar happens with the idea of extending his six-year term in office. The consequences of trying to break a centuries-old Mexican political taboo would be devastating for the promoter and detrimental for the country.
Three tricky years lie ahead. These could become an exceptional opportunity for reconciliation to lay the framework for a better future. Unfortunately, it is not obvious that there are statesmen -in the López Obrador administration or in the Mexican opposition parties- capable of leading and advancing it. But the opportunity is still there.
* 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