The results of Mexico recent midterm election left most people neither fully satisfied nor discontent. This perhaps reflects a welcomed sense of democratic normality. Now that the dust has settled, it is worth going deeper into what these results might mean. Here are a few take-aways.
A strong and efficient electoral system. There where good reasons to be concerned about this past election process: an exceedingly high political polarization, the challenges posed by Covid-19, the intervention of organized crime and not the least, having President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his party voicing a strong criticism towards the electoral authorities. However, the election by and large went well. There was a high turnout with around 49 million Mexicans (over 50% of the electorate) casting their vote, candidates and political actors have validated the election and citizens were deeply engaged and interested in the process. This is not a bad result given Mexico’s current context. Nevertheless, the fact that at least 40 candidates (at the local level) were assassinated in the months preceding the election, shows how organized crime has intertwined with politics in a way that requires immediate and determined action.
Mexico is clearly politically plural. President López Obrador and his party, Morena, won 10 out of the 15 races for state governor, but lost 54 seats in the House of Representatives dropping to 199, and came short of securing the supermajority needed to change the Constitution –even when considering allied parties. The PAN remained a force to reckon with. It retained 2 important states (Chihuahua and Queretaro) and increased its number of seats from 79 to 113. The PRI lost badly on all gubernatorial races, yet it increased its number of seats to 70. The PVEM, or green party, ended up with a considerable number of Representatives (42), which will provide leverage playing the role of the hinge political force. The Citizens Movement (MC), a relatively new party at the center of the political spectrum, won a small number of seats (23), but was able to take the governorship of the northern industrial state of Nuevo León, which has always been considered an important prize. Finally, Morena lost significant ground in the traditional bastion of Mexico City, with upsets in roughly half of the boroughs. Overall, the results show a Mexico that is political plural and subject to a strong and healthy electoral competition.
Winning the post-election is key. As the incumbent party, Morena had a decent result, specially considering the state of the economy, the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the fierce political competition. Nevertheless, the President has been active trying to mold the peoples’ perception about the election’s results. This is only natural because Mr. López Obrador sees himself as leading what he calls Mexico’s Fourth Transformation. On the other side of the spectrum, political opposition has framed the results as a sign that the President does not have such a clear and strong mandate to solidify his vision for Mexico. Be that as it may, the election confirms what several polls suggest, AMLO remains individually popular and enjoys high levels of acceptance, but this does not automatically translate into support for all of his policies.
Behold of the middle class. In a recent op-ed, Jorge Zepeda Patterson, an intellectual and writer who tends to side with the President but also is not shy in criticizing, cautioned about the dangers of romanticizing with poverty. After the election, the President appeared irritated with the middle class for not having voted massively for him, specially in Mexico City. This, Zepeda Patterson suggest, is a strategic mistake that could cost him dearly. In the end, the election shows that the middle-class voter is fairly sophisticated and more worried about results than grandiose vision of national transformation. It also probes, I believe, that alleviating poverty cannot take place at the expense of Mexico’s middle class.
Going big is never easy. As I wrote in these pages before, Mr. López Obrador attempts to achieve a self-described regime change in Mexico. This can hardly be done without far-reaching legislation and especially constitutional changes. During his first three years, the President was able to reform the Constitution only with the support of opposition and on a handful of specific matters. After the midterm election, it has become even more clear that “going big” is never easy and that given the tighter composition in the House of Representatives, it might even be harder the remaining three years. Moreover, the main opposition parties, PAN, PRI and PRD, which jointly competed in the election, have expressed their intent to remain together as a legislative coalition. The President has shown signs of moderation. First, after the election, he met with leaders of the private sector and stated his commitment to private investment. This hopefully reflects the fact that he understands that the economy exhibits a post-pandemic rebound, but not necessarily the conditions for sustained growth. Second, he seems to have delimited the constitutional reforms he will purse in his second half. These include changes to the electricity sector, placing the newly created National Guard under military rather than civil leadership and an elections reform to eliminate federal legislators which are now elected by proportional representation and not by direct district races.
Time is President López Obrador’s biggest adversary. Midterm elections traditionally shift the political chessboard. On one hand, given that Presidents cannot run for reelection in Mexico, their second half implies that they must concentrate on policy and securing their legacy. On the other hand, the race for the next presidential election picks up pace and realigns political loyalties. AMLO undoubtedly remains a powerful president. Yet, he must confront himself with three important facts: that his political leadership will gradually diminish, that he must close political fronts rather than open them –something that seems difficult for him– and that internal rivalries within Morena will accentuate in the future.
* Gerónimo Gutiérrez Fernández is senior advisor at Covington and Burling, LLP and partner at BEEL Infrastructure. Twitter: @GERONIMO_GF