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Mexico’s next president – and AMLO’s legacy

The June 2 elections will determine Mexico’s future course on several important issues.

- May 30, 2024
Claudia Sheinbaum is expected to win become Mexico's next president, following the June 2 elections. Mexican flag with insets of PAN presidential candidate Xóchitl Gálvez and Morena presidential candidate Claudia Sheinbaum, images available with a cc license via Wikimedia Commons and compiled using Canva.com.
PAN presidential candidate Xóchitl Gálvez (left) and Morena presidential candidate Claudia Sheinbaum (right) face off in Mexico’s June 2 elections. Images (cc) via Wikimedia Commons and compiled using Canva.com.

Mexicans will go to the polls on Sunday, June 2 to cast their ballots for president and thousands of other state and local offices. This general election is historic in part because the two main contenders for the presidency, Claudia Sheinbaum and Xóchitl Gálvez, are both women. No matter who wins, Mexico is set to elect its first female president

Claudia Sheinbaum, the candidate from the incumbent left party, Morena, is projected to win by a large margin. She holds a PhD in engineering, has served on climate change panels, and is the former mayor of Mexico City. But Sheinbaum has largely campaigned on the coattails of the current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known by his initials, AMLO.

The broader backdrop to these elections include attacks on democratic institutions by AMLO – and an unprecedented level of electoral violence perpetrated by organized criminal groups. Mexico’s incoming legislators and Sheinbaum, the presumptive next president, face a number of challenges that will have significant effects on Mexican politics. 

Attacks on democratic institutions

Mexico fully transitioned to democracy in 2000 after 71 years of rule by a single-party regime. When AMLO came to power in 2018, as political scientists Mariano Sánchez-Talanquer and Kenneth Greene note, Mexico had key features of a constitutional democracy. For example, within Mexico’s institutionalized party system, left, right, and center parties not only contested elections, but had held the presidency. But the country also faced high levels of poverty and organized criminal activity. Weak state institutions, meanwhile, struggled to effectively deliver social services and guarantee safety. 

AMLO harnessed the deep discontent over inequality – and the failures of the democratic state to remedy these divisions. Social spending and infrastructure projects helped boost his popularity. But AMLO also relied on anti-establishment rhetoric and the partisan use of state institutions to attack and attempt to neutralize opposition.

For example, AMLO consistently vilified the press throughout his time in office. He published the purported earnings of one journalist, possibly tapping into confidential tax documents, after a story came out suggesting AMLO’s son was living in a luxury home owned by an oil executive linked to Mexico’s state oil company. He publicly disclosed another journalist’s phone number for working on a story linking AMLO associates to drug money. AMLO claimed the disclosure was justified, asserting that as president, he is above Mexico’s privacy laws. These moves have had a chilling effect on investigative reporting, especially given the broader context of violence against journalists in Mexico.

AMLO also attacked the autonomy of state institutions. In February, he introduced a sweeping package of constitutional reforms and legal changes. These included a major restructuring of the National Electoral Institute (INE), which played an important role in the country’s democratization. The proposal also includes changes to the Supreme Court – including the popular election of justices. This would politicize an institution that has served as a check on AMLO’s power. Constitutional reforms require a supermajority to pass, so AMLO’s proposals seem unlikely to change the constitution. However, AMLO is using them to set an agenda that he expects Sheinbaum and the rest of the party to follow.

The rise in organized criminal violence

In 2006 under right-wing president Felipe Calderón, Mexico declared war on drug cartels. A dramatic increase in criminal violence followed. When AMLO became president in 2018, the homicide rate was at its highest to that date. AMLO called for an end to the failed drug war policies of his predecessors

AMLO’s strategy, which he coined “hugs, not bullets” (a phrase that rhymes in Spanish), involved focusing on poverty reduction as a root cause of violence and avoiding head-on conflicts with organized criminal groups. While the homicide rate has decreased, it remains high. And reports of disappeared people, likely homicide victims whose bodies have not been found, have skyrocketed.

Violence has spiked in the lead-up to the election. Public officials and candidates for elections, increasingly, have also become targets of this violence. Most of the political violence is directed towards municipal-level officials and candidates. In fact, a series of attacks on candidates in the southern state of Chiapas killed 14 people last week. 

This type of electoral violence has strong political effects. Perhaps unsurprisingly, threatening and killing politicians reduces the number of candidates in a district. The candidate favored by the violent criminal group may then run unopposed. After the election, criminal groups can then exert greater pressure on these officials to extract money from municipal budgets and control local police. 

In addition to the effects on candidates, Sandra Ley demonstrated that when criminal gangs deploy violence during electoral campaigns, it depresses voter turnout. This suppression of electoral participation represents another threat to democracy as citizens feel less able to express their preferences and hold their leaders accountable.

What should we expect after the elections?

Political scientists are notoriously bad at making accurate predictions. While Sheinbaum seems the likely victor, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect as she takes office. She is far less charismatic than the highly popular AMLO, who largely holds together Morena, the party he created. Thus far, Sheinbaum has been reticent to risk contradicting AMLO or saying something on the campaign trail that could be seen as tarnishing his legacy. She has indicated a commitment to upholding AMLO policies and priorities, including the proposed constitutional reforms.

Sheinbaum, however, has shown signs of independence and even opposition in the past. During the covid-19 pandemic, notably, she pursued a science-based approach, counter to AMLO’s views. 

We might expect her scientific background to lead her into conflict with AMLO’s energy policies as well. AMLO declared oil as fundamental to Mexico’s economic development, and has paid little attention to climate change. Sheinbaum, in contrast, has a dedicated commitment to sustainability. For example, she served on an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Issues related to climate change and renewable energy are likely to command increasing urgency as events like the recent heatwave and rolling power outages become more common across the country.

Of course, Mexico’s congressional elections will also have a significant influence on what kinds of policy changes are possible. A Morena supermajority in Congress could put some of AMLO’s proposed constitutional reforms back in play. That now seems unlikely, as survey data and social media analysis suggest Morena will only garner enough votes for a simple majority. 

And a looming question, whatever the electoral outcome, is how Mexico’s leadership at all levels will try to contend with the organized criminal violence affecting politics and everyday life.

Heather Sullivan is a 2024-2025 Good Authority fellow.