Presidential Elections and a Fragmenting Political Landscape in Mexico

Audio Brief

A short, spoken-word summary from CSIS’s Ryan Berg on his commentary with Gerardo Penchyna Cárdenas, “Presidential Elections and a Fragmenting Political Landscape in Mexico.”

Audio file


Mexico faces a monumental decision as the next presidential election approaches. Voters will decide either for a continuation of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) so-called fourth transformation or opt for a coalition of established opposition parties that have banded together to improve their electoral chances. In many ways, the election will be unprecedented. Political polarization will likely increase, and a deeper fragmentation of the traditional party system will likely result. On top of this, for the first time in Mexico’s history a woman is likely to be elected president. Despite the image of AMLO continuing to loom large, citizens are witnessing the end of his sexenio.

The incoming president will find a country that is more dangerous, less energy secure, and facing a tighter fiscal position than when AMLO’s predecessor Enrique Peña Nieto left office in 2018. At the core of this emerging landscape are fault lines between the two leading political movements, namely in matters of the role of the state and private investment in energy policy and economic strategies of nearshoring or “ally-shoring” as countries seek to extricate supply chains from China. While acute divisions between political candidates are more often front and center, throughlines among the candidates, which signal deeper shifts in the country’s politics, are important to note. In this election, there is a clear absence of a right-leaning, conservative candidate. With the electoral process finally set in motion according to the law—although notably, after two unconstitutional processes of candidate selection outside of the allotted electoral calendar by the two primary competitors—the country is entering a critical juncture.

Two women have emerged as the most likely presidential contenders. Claudia Sheinbaum, the former mayor of Mexico City and AMLO’s protégée, will represent the official governing coalition led by Morena, while Xóchitl Gálvez, a senator from the state of Hidalgo, will be the candidate for the Frente Amplio por México (FAM) alliance formed by traditional opposition parties the National Action Party (PAN), the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). According to most recent polls, Sheinbaum is most likely to win next year—a trend that has held since the opening of the campaign. However, this ignores the fact that just months ago, it appeared as though Sheinbaum would not face an organized opposition with a viable, telegenic alternative. The erstwhile little-known senator Xóchitl Gálvez has burst onto the political scene in Mexico, leveraging a strong social media strategy and an affable persona with a flair for the theatrical. Importantly, as a woman with Indigenous roots, Gálvez’s humble upbringing appears to position her as less vulnerable to AMLO’s stinging, class-based rhetoric. Gálvez’s emergence has buoyed the opposition’s chances of competing next year for the presidency.

The third emerging political force in Mexico is loosely represented by the political party Movimiento Ciudadano (MC), which, adhering to electoral guidelines, has not yet revealed a chosen candidate. Several possible candidates from the party have declined to participate, including the governor of Jalisco, Enrique Alfaro, and the mayor of Monterrey, Luis Donaldo Colosio Riojas, partly to avoid playing into the hands of the president. However, the party’s internal processes remain plagued by a lack of transparency and muddled ambitions, which undermine their electoral possibilities, despite pitfalls manifested by both the FAM and AMLO’s electoral coalition. It is worth noting that the president has signaled a peculiar inkling to see the Governor of Nuevo León, Samuel García, fulfill his party’s entrusted task. With eight months to go until election day, the nascent campaign has reflected a continued expansion of the powers of the presidency under AMLO and, worse, a return to some past political practices thought to be left behind. At risk is an unbalanced scenario in which the wishes of party elites outweigh citizens’ preferences.

A “New” Candidate Selection Process?

Typically, Mexican political parties lack a well-institutionalized process for selecting their representation, so the type of pre-electoral selection process that Mexico witnessed represents a new frontier. At first glance, the novelty of Morena and the FAM’s processes signals a departure from past practices of opacity, exclusion, and back-room dealmaking. In its purest form, it could hint at a hopeful procedural similar to U.S. presidential primaries. However, it is important to note that these selection methods transpired in an environment plagued by illegality and irregularities—first among them an early start to the campaign season. These irregularities were often brought to light by the contenders themselves and later reaffirmed when former foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard legally denounced Morena’s selection process after losing the race to Sheinbaum. In a dramatic evening, Ebrard was unceremoniously and forcefully prevented from attending Morena’s ceremony for the final candidate selection, providing the impression that AMLO had blazed a path for his preferred successor, Sheinbaum, while also leveraging his tight control over the party apparatus.

These events recalled the worst type of excesses from Mexico’s undemocratic past, when a practice known as “el dedazo” (the finger) was used by the PRI party machine to pass the baton undemocratically between leaders in an uninterrupted line of presidents that stretched decades. Complicating matters further, the type of carelessness for election guidelines—often stemming from AMLO’s blatant disregard for the National Electoral Institute (INE) itself and its ability to set electoral rules—is an ominous sign of institutional deterioration and the lack of adherence to written norms and practices ahead of the presidential election. Problematically, the Morena Party’s early start to the campaign caused the opposition coalition to also begin its process outside the legally allotted timeframe, lest it receive a lot of media coverage at a time when the opposition was desperate to present itself as a formidable challenger to the ruling coalition. It seems that illegality on the part of AMLO and Morena begets more illegality.

Something approximating an institutionalized primary could have elevated civic participation and kickstarted more transparent practices for candidate selection for both this election cycle and future elections. In practice, however, both diverging processes were marked by the over-involvement of party leadership, suggesting that citizen engagement in candidate selection remains undervalued. From an even more pessimistic outlook, these “innovative” methods of candidate selection strengthened the power of the presidency—by expanding its prerogative—at the cost of the capabilities of the Mexican state. Accordingly, AMLO’s relentless battering of institutional constraints such as those guarded by the INE unveil explicit motivations to discredit independent bureaucratic actors, triggering the erosion of state authority and harming democratic accountability.

The unfolding political scenario has had the additional drawback of leaving an unfilled ideological vacuum in Mexico. Both Xóchitl Gálvez and Claudia Sheinbaum can be described as on the ideological left, although the former is more pragmatic and pro-business than Sheinbaum. Similarities and uncertainty among the candidates could, in turn, benefit MC, which governs several cities and polls well in large urban areas. While generic polling is one thing, it remains to be seen whether MC selects a candidate who can be competitive vis-à-vis Sheinbaum and Gálvez in next year’s election. Equally important, the extent to which the designated MC candidate will divide the opposition coalition is debatable.

To reiterate, methods of candidate selection—even in the case of MC—recalled the bygone era of the PRI’s governance, in which personalistic, authoritarian practices led to the imposition of hand-picked political successors. Most illustrative, Sheinbaum adhered to her role as the president’s chosen candidate and jockeyed under rules reminiscent of the PRI that AMLO joined in 1976. More alarming, AMLO managed to foment an environment of hostility and intimidation using state resources and his daily press conference, additionally antagonizing Gálvez’s candidacy by illegally acquiring and publicizing her tax returns and intimating that she had engaged in acts of corruption. This led the country’s electoral institute to rule that the president must refrain from commenting on the election. Although flawed, these internal processes arguably yielded two of the best candidates to square off against one another in next year’s election. Compared to 2018, this presidential election promises to be much more competitive, which is another reason AMLO increased public spending during the remainder of his time in office.

A Post-AMLO Future?

Whoever is elected will face a tumultuous path and is unlikely to enjoy AMLO’s high levels of acceptance and popularity. As a result, passing reforms and enacting policy changes might prove difficult. Moreover, the possibility of a divided congress and an increased reliance on the armed forces—mostly to meet governance needs in the face of a more hollowed-out civilian bureaucracy—might impede policymaking, too. A weaker presidency would also elevate the issue of citizen security—making it impossible to ignore. Given this, Sheinbaum would be best off by promoting a centrist approach in view of the military’s expansion, which would imply a reorientation of the purpose of the armed forces to meet alarming levels of violence and the threat of disruption posed by the heightened presence of organized crime groups. More importantly, while it is true that Sheinbaum might represent a more progressive and technocratic approach to politics than AMLO, as the coordinator of Morena’s political project of transformation, she will struggle to separate from the president’s most immediate interests.

Throughout his mandate, AMLO’s version of “paranoid nationalism” has been most clearly expressed across key policy realms, namely energy and trade policies. This, in turn, explains the painful negligence and inattention related to the energy transition, instead pouring billions into state-led Petróleos Mexicanos and Federal Electricity Commission—all to little avail. It is no wonder that energy policy represents one of the dominant points of tension between competing political factions in the country and is likely to remain on the political radar—on both sides of the border.

Mexico’s first elected woman president is likely to inherit a legacy of economic protectionism and resource nationalism. It remains uncertain if Sheinbaum will be able to defend a fossil fuel-driven, state-led energy strategy (especially given her background as a prize-winning climate scientist). Nevertheless, as of today, she remains adamant to the idea that Mexico’s needs further unshackling from “neoliberal” legacies, even floating the idea of building yet another new oil refinery. Having said that, as observed during the official party’s internal process of candidate selection, it might be in her best interest to keep her policy inclinations ambiguous yet adjacent to AMLO’s “forever agenda.”

What is clear is that AMLO has managed to shift the ideological center of gravity significantly in Mexico. For instance, it is notable that the putative opposition has not managed to find a campaign narrative distanced from some of Morena’s top rhetoric and policy positions (e.g., Gálvez says that she supports several of AMLO’s programs of social spending, but in a more targeted manner). Still, Senator Gálvez’s profile as a self-made businesswoman with Indigenous roots, represents a strong challenge to the ruling party’s narrative about Mexico, specifically AMLO’s rhetoric about oligopolies and a lack of social mobility. Her possibility to parry the divisive politics resides in her ability to spark hope in those that remain left behind in Mexican society. To leverage her personal story, she will need her political messaging to strike a balance that attracts both followers of traditional parties, disillusioned Morena Party voters, and, most importantly, young voters. Although an elected senator under the banner of the PAN, Gálvez could represent a refreshing alternative to the political establishment.

Two left-leaning, socially progressive candidacies will represent the two major competing political forces in Mexico’s 2024 presidential election. It is no minor detail that Gálvez has defended the continuation of the president’s social programs, which have been accused of being “clientelist;” by removing the AMLO factor, Sheinbaum and Gálvez’s ideological orientations are more closely aligned than often presumed. In the end, both politically experienced candidates share a similar engineering background and tend to approach policymaking from a technocratic standpoint. At the same time, both remain ambiguous on the extent to which their administration would reflect continuity or change in Mexico.

At this point in the campaign, one of the areas of greatest divergence between the two candidates appears to be the question of the United States. How politically aligned should Mexico be to its neighbor and largest trading partner? Despite the strength of the so-called Mexican super peso, economic performance during AMLO’s tenure has proven lackluster. However, the once-in-a-generation nearshoring opportunity has not been fully leveraged by the AMLO government and it is here that any political opposition could potentially find a window of considerable opportunity. Although seldom emphasized, any future Mexican administration will find itself under greater fiscal pressure and, for better or for worse, will seek to further rely on North American integration and economic resilience to pave the way. Simply put, the United States remains Mexico’s most reliable source of economic dynamism.

Acapulco and Otis’s Sobering Effects

The recent devastation witnessed in the city of Acapulco and the state of Guerrero, brought about last week by Hurricane Otis, ignited the type of reckoning in Mexican society that could recast the election by shedding light on the acute deficiencies of the Mexican state. AMLO previously closed the Trust Fund for Natural Disasters in 2021, claiming it was being used by corrupt officials, and has continuously leveraged the bully pulpit to politicize tragedy. AMLO’s reliance on the military is facing its largest and gravest test in the cleanup and humanitarian efforts in Acapulco. In the initial phase of cleanup efforts, the military’s monopoly on the large deployment of humanitarian assistance has proven disappointing, unveiling the pitfalls of a strategy that overexerts the role and actions of the armed forces and tasks them with unfamiliar duties.

There is also a stark warning for AMLO and the Morena Party: across Mexican history, natural disasters have brought to light government scandals and harnessed accountability mechanisms across local bureaucracies. Crucially, one cannot make sense of the consolidation of the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) in the late 1980s without understanding the political impact that Mexico City’s devastating earthquake had in 1985. Thus far, Hurricane Otis has laid bare bureaucratic inefficiencies and a government that has hollowed out state capacity, while also harkening back to the occasional paradigm-shifting role natural disasters have played in Mexico’s political history. The long-term effects remain to be seen, but the AMLO government should certainly be worried by such a precedent.

Ryan C. Berg is director of the Americas Program and head of the Future of Venezuela Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Gerardo Penchyna Cárdenas is an intern with the CSIS Americas Program.

Gerardo Penchyna Cárdenas

Intern, Americas Program