Three Takeaways from Mexico’s New Local Political Landscape

On June 4, Mexico’s political map reached a tipping point—with implications for the 2024 presidential election. The last elections before the marquee race of 2024 took place in the State of Mexico (SoM) and Coahuila. In the SoM, the ruling party, Morena, broke the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) control of Mexico’s most important and populous state, and brought an end to a 94-year-old chain of PRI governance there. The SoM receives the largest budget in the country and has the largest electoral list, accounting for 13 percent of total registered voters. On the other hand, in Coahuila, the opposition alliance won with 58 percent of the votes.

Morena’s candidate in the SoM, Delfina Gómez, a former schoolteacher who was recently found guilty for stealing city workers’ pay to support Morena, won 52.7 percent of the votes. But the federal government’s illegal interferences in the election, plus the weak and ineffective leadership of the opposition coalition, turned this potential handicap into an inconsequential trifle for voters. On the other hand, the opposition Va por México alliance won the governor’s race in Coahuila by a wide margin. After Sunday’s elections, Morena will soon govern 22 of the 32 states—and 68 percent of the total population just one year prior to the presidential election.

The SoM is representative of the inequality and diversity of the country. Some of the richest neighborhoods in the country are next to slums with terrible living conditions; there are highly industrialized areas and some highly rural communities. The state is known for its inequality and violence, yet also represents nearly a tenth of the country’s GDP.

An important takeaway from the June 4 elections is how fake and manipulated polls in favor of Morena significantly impacted low turnout results: less than 50 percent of voters participated in the SoM election. Although the low turnout percentage is not an historical anomaly, voters usually refrain from voting if polls show a significant advantage by one of the candidates—under the idea that the election outcome is a fait accompli—and voter abstention primarily benefits the party in power.

The election results represent a dramatic turn of events. Just eight years ago the PRI held 19 of Mexico’s 32 states. Today, the PRI will only retain two states, Durango and Coahuila, and will lag as the fourth political force in the country in terms of the percentage of the population it governs. But more importantly, the PRI lost one of its historical strongholds, adding symbolic relevance to the electoral blow. The SoM was the cradle of the “Grupo Atlacomulco,” a disciplined, storied political group that promoted the ascent of several relevant politicians, including former president Enrique Peña Nieto. The PRI controlled Mexican politics with a tight grip on power for over 70 years—what Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa famously called la dictadura perfecta, or “the perfect dictatorship” for its patina of democracy—until the National Action Party (PAN) started winning local elections in the late 1990s and, eventually, the presidential election in 2000. After losing the presidency, the PRI took refuge in Mexico’s governorships and built a strategy, from the edges to the center, which enabled it to regain strength and return to the presidency in 2012 with Peña Nieto’s election. That last refuge in local and state politics has been eviscerated—by a party created less than 10 years ago, no less.

Off-year elections are often seen as bellwethers of broader political trends in Mexico, and this year was no exception. The following three takeaways are the most important to understand the implications for Mexico’s national politics:

  1. Morena will not turn into the new PRI.

    It is common to assert that Morena is the new PRI—a hegemonic party that will control national politics and the three branches of government for a long period of time. This is a mistake. Morena displays several stark contrasts from the old PRI. One of these differences is the less publicized behavior revealed during this weekend’s election: Morena’s lack of discipline and control. The PRI historically distinguished itself by the clarity of its internal practices, rules, and understandings among its leaders. For instance, the succession mechanisms were mostly clear and accepted by all its members. The Mexican political system of the twentieth century made the president the country's leading and most influential actor for six years. Still, the party was never totally dependent on one single person. Paradoxically, part of the president’s enormous power was granted in an understanding that this power would soon be handed to someone else. Thus, authoritarianism and rigged elections were not the only factors that kept the PRI in power for seven decades. The PRI had the ability to integrate and allocate power among different sectors of society—political groups, unions, and businesspeople, among others. Morena, in contrast, is far from attaining this mediation power, nor is it capable of achieving this level of internal control.

    Morena is a different political apparatus. It is a movement founded by and surrounding one man and, therefore, incapable of coherently organizing and supporting groups and interests outside President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) most immediate interests. After lagging in the polls in Coahuila, Morena made last-minute adjustments to the candidacies. The candidates who were suddenly stripped of their party affiliation in the election rebelled and ran anyway. Morena’s modus operandi, which evinced a total disregard for electoral laws, also demonstrated the party’s lack of discipline and control. The party resembles a patchwork of passing and varying interests without a clear structure, making it dependent on AMLO and, therefore, fragile.
  2. INE scores another victory.

    On the same day of the elections, the National Electoral Institute, known as INE, provided accurate projections and trends for both elections. Once again, despite government harassment and several unconstitutional attempts to sever its budget and powers, the INE demonstrated once again its well-earned reputation for professionalism in the peaceful organization of democratic elections. Out of 24,000 voting booths, only one was not installed correctly.

    The INE is and will continue to be a besieged institution under Morena. AMLO has hurled baseless claims against the INE, especially as it pertains to the 2006 election, which he claimed was rigged. (AMLO has said comparatively less about the 2018 election, also overseen by the INE, which he won by more than five million votes over multiple opponents.) But in its quest to survive as an essential institution of Mexico’s democracy, the INE once again proved its worth, and these local elections were a huge success. A peaceful process, as well as reliable and timely results, are the best counterarguments to the incessant presidential attacks and claims that the institution needs an overhaul, or better yet, to disappear, due to corruption, biases, and inefficiency. The INE’s competent execution brought into stark relief what is at stake when the country’s Supreme Court renders its final decision on the constitutionality of AMLO’s Plan B, legislation that severely limits the INE through budget and personnel cuts and opens the institution to potential political influence.
  3. The results have important implications for the upcoming 2024 elections.

    Although it is persistently repeated in the media and political debates, it is a mistake to assert that winning the local election in the SoM is a prerequisite for victory in the presidential election. Morena won the presidency in 2018 without the SoM, and the PAN won in 2000 and 2006 without any previous victory in the SoM. Yet, it is indisputable that political control of the SoM will translate into a massive advantage for Morena en route to 2024. Additionally, Morena’s triumph will increase and propagate the narrative about the “inevitability” of a Morena presidential victory in 2024 by altering the electorate’s behavior: inhibiting opposition as well as unconvinced voters, and exalting supporters.

    The SoM election was a test run—an opportunity to adjust, correct, and practice messaging and strategy for the upcoming presidential election. Morena had to witness, measure, and, in the case of defeat, readjust its mechanism of clientelism—cash payments to students and the elderly. The election was a success in this respect, as Morena proved capable of counteracting the pitfalls of running a not-so-thrilling and blatantly corrupt candidate. In May, AMLO met with 22 allied governors to ensure and highlight the importance of maintaining the delivery of “social programs.” Afterward, in his daily press conference, he threatened the public by explicitly linking the receipt of support to the Morena party: “Do you want to keep pensions for older adults? Then you know who to support,” he said (author’s translation). The election was a successful test for AMLO because he now knows he can keep his favorite Morena candidate for president, Claudia Sheinbaum, despite her shortcomings as a politician. Both Claudia Sheinbaum in Mexico City and Gómez in SoM are flawed candidates accused of different crimes—yet this election revealed that their dependance on AMLO can be enough to obscure their bad track record. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how unsuccessful aspiring Morena candidates will deal with being excluded and how AMLO will deal with them.

    On the other hand, in Coahuila, the opposition alliance successfully selected a candidate known for good relationships with local business elites—a particularly valuable asset in the more industrialized northern regions of the country. The election demonstrated that political coalitions, in tandem with a suitable candidate, can succeed against Morena’s machine. For Morena, its allied parties, the Green Party (Partido Verde) and Work Party (Partido del Trabajo), made a considerable difference with 17 percent of votes in SoM.

    For the PAN, the main takeaway is a warning. Its disastrous performance added just one of every four votes to the opposition alliance in the SoM and one of every seven in Coahuila. This portends trouble ahead, given that the PAN has been selected as the vehicle for an opposition candidate in the Va por México coalition in 2024. The coalition will suffer a period of insecurity, as each member has raised doubts about the convenience of maintaining joint efforts. Corruption scandals and bad reputations in its leadership make the coalition vulnerable to government threats and internal dissent and raise questions about the benefits of supporting one another. The alliance has a mixed record. It managed to snatch Morena’s qualified majority in Congress in the midterm elections, but its members suffer from the persistent inclination to perceive one another as a necessary evil and, therefore, as merely electorally valuable.

    Mexico’s recent elections consolidated a political landscape that Morena has pushed forward since its electoral victory in 2018. Meanwhile, the opposition will need to solve the riddle of asking citizens for their support while unenthusiastically remaining in a united front.

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. Emiliano Polo is an intern with the CSIS Americas Program.

Emiliano Polo

Intern, Americas Program