U.S. President Joe Biden. Photo: Google

By EARL ANTHONY WAYNE, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico

The votes are in and the counting (and, in many cases, the recounting) has begun for Mexico’s midterm elections on Sunday, June 6.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) pressed hard for his political party, the National Regeneration Movement (Morena) to win big in the midterm elections and to boost his plans to transform Mexico profoundly.

These were the most important elections during AMLO’s six-year term of office, and it was the largest election in Mexico’s history. The final vote count will determine the makeup of the lower house of Congress, 15 governorships, 30 state congresses and some 1,900 municipal governments.

The election results also will decide how strong a mandate AMLO will have to pursue his “Fourth Transformation” (4T) reform agenda for Mexico over the remaining three years of his presidential term. AMLO has made clear that he aims to concentrate more power in the presidency and “the state” in order to transform Mexico, with the overarching ambition of providing more support for Mexico’s poorer citizens.

Thus, the impact of yesterday’s voting could be very substantial for Mexico, for the shape of its democracy and, indirectly, for U.S.-Mexico relations.

Going into the elections, AMLO had positive poll ratings of over 55 percent, but he consistently has polled significantly higher than his party. Recent polling suggests that AMLO’s allies were on track to gain a majority in the lower house of Congress, but that they might not have won the two-thirds majority that is needed to amend the constitution and thus to pursue some of AMLO’s desired reforms.

This helps explain why AMLO became more outspoken as the election neared, sharply criticizing individuals, organizations and institutions that he perceives as opposing his plans or limiting his freedom of action.

AMLO also took some more strident nationalistic positions, which some worry could bode ill for future U.S.-Mexico cooperation. He criticized the United States for funding two NGOs that had criticized federal government actions, for example, and took a swipe at the Federal Aviation Administration for downgrading Mexico’s aviation safety rating. The president has also increasingly advocated for Mexico’s energy independence with steps that would harm U.S. investment.

AMLO is now presenting a more radical agenda than the one he offered in his 2018 presidential campaign. Among other things, he supported extending the term of the Supreme Court’s chief justice, despite others arguing it violates the constitution. He has announced that he will appoint a new Central Bank chief in the fall who favors a “moral economy.” He has taken a series of steps to reassert the state’s leading role in the energy sector and has criticized those who block his moves in that direction, including judges who cite violations of the constitution.

In recent months, AMLO has been using his morning news conferences to attack critics and has had his government agencies investigating political opponents, including a sitting governor and candidates in the current elections. He has criticized Mexico’s independent election bodies for decisions taken, and they have reprimanded AMLO for violating election rules. AMLO favors absorbing other autonomous institutions into the government. These steps have set off alarms among those who see independent checks and balances as important for Mexico’s democracy.

In early May, polls suggested that AMLO and his Morena party and allies retained a level of public support similar to that which produced victory in 2018 and resulted in 314 seats in the lower house of Congress for them. However, recent polls indicated a downturn in their projected vote tallies and a greater likelihood that Morena and its allies will fall short of the two-thirds majority in the Chamber of Deputies needed to amend the constitution. Morena leaders since began warning of electoral fraud.

AMLO’s critics point to a poor record on the economy including a negative 8 percent growth rate last year; a substantial increase in poverty; poor public security results, with violence near historically high levels; and some estimates put pandemic deaths significantly higher than the official numbers reported. However, AMLO’s supporters point to his successes, including new pensions for seniors; aid for the disabled; major reforms to promote union democracy; and an increased minimum wage, among others.

AMLO’s overall popularity has held up well, no doubt helped by the absence of a cohesive opposition. But recent polling on individual areas such as public security and corruption were much worse, with 67 percent and 59 percent, respectively, critical of his performance in one recent poll. Ratings of his morning news conferences became less favorable, as he became more aggressive.

Pollsters argue that the June 6 vote tallies in swing districts, which appear highly contested, will be key for the final results. The effects of covid-19 and organized crime had on voter turnout remain wild cards. High levels of election-related violence were taking a sad toll.

If AMLO’s coalition ultimately wins a large majority in Congress, among governors and local governments, he will certainly vigorously pursue his 4T agenda and have the institutional support he needs. Even with a more modest outcome, however, AMLO likely will press hard to achieve as much of his vision as possible before the end of his term.

In either case, as AMLO pushes ahead with reforms, Mexico’s relationship with the United States is likely to become more challenging. It will require careful attention to manage well the very important U.S.-Mexico agendas on migration, trade and cross-border crime.

Former ambassador EARL ANTHONY WAYNE is a diplomat-in-residence at American University’s School of International Service and advisory board co-chair for the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. He was a U.S. diplomat for 40 years, and served as his country’s diplomatic envoy to Mexico.

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