AMLO’s Mexican Dream Hangs on a Knife-Edge

by Alma G. Meza

Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador

Mexico has been often described as a “one-man country,” indicating that most decisions and political power are concentrated in one person. This moniker has been applied to presidents since the very beginnings of the nation’s independent history, from Antonio López de Santa Anna, to the PRI’s 70 years of “single-party” government, and, most recently, to Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known in the press and to the people as “AMLO”), Mexico’s current president. 

For AMLO to continue as the country’s primary decision-maker, his party needed to win the positions that were up for grabs in last Sunday’s midterm elections by an ample margin. Even if the results are generally favorable for him, he was likely expecting a more enthusiastic response from the people—one that allowed for the stifling of the voices and doubts coming from his detractors. For Mr. López Obrador, the loss of his party’s qualified majority in the Lower Chamber constitutes an obstacle—one that he may well surpass—but that nevertheless creates a bump in the political momentum he had achieved. 

Though Mexico has been an independent country for more than 200 years, its democratic system is relatively young. The elections that took place in 2000 arguably marked the first instance of democratic life in the country. Previously, the Mexican political arena was ruled by what came to be known as “strongman politics.” The fall of the dominant PRI (Partido de la Revolución Institucional) during the 1990s and the subsequent creation of autonomous electoral colleges led to a system that could uphold the integrity of elections.

In this new paradigm, Mr. López Obrador’s 2018 victory was a landslide. He not only won the presidency with 53% of the votes, but also won a qualified majority in the Lower Chamber (Cámara de Diputados) and a majority in the Senate. This was of utmost importance both to him and to the establishment and legitimacy of his party, Morena. 

Celebration in Mexico City following AMLO’s 2018 victory

Since Morena’s inception, López Obrador was concerned with distinguishing his party from the more traditional alternatives. He called his group a “movement” rather than a party.  Indeed, the name “National Regeneration Movement” made it easier for Morena to demonstrate to the public that theirs was a crusade to save the nation from the lawlessness and corruption of recent years and not solely a political effort.

Following its founding in 2010, Morena saw success. After the 2014 midterm elections, it became the first newly created party to win a governorship as well as control of Mexico City’s congress. It is also the fastest “new party” to achieve a majority in Congress in addition to having its founder in the presidential seat. For context, the right-wing PAN had to wait 61 years to see one of its candidates as president and 50 years to have a governor from its ranks. 

Morena accomplished what no other party in the country’s history had: uniting the popular vote and winning by an ample margin during their first presidential election. The former can be attributed to robust political brand development and great emotional connection with the electorate.

Popularly known as “4T “—the fourth transformation, a term that evokes the other major movements that shaped and changed the country’s history: independence, reformation, and revolution—Morena and its continuation as the main party is one of AMLO’s central goals and indeed a requirement for the plans he has in mind for Mexico.

AMLO’s “setback” at the voting booths 

On June 6, Mexico held midterm elections. This event, referred to as the “biggest elections in the country’s history” due to the number of governmental positions at stake, will mark a “before” and “after” for AMLO’s tenure as president. 

AMLO lost some and won some. Much had been said in the international press about his form of government and what are perceived as his authoritarian tendencies. This political and communicational zeitgeist has permeated the electorate and the country at large. As a populist leader, AMLO has been thriving on “us versus them” rhetoric, similar to Trump in the US or Bolsonaro in Brazil. 

That messaging has left Mexico profoundly divided. Several political analysts projected that AMLO’s party would lose many more seats in the Lower Chamber than they ended up losing. Traditionally, midterm elections have been a referendum on the president’s government and popularity. With some estimates giving AMLO a 59% approval rating, his party was confident that they would be the big winners of the elections. And indeed, they were. His party still remains the principal political force in the nation, a feat that cannot be underestimated. 

Nevertheless, the majority that he and his allies had was reduced. This is a setback for AMLO, as he needed two-thirds of the Lower Chamber to modify the constitution to allow for the rapid approval of his Mega Projects and other systemic changes he envisioned for the country. Projections show that even with his allied parties, he will not reach the “magic number” of 334 congresspeople.

The new composition of the Lower Chamber, however, will aid a more democratic environment. In order for significant constitutional reforms to be passed, Morena must reach consensus with oppositional parties. The need for compromise can lead to the restitution of a much needed system of checks and balances. However, that same system will stand in the way of reforms that AMLO views as paramount for his project of leading Mexico away from what he considers the twin evils of neoliberalism and “the corruption of yore.”

Another point of interest is the fact that, according to the rapid count made by the INE (the Mexican institution in charge of overseeing the elections) and reported by the Mexican press, if this was a referendum on AMLO and Morena’s continuation in the presidential seat, he would have lost. This is something that the president, who has reiterated that he would submit to “popular sentiment” and abandon his post if the “people decide so” should definitely ponder. In these elections, the coalition formed by the oppositional parties PAN, PRI, and PRD received over 22 million votes; Morena and its allies got 21.5 million. 

On the other hand, Morena is going to win 11 of the 15 governorships contested, shifting the federal balance in its favor and giving the party control over the federal budget. 

The new political division in Mexico City 

Mexico City has historically been a bastion for the left. For most of its history, the Head of Government in Mexico City was decided by the president. Since 1997, a change in political status allowed its population to elect their mayor. Ever since, the PRD, the leftist party, and now Morena, have held the position.  

The city is governed by Claudia Sheinbaum, who is one of the possible candidates to succeed AMLO in the presidency. In last Sunday’s elections, Morena lost six alcaldías (the term given to boroughs in Mexico City), and the election in Xochimilco is still too close to call. Previously, they held almost complete control over Mexico City’s politics. 

The Mexico City Metro. Photo by Tjeerd Wiersma

This falling out with the inhabitants of the country’s most important city—which, by the way, was governed by AMLO from 2000 to 2006—can be explained by several factors, most notably the collapse of a subway overpass in the western part of the city. This construction was part of the newest subway line. The collapse killed 26 people  and was seen as a direct result of the federal government’s “austerity policy” and the general lack of attention given to Mexico City’s subway system—the most important of the capital and one that is used predominantly by the working class. 

More than just the loss of a qualified majority in Congress, this setback for AMLO and Morena in the capital signifies the division currently facing the country. For the president, these results should prompt a reorganization of his party and a reconsideration of his political brand. AMLO’s divisive rhetoric led to electoral success in the past, but this strategy may prove to be counterproductive. After all, in Mexico, plurality and divided opinions are not often what the leaders, who rely on being “caudillos,” are aiming for. 

Alma G. Meza resides in Mexico City. She is a political consultant and analyst who has worked for Mexico City’s Legislative Assembly and the National Institute of Penal Sciences. 

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