Elections in Mexico: Democracy Hanging by a Thread

Claudia Sheinbaum, the Mexican presidential candidate of the ‘Let's keep making history’ alliance, speaks during a campaign event.

Claudia Sheinbaum, the Mexican presidential candidate of the ‘Let's keep making history’ alliance, speaks during a campaign event.

© picture alliance / NurPhoto | Eyepix

The largest Spanish-speaking country is facing a directional election. After six turbulent years under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), two women are leading the race to succeed him: Claudia Sheinbaum from the ruling party Morena is clearly ahead of Xóchitl Galvez from the opposition alliance in the polls. In the last six years, autonomous institutions, civil society and the independence of the courts have come under considerable pressure. The elections will also decide whether the ruling party Morena can defend its dominance and press ahead with the restructuring of the country.

Even if the elections in the USA and India are getting more attention this year, what happens in Mexico is by no means secondary. In 2023, Mexico ranked as the 12th largest economy in the world, ahead of South Korea, Australia, and Spain. According to the IMF, a GDP growth of 2.4 percent is expected for 2024. With 128 million inhabitants, Mexico is the 10th most populous country in the world. Moreover, its 12 free trade agreements with 46 countries and more than 30 investment promotion agreements, turns it into a globally relevant market. However, in the 2023 Democracy Index by The Economist, listed the country as a hybrid regime: a democratically constituted country with some authoritarian traits. The 2023 Latinobarómetro revealed the troubling insight that democracy is not deeply rooted: 56% of Mexicans could live with a non-democratic government as long as it solves problems.

Two months before the largest nationwide elections with 20,708 positions to be filled at all state levels; President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has an approval rating of 53.3%. More than 98 million Mexicans will be able to cast their vote on June 2, and for the first time in the country's history, two women are leading the presidential race.

Who is running for the Presidency?

Claudia Sheinbaum, former head of the Mexico City government, is a physicist with a Ph.D. in energy engineering. She is running for the "Let's Keep Making History" alliance, consisting of the dominant left-wing party Morena and its smaller allies, the Labor Party and the Green Party. She is a close ally of President AMLO, which significantly contributed to her victory in the party's internal candidate selection. As of 2023, the ruling Morena party governs in 22 of the country’s 32 states (68%). However, in 2021, it lost the two-thirds majority in Congress, which had allowed for constitutional changes.

Xóchitl Gálvez is the candidate of the "Strength and Heart for Mexico" alliance, a coalition of the PRI, PAN, and PRD parties. The PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, was in power alone for 70 years before the political system democratized at the end of the 1990s. The PAN, a conservative Catholic party, was in power between 2000 and 2012. The PRD, the third party in the coalition, is a venerable left-wing party that AMLO once belonged to before he left in a dispute and founded Morena. Since then, it has become a shadow of its former self. Gálvez faces the difficult task of representing three very different and historically opposing parties, which have mainly come together because they have no opportunity against Morena's overwhelming power on their own. Many Mexicans associate these parties with corruption scandals and severe human rights violations of the past.

Jorge Álvarez Máynez is the candidate of the social democratic party Movimiento Ciudadano, which did not join the opposition bloc and is betting on presenting itself to voters as a beacon of hope that neither allies with corrupt leaders of the old guard nor with Morena. Currently, Claudia Sheinbaum leads the polls with a double-digit margin over Xóchitl Gálvez, while Máynez stands at around 5-7%.

The Structural Problem: Security and Violence

Mexico is experiencing the most violent elections in its history: in the first two months of 2024, at least 33 candidates were murdered. High crime rates and the role of organized crime present a constant threat, especially at the local level. The cartels are increasingly influencing the elections, and the associated violence affects all parties. In this context, improvements in public security and the effectiveness of the judiciary are central promises of the presidential candidates.

Sheinbaum proposes expanding the capacities and powers of the National Guard and improving cooperation with prosecutors to reduce impunity. She also wants to push forward the judicial reform proposed by AMLO, which envisions judges and prosecutors being elected directly by the people—a plan many critics fear would lead to the complete politicization of the judiciary. Gálvez wants to withdraw the armed forces from civilian tasks and focus them on combating organized crime. One of her well-known goals is to build a state-of-the-art high-security prison, compared to the one created by Nayib Bukele in El Salvador. Additionally, she plans to reform pretrial detention to meet international standards. Máynez proposes to stop the militarization of the country and ensure the autonomy of the judiciary.

The biggest differences in the election platforms are in relation to the National Guard and the nation's Supreme Court. One of the main tasks over the next six years will be to shift operational and administrative control of the National Guard back into the realm of public safety - an area where the Supreme Court has acted as a counterweight to the current administration. Experts warn of a capture of the judiciary, as AMLO has appointed five of the eleven judges to the Supreme Court, weakening the independence of the judiciary.

Economic Hopes: Nearshoring

A significant trend is nearshoring, the relocation of investments away from China, fueled by the drastic deterioration in US-China relations. This presents a great opportunity for the Mexican economy, as Mexico is a preferred destination given its good market access to the USA through the US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement. Whoever wins the election will be responsible for ensuring Mexico meets the goals of the 2030 development agenda. Sheinbaum proposes continuing the current model of 3% GDP growth and additionally modernizing the country's main ports while continuing the current policies of fiscal austerity, improved tax collection, and the independence of the Mexican Central Bank to combat inflation. Like AMLO, she will focus on promoting the largely economically lagging southeast of the country to attract more investment but will likely end AMLO's one-sided energy policy focused on fossil fuels and promote renewable energies to foster a transition to a sustainable economy with energy sovereignty.

Gálvez relies on nearshoring as the driving force of her economic policy: she proposes tax incentives and infrastructure improvements to attract foreign investment. Her focus is on strengthening the rule of law to provide legal certainty for existing businesses and potential investors. She will also aim for a transition to clean energy and push for a reform of the highly deficit-ridden state company Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX) to become a producer of clean energy and enhance cooperation with the private sector. Máynez also emphasizes the importance of nearshoring and promoting partnerships between the state and the private sector to guarantee businesses energy, water, and legal security. His proposal aims to combat the brain drain by collaborating with universities to strengthen education, research, and support for entrepreneurs.

What Can We Expect?

Mexico is almost certain to have its first female president, a significant milestone amid a context of uncertainty and polarization. In the event of Sheinbaum's victory, we can expect the continuation of AMLO's proposed reforms that have weakened the separation of powers by consolidating Morena's strong control over the legislature and judiciary. Given this scenario, it is crucial for the opposition to achieve a solid and unified position in Congress to counter a possible Morena majority and prevent constitutional reforms like the aforementioned judicial reform that could further undermine Mexican democracy.

A stabilized Mexican democracy would be an important factor for regional stability and cooperation with the USA, which is also holding elections this year with significant implications for Mexico. Unlike in Mexico, immigration will be the key issue in the US presidential race, and in case of winning, Donald Trump has promised "the largest deportation campaign in history." Mexico's role and policy are crucial for the success or failure of US immigration policy: since Mexico accepted the status of a safe third country, thousands of people must wait there for their asylum process before they can enter the USA. A possible new threat of imposing tariffs in exchange for halting the influx of people to the USA could exacerbate the situation. Mexico could face a significant burden in caring for all the people who would be stranded in the country. The strain is already significant: according to the UN, there were 140,000 asylum applications in Mexico in 2023, and 212,000 returnees from the USA.

The elections in Mexico represent an important turning point. They will redefine the country's democratic and economic course and set a new tone for its international relations, even though foreign policy plays no role in the campaign. After AMLO's considerable disinterest in foreign policy, this area is also likely to see a reshuffling. June 2 will be decisive.