By Jacob Lubbers Estrada-
On June 6th 2021, Mexico faced one of the largest elections in the country’s young democratic history: the entire lower house of Congress’ 500 seats (Chamber of Deputies), 15 governorships, 30 local state congresses, and almost 2,000 municipal governments were up for grabs. The elections took place in a context of increasing violence towards candidates from all political factions, the coronavirus, and two years of economic stagnation preceding the vote (for more information, listen to LatAm Dialogue's podcast episode here). Even though he was not himself on any of the ballots, the elections were widely perceived as a referendum on the performance so far of “populist” left-wing President Andrés Manuél López Obrador (AMLO), who won the general election in 2018 with a landslide and has therefore already been in office for over two years.
So far, AMLO’s government’s performance has been mixed: while on the one hand, historical social advances are being made such as considerable increases to the minimum wage, the recuperation of the state as a tool to help those at the bottom of the social pyramid, and finally a public debate on Mexico’s rampant inequality, his government has had setbacks as well. Homicide rates have continued to increase, economic growth has been nonexistent (also the year before the pandemic), and Mexico has been one of the countries where Covid-19 has shown its brutal lethality. The virus has taken almost 230,000 lives, making Mexico the country with the most deaths, only behind the U.S., Brazil, and India.
In this year’s elections, Mexico’s opposition was eager to win some power back after the 2018 debacle, in which AMLO and the political forces behind him took the presidency with a brutal 53% of the vote and also won a clear majority in Congress. The two more right-wing parties that had co-governed Mexico for the eighteen years prior to 2018, PRI and PAN, decided to form an alliance with the PRD, a smaller left-wing force which used to be AMLO’s political party, in an attempt to take the President’s parliamentary majority away.
The result was, despite all the aforementioned failures of AMLO’s government and the formation of a grand coalition of parties, mediocre for the opposition. Their only accomplishment was to improve their performance in Mexico City compared to 2018, which is fairly significant as this district traditionally votes for AMLO style politics. Yet, what happened outside of Mexico City was catastrophic for the opposition’s coalition. Of the 15 governorships that were up for grabs, the incumbent’s coalition won 11, and out of the 30 local congresses, 20 will be dominated by pro-AMLO legislators. Moreover, the three political parties that make up AMLO’s coalition (Morena, the Labour Party, and the Green Party), still have an absolute majority in the Chamber of Deputies. Furthermore, Morena, the political party of AMLO, is the first party in power since 1991 to increase its seats in the midterm elections (passing from 191 to somewhere between 190-203 according to the National Electoral Institute). So, all in all, the opposition should do some serious self-reflection and ask themselves: what went wrong?
The answer is everything. To begin with, the PRI/PAN/PRD coalition ‘Vamos por Mexico’ only served to reinforce and confirm AMLO’s claims over the past twenty years: that the PRI and PAN co-govern (he often refers to them as “PRIAN”) and represent a “mafia in power” that will do everything to “block” the progress of his political project. Perhaps they don’t realize it, but the traditional PRI and PAN parties, in eyes of many people, “took off their masks” and showed their real intent: blocking AMLO and his project that will “save the people'' from the “elite’s corruption”.
As well as this, the opposition’s agenda was solely to be against AMLO. Luis Antonio Espino, a recognized communications consultant in Mexico, argues that, for most of the population, the opposition lacked the identity and legitimacy to propose solutions or criticize AMLO’s government especially because they have not yet dealt with or acknowledged the mistakes made during the 18 years that they co-governed Mexico. Since the 2006 “war declaration” against drug cartels, violence has not stopped increasing, and according to investigation from the Open Society Foundations, both cartels and the State (in the period 2009-2015 when PAN and PRI governed) committed crimes against humanity in the country. Moreover, years of neoliberal economics imposed by the PRI/PAN coalition drove millions of Mexicans to poverty, forcing them to migrate to the United States. Additionally, Mexico was (and still is) one of the most unequal OECD economies, and for years, Mexico kept on dropping in the international Corruption Perceptions Index, dropping to the shameful 138th place out of 180 countries in 2018. Lastly, neoliberal reforms under the PRI/PAN coalition also undermined public health and reduced the installed capacity, leaving the country in a vulnerable position against Covid-19.
With this in mind, Mexicans cannot be expected to suddenly develop “collective amnesia” and just forget the mistakes PRI and PAN committed. The “punish vote” of 2018 that gave AMLO the presidency, taking power away from the PRI/PAN, still weighs in the minds of millions of Mexicans, preventing them from taking the PRI/PAN opposition as a serious alternative to AMLO.
Despite all the aforementioned grievances that Mexicans hold towards PRI and PAN, the parties have largely absolved themselves of responsibility passing the problems Mexico faces onto AMLO. Often, they invoke words as “AMLO got elected to fix it. Do so.” However, the problem for the opposition is that, for average Mexicans, the President actually is providing help on some important aspects. Mexico’s position on the Corruptions Index passed from 138th in 2018 to 124th in 2020; the social programs that the President introduced have provided benefits to roughly 42% of the population; and, according to data from PewResearch, the percentage of Mexicans who felt that democracy had not benefited them slipped from 85% in 2018 to 59% in 2019 (after AMLO’s election). Just being “anti-AMLO” is therefore not a viable project for the opposition.
An important step would be to firstly, acknowledge that errors were made in the past and then, through actions, show the electorate that they actually want to do things differently than before. However, the opposite has been done: former president Calderón, under whose presidency the crisis of public insecurity exploded, is still given a platform at the PAN, clearly not showing a message of change that the Mexican electorate wants to see from the opposition. With a president that after more than two years in office holds an approval rating superior to 60%, despite all the constraints Mexicans face, the opposition is clearly not doing its job competently. AMLO has an incredible ability to connect with “the people” because he understands their wants and needs. Clearly, the opposition has not reached out enough to them. They need to let Mexicans know that they’re understood and heard, by expelling the former figures that are perceived as co-responsible for Mexico’s current challenges. That would give a credible signal of “change”, so at least the opposition is viewed as an alternative for working-class voters in future elections.