Transforming Mexico

Claudia Sheinbaum won a landslide in the Mexican presidential elections on 2 June. With close to 60% of the vote, the magnitude of her victory exceeded that of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2018. Her party, Morena, formed only a decade ago, secured a two-thirds majority in Congress and is just two representatives short of doing so in the Senate. The opposition PRI, PAN and PRD – running on a unity ticket – got about 27%, a significant decline since the previous ballot. Three things are particularly striking about the results. First, the clarity of the mandate: an anomaly in Western democracies, which are increasingly accustomed to marginal contests and political stalemates. Second, the particularities of Morena’s constituency: a voting bloc anchored in the working classes yet capable of folding in parts of the middle strata. Third, the sense that a new political regime is emerging, founded on a post-neoliberal social pact.

Sheinbaum’s main competitor was Xóchitl Gálvez, leading the coalition of the PRI, PAN and PRD. Gálvez helmed an erratic campaign, representing the interests of big business sprinkled with lite social liberalism. Unable to run on an outwardly neoliberal agenda – the term has become toxic in Mexico – she opted instead for identity politics: her opening pitch emphasized her indigenous roots and humble beginnings, while her closing one leaned in to attacks on Sheinbaum’s non-Catholicism. Her platform was always too unfocused to frame the election around what is arguably the government’s weakest point: the extremely high levels of narco-violence in the country, which Morena inherited from the PAN and PRI and has struggled to meaningfully reduce.

The exhaustion of the Mexican right was clear from its contradictory messaging. Caught between having to uphold the widely popular cash transfer programmes implemented by AMLO, while also criticizing them as wasteful and clientelistic, Gálvez swung between calling for their expansion and demanding their contraction through time-limits and means-testing. One of her campaign slogans, ‘The programmes stay, Morena goes’, failed to cut through with an electorate that had witnessed her party, the PAN, vote against them just a few years earlier.

A career politician who has held various cabinet positions and been in elected office for decades, Gálvez nonetheless tried to present herself as an ordinary citizen, publicly distancing herself from the discredited parties that nominated her and ran her campaign. The opinocracia – the class of media commentators and op-ed writers that dominate mainstream media (and feed much of the foreign press) – described the vote as a choice between ‘democracy’ with Gálvez and ‘authoritarianism’ with Sheinbaum. But this strategy turned out to be stillborn. Meanwhile, the ‘third party’ candidate, Jorge Álvarez Máynez of the Movimiento Ciudadano – a substanceless outfit whose only aim was to pick up the votes not captured by the two main contenders – denounced ‘the old ways’ of doing politics but failed to specify the new ones. He ended up winning 10%. Yet his party demonstrated that it may have enough strategic nous to position itself as a potential replacement for the PRI-PAN-PRD in the long term.

Unable to fly the flag of neoliberalism, incapable of defending its legislative record or party legacy, offering little more than empty slogans and abstract appeals to ‘democracy’, what the opposition finally came up with was a type of anti-politics. In their most cynical moments, their pundits argued that ‘todos son iguales!’, ‘Morena is just as corrupt as us!’ Their main aim was not to discredit AMLO’s policies or offer an alternative programme, but to undermine the basic conviction that a political party can steer the state in the service of collective interests. It was this hopeless offer that the electorate rejected.

A recent Gallup poll suggests that the majority of Mexicans are, in fact, deeply invested in the political process. Not only does AMLO have an approval rating of 80%; there is also an increasing ‘confidence in national government’, which has jumped from 29% to 61% during Morena’s time in office: the highest in the twenty years since Gallup began asking the question. As of 2023, 73% of Mexicans felt their living standards were ‘getting better’, and 57% said the same about their local economy. Before AMLO, ‘confidence in the honesty of México’s elections’ averaged just 19%; during the past six years it rose to 44%. The Pew Research Center has likewise shown that ‘Mexicans’ satisfaction with their democracy’ has risen 42 percentage points since 2017. The number of people who identify as Morena party sympathizers has grown by 10 points since 2018, now reaching 34%, compared to 8% for both the PRI and PAN. Morena’s organizational power was on full display in 2022, when it turned out over three million people to elect delegates for its National Party Congress. In an age of generalized dissatisfaction with the party form and the well-storied hollowing out of mass politics, AMLO’s effect on national political culture is impressive.

Sheinbaum, a climate scientist and former Head of Government of Mexico City, had a double-digit lead from the beginning of the campaign. Yet the extent of her support, encompassing multiple regions and demographics, remains noteworthy. Morena won in 31 out of Mexico’s 32 states. In 17 of these it managed to get over 60% of the vote, and in the southern states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Tabasco, Guerrero and Quintana Roo its tally exceeded 70%. Sheinbaum beat her opponents in 78% of all polling stations. She won with both men and women, with every age group, and with almost every educational attainment and income bracket. Morena also had a strong down-ballot vote and continued to gain ground at local level for the sixth consecutive year, wining or retaining a series of gubernatorial seats including Mexico City. It is expected to win the extra votes needed to pass Constitutional reforms.

A closer look at the electoral data reveals some interesting patterns. El Financiero Bloomberg reports that 74% of voters with elementary-level education and 71% in the lowest income bracket supported Sheinbaum, as opposed to 48% at college-level and 49% in the top income bracket. El Parametría shows a similar 20 point spread between the bottom and top income groups. It finds that while 65% of elementary-educated voters supported Morena, and 49% with a college degree, only 17% of those with advanced degrees did so. Exit polls indicate that Sheinbaum’s highest support, at around 60%, came from private sector employees, peasants, teachers, the self-employed and housewives, while her lowest support was found among professionals (46%) and employers (39%). The candidate performed best in historically marginalized southern states, while the richest areas, including many of the state capitals, were most likely to support the right. Morena’s popularity, then, stands at around 60-70% among the working classes. Among the upper classes it is lower, although – and this is crucial – it still amounts to about 40%.

This signals the emergence of a multi-class voting coalition anchored in the working classes. Unusually, Morena has not tried to win over the middle classes by moving to the right. The current administration has passed a wave of pro-worker reforms and ramped up efforts to relegitimize the state as a social actor, including significant infrastructure spending and a restructuring of energy provision in favour of the public sector. Real wages have increased by around 30% under AMLO. Data from the National Minimum Wage Commission points that labour’s share of income has gained 8 percentage points following a long period of stagnation. The bottom 10% of income earners have increased their earnings by 98.8%. The country’s Gini coefficient has declined and overall poverty has been reduced by 5%, the largest drop in 22 years, amounting to over five million people. Unemployment is the lowest in the region, including a slight reduction in informal labour. And all this amid a global pandemic and surging inflation.

Sheinbaum ran for president on a promise to defend such gains. She framed the election as a referendum on continuing the process of political transformation or returning to neoliberalism. Her platform included the extension of the programas sociales, reducing the pension age for women from 65 to 60 and giving welfare payments to students at different levels, while pushing ahead with plans for universal public healthcare. Amid a nationwide water crisis, the incoming government has vowed to roll back the privatization of water and place stricter regulations on its use by big business. And it intends to meet electricity demand increasingly through zero-carbon sources like wind, solar, hydroelectric and geothermal power. Morena’s support among the middle classes is not a sign of co-option; it appears to be a result of the generalized improvement in living standards, as well as Sheinbaum’s cautious political rhetoric.

The AMLO administration describes its role as enacting a Cuarta Transformación. Like the declaration of independence in 1810, the liberal state reforms of the 1850s and the Mexican Revolution of the early twentieth century, the victory of 2018 was meant to mark not just a change in government but a change in regime. At the level of party systems, this is bearing true. The coalition that nominated Gálvez is composed of parties that were fierce competitors up until AMLO’s presidency. The PRI was the inheritor of the Revolution which governed for most of the last century. The PAN, dating to the 1930s, was the historic opposition, to the right of the PRI during this period, while the PRD was formed in the 1980s as a left split from the PRI. They continued to dominate electoral politics throughout the neoliberal era, defining the so-called regímen de la transición that took shape after the PRI’s first presidential loss in the year 2000.  

This order is now in disarray. The PRI and PRD, and to lesser extent the PAN, are beset by internal crises. The PRI has been hit by a series of high-profile defections. The PRD – AMLO’s former party, which was once affiliated with the Partido Comunista Mexicano but which has moved to the centre since 2012 – is facing oblivion, having lost its party registration by failing to secure 3% of the national vote. Tensions among the opposition had already erupted earlier this year, when the leader of the PAN publicly denounced the PRI’s failure to distribute posts and spoils after winning the governorship of Coahuila. Now, after the defeat of 2 June, their coalition is on the brink of collapse. The Mexican party system will never be the same. Morena has so far benefited from this breakdown, yet it must guard against complacency. Unless it develops institutional mechanisms to solve internal disagreements, it may also be vulnerable to splits further down the line.  

The election came after a series of legislative setbacks for the government. Major Constitutional reforms in a wide range of areas – energy, public safety, electoral law – were thwarted by an obstructionist opposition. AMLO’s ‘Plan A’ was to get the measures ratified without modifications. When this failed, ‘Plan B’ was to alter them to secure their passing. But a hostile Supreme Court blocked the changes even after they had cleared the legislature. ‘Plan C’ was to wait for the election and hope to win a supermajority in Congress and the Senate, which would allow Morena to push through 18 Constitutional provisions, including reforms to the judicial system that would see judges elected rather than appointed. This is an attempt to transform one of the institutional pillars of the neoliberal era. At present, the High Court has little independence from private interest groups. The High Magistrates have refused to take a constitutionally mandated salary reduction as part of AMLO’s push for a more austere bureaucracy. And it was recently revealed that Norma Piña, the chair of the Supreme Court, had organized a secret meeting with the head of the PRI, for reasons that remain obscure. The government’s bid to make these actors more accountable power has proven hugely controversial.

Important changes are also taking place at an ideological level. In the late 1990s, the country’s neoliberal bloc effectively monopolized the rhetoric of ‘democracy’. The PAN’s anti-priismo easily doubled as anti-statism; its critique of the single-party system was also an attack on welfare and the public sector. The so-called ‘democratic transition’, with its guiding concepts like ‘civil society’ and ‘the citizen’, and its understanding of politics as the search for technocratic fixes, provided the perfect cover for capital’s advance. The commentariat that crafted this narrative liked to present itself as non-partisan – as apolitical guardians of democracy and critics of unaccountable state power. Under AMLO, however, they were forced to abandon this pretense to impartiality and align with the opposition. Over the past six years, they have pushed the narrative that by challenging neoliberalism and reconceiving politics as a process of negotiation between opposed interests, the president represents a regression to autocracy. The results of 2 June exposed its failure to resonate outside the media echo-chamber. Soon after the vote, one of the country’s star columnists, Denise Dresser, lamented that Mexicans ‘had put the chains back on that we’ – the pundit class – ‘had taken off’.

The emerging social order in Mexico – based on rising living standards and stronger social welfare – is the result of AMLO’s state-led nationalist-developmentalist capitalism. Such gains were made in adverse economic circumstances, in contrast to the global commodity boom that financed the Pink Tide. Yet important challenges remain ahead. Organized crime is prevalent. The government has largely capitulated to US demands that it police the flow of asylum seekers across the border. And it has so far avoided a risky showdown over tax reform, which may be necessary in the years ahead. Still, there is some evidence to support the argument that we are witnessing a Cuarta Transformación. The previous transformaciones all coincided with economic paradigm shifts on a world scale: the end of colonial mercantilism in the case of Independence, global capitalist expansion in the case of the Liberal Reform, the welfare state era after the Mexican Revolution. The current one, with all its possibilities and limitations, is taking place against the backdrop of a fracturing neoliberal consensus. Sheinbaum has now received a major mandate to consolidate it.

Read on: Victor Serge, ‘Mexican Notebooks’, NLR 82.