For well over three decades, Mexico has been engaged in what can only be labeled as a search for democratic stability. After decades of single-party rule, Mexico’s Congress passed several substantive political and electoral reforms — in 1991, 1994, 1996, 2007, and the latest in 2014. Each of these reforms sought to facilitate Mexico’s transition to democracy by simultaneously opening the political system to competition and narrowly guiding political party activities and financing. However, despite the intention of these reforms, many observers believe they actually enabled those in power to tighten their stranglehold on Mexico’s democracy. Deeper democratization — the kind that engages civil society, encourages all to participate in decision-making, and holds politicians accountable for abuses of power — has remained elusive for Mexico.
Macario Schettino, a renowned Mexican economist and political analyst, spoke at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy on Sept. 19, 2023, about these reforms and Mexico’s quest for democracy. Schettino analyzed the evolving political landscape in Mexico in the context of the quickly approaching 2024 presidential election. According to Schettino, this election represents a pivotal moment for Mexico: It will determine if its democracy will prevail, or if the nation will backslide into an autocratic, one-party system.
This issue brief summarizes Schettino’s discussion at the Baker Institute and includes a transcript of his question-and-answer session with audience members.
Lead-Up to the 2024 Elections
In 2022, Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, attempted to push through yet another constitutional reform that would have drastically altered Mexico’s democratic trajectory. Had this reform passed into law, Schettino explained, it would have weakened the country’s electoral institutions, particularly the National Elections Institute (INE), an independent, public agency that is responsible for organizing Mexico’s federal elections and has served as the cornerstone of the nation’s electoral democracy for decades.
Faced with the failure of his intended electoral reform, López Obrador has since turned to skirting electoral laws and regulations and ignoring Mexico’s electoral institutions in an attempt to get his hand-picked successor — former Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum — elected in 2024 at all costs. For instance, he rescheduled the elections calendar well ahead of what is permitted by law, thoroughly manipulated his political party’s (MORENA) primary elections, and set the stage for what will be a government-run election in 2024 — reminiscent of the one-party rule when the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was both the organizer, arbiter, and contestant of Mexico’s elections.
This is the context in which Mexico’s democracy now faces its most serious challenge: the 2024 elections. These elections will, in effect, test the country’s ability to move forward on its democratic path. Will Mexico’s democracy advance, or will it succumb to the manipulations of those in power?
Bending the Playing Field: Primaries and Election Interference
A sign of the kind of democratic backsliding that is underway in Mexico is the fact that López Obrador’s political party, MORENA, began its primary election well before the law allowed. Moreover, despite the apparent open and fair contestation, the president and the party manipulated the elections in favor of their chosen candidate — Claudia Sheinbaum. This has divided the party, Schettino explained, with former Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard lodging a complaint against the process. Although Ebrard’s appeal has yet to be resolved, it is unlikely to change anything given López Obrador’s grip on his party and his determination that Sheinbaum succeed him.
Most experts, like Schettino, expect the López Obrador government, along with the 21 MORENA governors and hundreds of mayors, to mobilize public resources and pressure voters to elect the MORENA candidate. This was the generalized practice in Mexico prior to the 1991 reform, which formally opened the electoral system to freer and fairer elections. If López Obrador succeeds in getting his successor elected, it will be a step backward for Mexico as it relapses into a more authoritarian, one-party system — again.
Not All Is Lost: Opposition Rallies Around Xóchitl
Despite the influence and power of MORENA, the opposition parties — PRI, the National Action Party (PAN), and the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) — have managed to come together in a coalition known as Frente Amplio por Mexico (FAM). Under FAM, these three parties have jointly designated their potential candidate: another woman, Sen. Xóchitl Gálvez Ruiz.
Sen. Gálvez, or Xóchitl, as she is better known, emerged as a potential candidate despite the general skepticism of the three political party leaders and the fact that she does not belong to any of the three parties (although she does caucus with PAN in the Senate). Part of what propelled Xóchitl to the front was her personal history — a success story against all odds — which has prevented López Obrador from accusing her of being a member of the elite. Her personality, deep optimism about Mexico’s potential, and her broad connection to many citizens who are disappointed with the current administration (including about one-third of those who voted for López Obrador) have also helped her case. At the end of the primary election, she easily beat the other potential candidates, including Santiago Creel (PAN), Enrique de la Madrid (PRI), and Beatriz Paredes (PRI). One by one, each of them stepped down in her favor.
Many observers, including Schettino, are hopeful that Xóchitl can galvanize the opposition vote and have a fair shot at winning the presidency. They cite the mass mobilization of protestors on Nov. 13, 2022, and Feb. 26, 2023, to defend Mexico’s election system against López Obrador and MORENA’s attempted electoral reform.
The actions of another opposition party, the Citizens Movement Party, or MC, could also alter the election results. The MC, which refused to join FAM, has explicitly stated that they will put forth their own candidate in the 2024 election. As of yet, they have not designated this candidate, so the extent to which this will divide the opposition vote is unclear.
On top of this, Xóchitl is not yet well known across Mexico, and Sheinbaum enjoys an unfair advantage as she is likely to draw government resources for her campaign. She will also likely win the votes of many of the beneficiaries of the López Obrador administration (i.e., those who received cash transfers from the government in what can only be called political and electoral “clientelism”). Despite this, at least half of all Mexicans are not happy with the current direction of the country and that may favor Xóchitl.
According to Schettino, López Obrador and MORENA recognize the possibility of losing the 2024 election and have begun a series of frontal attacks on Xóchitl, who, as an Indigenous woman, is likely to draw votes from Indigenous communities, women, minorities, the middle class, and those disappointed by the current government. Moreover, Xóchitl, Schettino explained, is not as vulnerable to López Obrador’s noxious rhetoric as other FAM candidates would have been.
With López Obrador and his party seeking to force an election result in their favor and three opposition parties forming a coalition to support another candidate, the outcome of Mexico’s presidential election remains far from certain. One thing, however, is clear: Whatever happens will reveal the direction of the nation and whether its democracy will advance or falter.
Question-and-Answer Session with Macario Schettino
The following is a transcript of the question-and-answer session held with Schettino on Sept. 19, 2023, at the Baker Institute.
Q: Regarding the primary election within the AMLO [López Obrador] coalition (MORENA, the Green Party, and the Workers Party), why did the president engage in a primary that could result in accusations of cheating if he had already hand-picked Claudia Sheinbaum to be the candidate? Why risk a schism within his coalition by engaging in an internal election?
A: AMLO wanted to fake democracy. He wanted to show that it was the people who were going to select the [MORENA] candidate, [but] he did everything to make sure that [former Foreign Minister] Marcelo Ebrard could not compete under equal circumstances.
Q: To stay on Marcelo Ebrard: Having lost the coalition’s primary election to Sheinbaum, what is he going to do now? Is he going to fade out? He is appealing the results and founding a civil society organization, which he is likely to leverage somehow, but his plan is not altogether clear. Can he take some of the MORENA members — some 5% or 10% — and leverage that share in a negotiation with AMLO or the opposition’s coalition? Where do you see him in the next few months?
A: Marcelo Ebrard is not very relevant, but he can negotiate with what he has. I do not think MORENA liked him anyway. They always saw Marcelo Ebrard as an enemy of AMLO. Ebrard is a guy who has a perspective of the world economy, of globalization. He is more progressive in comparison to AMLO, and he is more likely to reverse many of his policies. Thus, I do not think he has a lot of leverage inside MORENA. And given Marcelo Ebrard’s personal history with another Mexican politician of old, Manuel Camacho, AMLO may anticipate that [his] future will be similar to Camacho’s — an interesting politician with no political force.
Q: Mr. Schettino, you were the first person to mention Xóchitl Gálvez Ruiz as a potential presidential candidate, back on Dec. 8, 2022, here at the Baker Institute. What did you see then? What did you know? How did you know it? Why her?
A: After the mass protest of November 2022 in defense of democracy and the INE, the only possibility of winning the presidency was a multiparty coalition among all opposition parties and a clear linkage between then and the citizens unhappy with the AMLO government. And the only person capable of making that coalition come together was Xóchitl Gálvez. That was the reason I thought then, and do now, that she is the best possible candidate to face off [against] the AMLO coalition. Moreover, even though she is not a member of any of the coalition parties, she was also not rejected by any of them. ... Her understanding of the world today, with all its challenges, allows her to represent the citizens who feel left out. And her personal story also counts – she is a fighter, a person who comes from “rags to riches.” I was not sure she was going to take the challenge on, but I was sure that she was the best candidate to do it.
Q: Let us do some math. In the 2018 election, his [López Obrador’s] coalition managed to get 30 million votes, but in the 2021 midterm election his coalition managed only 20 million votes. So, there [are] a number of citizens (about 10 million) who abandoned AMLO and his coalition in 2018. Moreover, in 2018, Jose Antonio Meade (PRI) and Ricardo Anaya (PAN) together managed to get 22 million votes, plus three million for an independent candidate. That is a total of 25 million votes. That is a powerful electorate too, in sufficient numbers to make the opposition competitive. But recently, we saw a spat among the three leaders of political parties — PRD, PAN, and PRI — with [the] MC. That does not bode well for bringing all those opposition votes together. Of course, Xóchitl asked them to stop fighting. But, can she discipline the parties behind her? She is going to need their ability to mobilize millions of voters, and then she will need to bridge to the disaffected and the middle class and MC voters. Can she count on the parties to stay disciplined and maintain the support among Pink Wave (Marea Rosa) [voters], the citizens who opposed AMLO and are looking for a candidate that can represent their interests?
A: I really do not know. I hope she can. There are some advantages in her favor. The political parties need her. They need her to win as many votes as she can, because her coattails will carry their candidates to Congress, to state houses, and city halls. For them (the parties), it is critical to take care of Xóchitl, but they also have their own agendas. Despite this, I think Xóchitl has the ability to lead them as a group. But it is hard to tell.
Q: AMLO is likely to put his thumb on the scale in favor of his chosen candidate, Claudia Sheinbaum, just as he did in the MORENA primary election. That is probably her main advantage. But can you give us an assessment of her personal assets that may be appealing to the broader electorate? And then also apply this assessment to Xóchitl? Can she beat the political machinery that the government will deploy in favor of Sheinbaum?
A: Claudia Sheinbaum, if you take AMLO’s personal support off the table, is not a good candidate. She has no charisma. She is not able to speak in public to draw the emotions in people. The only thing she has going for her is the support from AMLO — which is obviously important, but not enough to win. For example, in 1999 when Zedillo was president, he chose as his successor Francisco Labastida with more governmental support than AMLO has now. And Labastida lost the election. In that election, Vicente Fox (PAN), captured the emotions of the electorate, and he represented change. And he won. I think it is the same with Xóchitl. She represents what AMLO thinks he represents — the people. But I think people can see the difference; there are a lot of people that are disappointed by what AMLO has done in his government.
Q: As of now, Claudia Sheinbaum has defended every single policy and statement AMLO has issued. It is hard to tell what she really thinks. But at some point, Sheinbaum will be officially declared the candidate, and she will have to present herself and her own vision for the future. Do you think she has the ability, the political ability, the savviness, the capacity, to distance herself from AMLO and his failed policies once the campaign beings?
A: No. She is not going to do it because without AMLO, she is nobody.
Q: What about Xóchitl? What is she offering that is new and different? Are there clear differences between these two candidates in their discourse so far? What are the major contrasts between them?
A: Xóchitl has been critical of the security and public safety policy in Mexico. She has also criticized AMLO’s energy policy. And so on. Sheinbaum has not done so at all, on any policy issue. Moreover, Xóchitl has made it very clear that the social programs directed at various social groups — youth, the elderly, etc. — will continue, but must be institutionalized instead of depending on the will of the current leader. There are many such differences. But I do not think that we are going to see very many policy details over the course of the campaign — not from Sheinbaum. But I think there will be a discussion about these issues because Xóchitl will bring them up. Sheinbaum cannot do that.
Q: What are the possibilities of a post-electoral conflict if MORENA were to lose the election? This is worrisome because we might see mass mobilizations and quite a bit of polarization in society, and AMLO is an expert at doing that.
A: The probability is 100%. If MORENA loses the election, there will be a post-electoral conflict. AMLO is likely to argue that he did not lose, but that there was electoral fraud.
Q: Following up on the issue of the post electoral conflict, there are some possible scenarios. To wit,
- Claudia Sheinbaum wins and she is recognized as the winner, which I believe the opposition is likely to do. This scenario may bring some protests, but they are not likely to go far.
- Sheinbaum loses the election and MORENA does not recognize Xóchitl’s victory. There is mass mobilization on both sides, with the opposition mobilizing in support of Xóchitl and the other half mobilizing for MORENA. After a period of great polarization, AMLO acknowledges defeat and it fizzles out.
- Or, there is great mobilization/social unrest, but the institutions hold and the political actors are there to negotiate some sort of political resolution — things get resolved politically.
- Or worst-case scenario, there is great polarization and the institutions collapse, leaving no legitimate voices to actually resolve the conflict politically. As a result, Mexico becomes ungovernable, or at least temporarily an ungovernable place.
Which of these scenarios do you think is most likely?
A: I think it will all depend on the Federal Electoral Tribunal. They decide what happens during a contested election. If 80% of the polls are correct, the Federal Electoral Tribunal will validate the result, and AMLO, even if he does not accept the results, will not have any legal challenge to respond to it. I think that — while there will be social unrest to an extent — in the end, the institutions will hold.
Q: Finally, what will happen with [the] Movimiento Ciudadano (MC) party? Will they make a difference one way or the other?
A: [The] MC has 5%–10% of the general vote. They are likely to go alone. But, in the case of the presidential election, I do not think people will take [the] MC seriously because when you have two big options fighting for victory, the third alternative is often the big loser. I am not sure what [the] MC’s strategy is for the presidential election, where they can actually compete, or what their hidden agenda may be. But in the end, it will be a battle between Xóchitl and Sheinbaum.
Whatever happens in 2024, the unavoidable conclusion is that it will be a critical test for Mexico’s democracy. There are two contrasting visions, represented by each of the two front-running candidates: Sheinbaum and Xóchitl.
One vision — that of Sheinbaum — points to the restoration of a one-party system, willing and able to deploy all the state’s resources to support its candidate. It has no clear rules beyond those that the current government occupant decides at the moment. This path will throw Mexico back to the mid-20th century, placing it firmly in the column of flawed democracies.
The other vision — represented by Xóchitl — points to a more open, democratic system, where the playing field is level and everyone can compete equally. This will allow Mexico to affirm its democratic vocation and advance, even if slowly, on the path toward becoming a consolidated democracy — a state of affairs long overdue.
The authors would like to thank Roberto Morales for his invaluable support in the production of this brief.
For more information about this event and how to get involved in future discussions about U.S.-Mexico elections, contact Lisa Guáqueta at firstname.lastname@example.org or 713-348-2649, and visit https://www.bakerinstitute.org/us-mexico-forum to learn about the benefits of becoming a member of the U.S.-Mexico Forum.
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