A Brief Guide to the Mexican Elections for the Perplexed and Curious


A “twitter essay” explaining the Mexican elections by me, Mexican historian and citizen, to counterbalance some of the “fake news” currently circulating in the English-speaking press. You can consult the Twitter version here. This version has been amended for clarity, mainly to correct errors in spelling and grammar.

For the recent history of Mexico (last 30 years or so), the election results of 2018 are astounding. Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) won 53% of the popular vote. He led his nearest rival by over 30%.

For comparison:  in 1996 Zedillo won with 48.7% (and had a 23% lead); in 2000, Fox won with 42.5% (with a 6.4% lead); in 2006, Calderón won with 35.9 (and a 0. 62% lead over AMLO); Peña won with 38.2% (and a 7.43% lead over AMLO).

AMLO is the first left-wing party-candidate to be elected as President since the end of the Revolution. After 10 years or so of competitive (and violent) elections in the 1920s, the revolutionaries established the Party of the Mexican Revolution (later the PRI, the Party of the Institutionalized Revolution). It governed until 2000.

So yes, it is a historic victory. But: context.  In the last 30 years, the autonomous electoral commission (Instituto Federal Electoral or IFE founded in 1990) has overseen every presidential election. Since 2014 it goes by the name of Instituto Nacional Electoral or INE.

Before 1990, elections were supervised by the federal government, namely the Federal Governing Secretary/Interior Ministry (Secretario de Gobernación). During the hegemony of the PRI (circa 1940-1990) elections were notorious corrupt affairs.

The INE/IFE has a patchy record of curbing electoral tampering. The results in 2006 were widely thought to be fraudulent. But the election results since 2000 – ie. their competitiveness- suggest that it has managed to guarantee a certain level of democracy.

Despite what preconceived ideas you might have about Mexico, their elections are a model of citizen participation and the INE/IFE strives towards transparency.  Both the US and the UK could learn much from how Mexico regulates its elections.

Mexico City and the South have a vibrant left-wing political community. Other parts of Mexico lean more happily to the right and the politics of Catholic and /or pro-business conservatism. AMLO’s failure to win in 2006 and 2012 reflects this.

There have been dirty campaigns against AMLO since he was Chief of Mexico City’s government (2000-2005). The negative propaganda in the conservative media and institutional attacks undertaken by the PAN President, Vicente Fox, also accounts for his defeat in 2006.

AMLO’s current victory is not a whole-hearted embrace of left-wing policies by 53% of the Mexican population. His popularity is also not a by-product of a populist agenda, despite what his critics insist both inside and outside Mexico.

The innumerable deaths in the 2006-present “drug war”; the incompetence and corruption of current president Peña Nieto and various PRI governors; and simply, a much savvier political campaign in 2018, are better explanations for his victory.

AMLO is as far from Trump as you can get. He’s not a businessman, he is famously averse to spending money on himself and he speaks in coherent (if slow) sentences. His political model is one of establishing alliances with grass-roots workers, peasant movements etc.

In this concern with establishing alliances, he is reminiscent of the ex-revolutionary PRI politicians who built up the party in the 1930s and 40s. It also separates him from the politicians of the PRI heyday (50s-70s).

It is also not helpful to compare AMLO to Hugo Chávez. AMLO does not propose to rewrite the constitution or impose socialism. He is not a military man. A better comparison of his political position is with the social democratic parties in post-war Europe.

Can AMLO change Mexico for the better? Those who voted for him, hope so. The margin of his victory and his party’s dominance in the Federal Congress put him in a unique position to implement a great deal of legislation.

However, politics in Mexico -like everywhere else- is not just done in the capital. The PRI, PAN and PRD may be severely wounded, but the first two still control a number of important state governments.

How AMLO deals with Panista and Prista governors will likely decide how successful his policies can be. He is proposing to cut their easy (and mostly unregulated) access to federal money. This will not go down well.

How he deals with the numerous “tactical” alliances he forged during his presidential bid -for example with the Evangelical right-wing Social Encounter Party or PES- will also be crucial to his on-going success.

AMLO inspires great hope in many sectors of the Mexican population. However, he also inspires intransigent hatred from great swathes of the middle-classes and the political elite. This is not going to go away, and will likely provide a backdrop of constant accusations of “dictatorship” and “populism” from assorted newspaper/radio/TV punditry.

His biggest challenge is to seek an economic and political solution to the drug war. His proposed Interior Minister suggested legalising cannabis yesterday. Amnesties for small growers of (amapola) poppies are also on the cards.

In sum: yes, this is a historic victory for AMLO. Does he have a huge mandate for change? Undoubtedly. Will bringing about the changes he wants be a straightforward matter? Very unlikely. Does he want to be the next Trump/Chávez? No.

PS. A late addition to the essay from a Twitter conversation with @curiouser_alice

I think it is a generally hopeful scenario. The other variable is, of course, foreign relations. As Porfirio Díaz said, “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so near the United States.”




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