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Breaking Down the Results of Mexico’s 2024 General Election

June 6, 202428:00

In this edition of Wilson Center NOW, we are joined by Lila Abed, Acting Director of Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. She discusses the results of Mexico’s 2024 general election, the landmark victory of Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico’s first female leader, and the domestic and foreign policy implications of the Morena Party’s landslide win.


  • This is an unedited transcript

    Hello, I'm John Milewski, and this is Wilson Center, now a production of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. My guest today is Leila Bhatt. Leila is the acting director of the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute.

    She just returned from Mexico City, where she served as an international electoral observer during what turned out to be quite the historic election in Mexico. They elected their first female president, Claudia Sheinbaum, also their first Jewish president, and one in the same. Welcome. Leila, how are your travels? Look at the see you back in D.C.. Thank you, John.

    No, it's been a incredibly interesting and historic electoral cycle for Mexico. I mean, you just mentioned that Mexico has elected its first female president in 200 years since its independence. You know, it was the biggest election in Mexican Mexico's history with more than 20,000 positions up for election. And so a very exciting time for the country. And, of course, being on the ground and witnessing firsthand how the national electoral Institute carries out this monumental task of setting up the in this case and in this electoral cycle, more than 170,000 polling stations throughout the nation.

    And it really is very citizen led, right? Mexican citizens participate. They volunteer. They train with the National Electoral Institute to carry out elections. And so it was just a wonderful experience to be on the ground and seeing the very, very long lines of individuals waiting to cast their ballot. Now, so not only good news for AMLO's legacy in that his protege of sorts was elected, but also his party did quite well across the country.

    That's right. You know, recent polls and polls really, John, for the last several weeks were pointing towards a very healthy lead for former mayor of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum. In fact, they, you know, had said that she was going to win by 30 points. And in fact, she did. When, you know, a lot of analysts and experts in Mexico were sort of expecting Claudia to win, but perhaps by a narrower margin.

    And so the polls were right. But they did miss a fundamental aspect of the elections, and that was that the Morena Party, the Morena Coalition, actually won by a landslide. Did they not only secured the presidency with cloudy shame bomb, but they actually acquired a two thirds majority in the lower house, most likely in the Senate. They won seven out of nine governorships, including the mayorship of Mexico City.

    And so, you know, they really have cemented the governing party sort of as the the hegemonic party of Mexico and, you know, the opposition leaders of Chile. GALVIS And the three traditional political parties that supported her candidacy have now, you know, understood, hopefully that they are very discredited, that they don't have a majority of people's trust and they have been, you know, sort of blamed for the deep corruption, the lack of economic opportunities, increasing poverty and increasing levels of insecurity in Mexico.

    And so, you know, while it was surprising that the Miranda coalition was able to kind of win across the ballot, it was also very you know, it's very interesting to see how deeply discredited the three traditional political parties in Mexico are. Leila, explain to our viewers and listeners who may not understand the significance of a party winning the mayorship of Mexico City.

    Is there a corollary in the United States? What would that be? The equiv what would be the equivalent of that? Yeah. So the mayorship of mexico city actually before it was the federal district. So sort of what washington, D.C. kind of, you know, how it serves in terms of the governance of the federal government in the United States and vis a vis other states.

    It actually didn't have sort of the view of a governorship until very recently. And that's true, right? The mayorship of Mexico City has always been a key position, perhaps the most important of all governorships, because so many of the former mayors have been either presidential candidates or actually become presidents themselves. Right. So, for example, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was actually mayor of Mexico City.

    Claudia Sheinbaum was mayor of Mexico City, now president elect. And that the history shows that, you know, leaders that are the head of department or head of government of Mexico City hold a lot of political power, a lot of visibility, national nationwide. And I guess the equivalent here, I don't know, because Washington is not the right sort of comparison.

    But I would say that it's one of those like key states, perhaps a swing state, right, in the United States, that really marks different or holds a lot of political power in terms of an electoral cycle and also in terms of, you know, positioning key candidates to the presidency and to other really important roles in Mexico's government. And so the fact that Claudia Sheinbaum, who left the mayorship of Mexico City to run for president now has had no now her candidate of preference, the Miranda candidate, won the mayorship, is sort of a continuation in and of itself of the Morena led government in the capital of the country and if we go even deeper.

    Right. Mexico City is comprised of 16. They're called like delegations, but they're sort of like big districts. They won the majority of them. I mean, they have, you know, more than ten of the 16. And so they also will have power in the local legislature. So extremely important. That's going to be very difficult for those mayors of these districts in Mexico City to actually be able to do a lot if they're part of the opposition party and this holds true for other governorships around the country.

    The I'm going to continue to say AMLO, because I can say Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, as quickly or as elegantly as you can. So I'm going to go with the his nickname, AMLO. Can you explain his popularity? You know, if you're if you read analysis of his time in office, a lot of it in the first paragraph or two says many unkept promises, and yet his popularity has remained so high.

    And it created this tidal wave in many ways that swept Sheinbaum into office. Why is he why does he continue to be so popular? So AMLO has actually run for president three times and he won on the third try. Right. So he's essentially been campaigning for the last 20 years. He is recognized for having visited all the municipalities of Mexico.

    He truly understands what Mexican citizens need, what their primary concerns are, and he's use that to his benefit. Right. He is a communication genius. He knows how to talk in a very simple way to his electoral base. He offers very simple solution to highly complex problems. For example, when he came into office, he said that corruption would be gone.

    He never explained how or what policies he was going to enact to reduce corruption in Mexico. He just simply said that by him taking office, corruption would sort of die down. And so he's he's been able to install this mutual trust with the most impoverished and vulnerable sectors of Mexican society. This is reflected in his distinct, you know, social programs that offer direct cash transfers to the elderly, to the youth, to really important and populated sectors of Mexico.

    Throughout his presidency. He is a man that has utilized the US versus them sort of mentality of if you're not with AMLO, you're against him, and if you're against him, you form part of what he considers or what he calls the neo liberals, the conservatives, the elites. And so he's really divided the country, polarized the country in terms of who's against him and who's in favor of his government.

    He is someone that has been every single day for the past six years in front of cameras during his morning press conferences, you know, marking the most important points of the agenda at the federal level for that day. You really don't see sort of his cabinet members at the forefront of of policymaking, but even, you know, in the media.

    So it really he really has concentrated so much power in the presidency, so much power in the executive branch. And the most interesting part and I think hopefully I'll be able to answer your question, John, here, is that Mexican citizens, when you ask them or when they have asked them recently, what are the main issues, right, that you're concerned about?

    And they say insecurity. They say the economy. They say education. They say public health, among other things. Right. But they don't blame AMLO for the shortcomings on all these issues. They essentially mark a very, you know, stark distance between the issues that they're concerned about and what AMLO has done. Essentially, AMLO, with his rhetoric, with his narrative, has convinced many voters that the issues that they are concerned about are issues that he inherited and that he's tried to resolve and address during his administration, but that they're not able to be quickly solved because Mexico has been dealing with a lot of these problems for so long.

    And so actually, the majority of people think that he's done a great job. He sustained incredibly high numbers of approval rates. You know, right now, anywhere between 60 I just saw a recent poll that positions him at 80% at approval rates during his last year. John, we know is very but never happens. I mean, that just never happens.

    Unprecedented. I mean, if we take and perhaps it says, you know, not the only comparison, but for example, his predecessor and companion, Nieto, when he left office, he had an approval rate of about 27%. And so you really see, you know, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador not only create and and he founded the more than a party like he is, the more in a party AMLO, Morena is AMLO and more is Morena.

    And so he's really he has such a grip of power within not only his political party, but throughout the country. Right. Claudia Sheinbaum actually got more votes than AMLO did in 2018. She actually has about 60% of the popular vote, whereas AMLO got 53% of the vote in 2018. And so we see that this election was not only electing the first female president of Mexico, but it also served as a referendum of AMLO's six year term.

    And so what we really see is that AMLO's ascent, ascension to power was not an anomaly, right. Because many thought it was I you know, given the results of these elections, what we can expect going forward is that Morena is now the hegemonic party, that Mexico's experiment of transitioning from a 71 year single party rule to a more plural and democratic system in 2000 is now actually going back to a dominant political party.

    Right. That rules Mexican government. Right. And Mexican politics. Which is really interesting because then if we actually see the Democratic experiment, quote unquote, of Mexico's history only lasted about 24, 25 years, which is a very short time. I mean, it was still sort of in the process of strengthening democratic institutions and principles and whatnot. But, you know, I think these these elections this year really made clear what Mexicans want and what they want is a continuation of AMLO's policies.

    And I think that's what we're going to get from Claudia Chamba. Yeah, but more movement than anomaly, right? Yep. So given this large shadow that AMLO casts, well, what do we know? I mean, you look at President elect Sheinbaum resumé and her accomplishments, and this is a formidable woman. Right. But she owes a lot to her predecessor. What do we know about the potential for her to become her own woman?

    And when do we have expectations in that regard? Or is it more of a situation where we wait and see? Yeah. So Claudia Shimbun just naturally, as I know this sounds very basic, John, but it's important to note, right? She's not AMLO. So just by the simple nature of not being her predecessor, things are going to be different.

    But she is a scientist. She's an environmental engineer that studied at UC Berkeley. She has a long trajectory in public service and in academia. She served at a UN environmental panel. She served as a mayor of a of an important district in Mexico City. She then served as environmental secretary when AMLO was the mayor of Mexico City. Then she won in 2018 the mayorship of Mexico City herself.

    She is a woman that is fiercely independent, that she knows how to lead. That was evident during her tenure as mayor of Mexico City. She was able to achieve very positive results in the capital of the country by reducing homicides, for example, by 50%. She reduced the perception of insecurity, you know, in a very significant way. She invested in Electromobility.

    She invested in solar panels for Mexico's biggest wholesale market. You know, in terms of the pandemic, her response was very different than what we saw AMLO do at a nation at a nationwide level. She actually, you know, vouched and asked citizens to use masks to social distance. And she actually closed down Mexico City. Again, very different than what AMLO was doing during, you know, during that time during the pandemic.

    And so we see these these signs. Right, that Claudia is very similar to AMLO in terms of what she wants to do for Mexico during her single six year term. But there are, you know, several areas for potential change. One of them being energy. You know, but the thing is and I'll just start with this before I jump into the actual topics.

    If you look at her 100 point government plan, John, you see areas for potential change, but they're accompanied by continuation of AMLO's policies. So while I will signal certain changes, these are accompanied by policies that AMLO implemented during his administration. So for example, on the energy front, she has said that she wants to attract foreign direct investment, work with the private sector, you know, do and create public public private partnerships in terms of investing in renewable and clean energy.

    Right. Which is just completely different from AMLO's policies that favor fossil fuels and dirty energies. Right on. So I think that's a fear, you know, different from AMLO. Now, at the same time, she wants to remain she wants to keep certain things that AMLO did do on the energy sector. So she wants to maintain the 54% share of the Federal Electricity Commission, and she wants to strengthen Pemex.

    And on these issues for the United States, it's something that they you know, I think the United States is looking at even the private sector in the United States is looking very closely towards because there is a dispute, a commercial dispute because of AMLO's energy policies that is pending to become potentially a panel under USMCA. And that's something that, you know, Claudia is going to have to take into consideration and address very quickly after she takes office on October 1st.

    On the security front, you know, she said that she wants to create a national intelligence agency that can better coordinate all that, all levels of government, federal, state, municipal, to combat transnational criminal organizations and to be able to, you know, fight illicit financing and all of these things. Right. That are very different from AMLO's hugs, not bullets strategy, which focused way more on the prevention side of security, rather than frontally attacking cartels.

    But at the same time, right in her security strategy, she also says she wants to continue consolidating the National Guard that AMLO created, which replaced the Federal Police. And she wants to continue to make sure that the National Guard falls under the purview of the Ministry of Defense. And so this, again, would continue with what many have called the militarization of civilian forces in Mexico, which would actually make it very difficult for the United States to cooperate with Mexico and with in particular with Mexico's military, which traditionally is just so much more closed off than, for example, the Department of Justice.

    Right. The attorney general's office or the the secretary of citizenship purity or intelligence agencies or even the Marines, the military, as it has now been strengthened during the administration and might very well continue to be under the Claudia Sheinbaum tenure. This could pose a serious problem for US Mexico security cooperation. And then I will say that, you know, Claudia Sheinbaum might, you know, during this transition period, continue to reiterate that she will continue with what she calls the second level of analyst Ford's transformation of Mexico.

    Right. Which is sort of the government plan that he implemented. And so I don't see her changing policies, changing fundamental aspects of animals, government until once she's in office. And perhaps in the first year, she'll be, you know, kind of moderate in the sense that she will have to balance how much AMLO and what role, if any, AMLO will continue to have after leaving office.

    And on the other hand, you know, trying to make a mark of her own. She is the first female president of Mexico. She does want to do and wants to achieve a lot of projects. She's going to need a lot of money and she's going to face really, you know, profound challenges, including security, including a slowing economy, including challenges with the United States, including the fact that there's not enough money.

    Right. For Mexico to really for her and her and Mexico and her government to to accomplish all she wants to do if there is no money. So I think she's a really independent, strong, a great leader, but I think she will be put to the test in the first year of her administration to truly understand who she is.

    Well, what you describe, you know, you makes you wonder why people want the job. It sounds overwhelming. All the things she has to deal with and plus the burden of history of being the first woman to hold the position. I want to ask you about. Well, you just brought up something. I never thought about this before, but it's fascinating when you look at populist movements around the world, often they are associated with sort of being anti-science.

    Yet here's a populist movement in Mexico where the standard bearer is now a scientist and has shown just the opposite, that she is engaged in science. You know, do you see this as almost a new hybrid life form and current politics globally? I mean, who knows, right, John? I mean, I think sort of the big question mark and mystery surrounding Claudia Sheinbaum is what aspect of her personality is going to be more dominant if she's going to be the scientific environmental engineer, you know, academic side, or is the deeply ideological leftist political side of her going to, you know, take over more?

    Or is she going to have a really nice balance, Right. She is very she's much more practical. She's much more systematic. She's much more orderly and logical than I think AMLO has ever been. AMLO, even though he says he's from the last, he really has kind of ebbed and flowed from the right to the left, depending on, you know, what, what what makes his government look better or what his government to fit his policies.

    Right. Whereas, Claudia, she is deeply ideological. She, you know, she she was part of the student movement in Mexico. She comes from parents that were very politically involved. She's always been a fighter for leftist causes. And so in that in that sense, she is much more disciplined ideologically than AMLO has ever been. And so I think we can expect a much more structured government, a little less populist, just for the simple fact that she's not as charismatic as AMLO.

    She doesn't have this 20 years of campaigning and this, you know, experience at Emel has of really understanding Mexico more than perhaps any other politician in the country. And so she's she's just more structured. Right. And so I think that might be good for Mexico. But again, I wouldn't push aside completely the fact that she is also very ideological.

    And so those are the true believer. Exactly. And I think that those are going to be sort of the two sides that she's she's constantly going to have to, you know, decide which one to be more loyal to. And then in the background, we don't know whether AMLO is going to continue, you know, making decisions or advising her or influencing her policies.

    I mean, history shows in Mexico that once the president takes office, you know, healthy distance from it, from his or her predecessor, and then, you know, they continue on their own path. But AMLO did break the cycle of former presidents. He was the first president to win more than 50% of the popular vote since the 1990s. And so he does have so much more credibility.

    He does have much more of an approval with Mexican citizens. And so I think that's going to be sort of the scenario that she's going to come into and have to balance on October 1st. You know, you've addressed many of the challenge she'll face the energy sector, crime and security. We just saw mayor assassinated hours after Sheinbaum was elected.

    Migration didn't come up in any detail, but we know that that's on the table as well. But what I'm wondering is on the on the flipside of those overwhelming challenges, they're going to take some time. Where's the low hanging fruit? You know, every president comes into office wanting to make a mark as quickly as possible. There's this concept of the first hundred days that we always look at in the United States.

    Is there a low hanging fruit? Are there opportunities for her to move quickly in some areas? Yeah. So the reason why she will be able to move very quickly is because she has control of Congress. Essentially, she can do anything she likes on really any issue. She will be able to pass constitutional reforms, budget legislation, unopposed. Right. And so really, it's her time to to truly place the priorities that she wants to move really quickly on.

    I wouldn't be surprised if some of her first moves are, you know, to strengthen the to to make sure that her energy policies are carried out. I think she's going to focus too incredibly on the economy, on nurturing, on strengthening its ties, its commercial ties with the United States, preparing for the 2026 review under U.S. S.A. given the fact that 2025, according to the IMF, Mexico economy is only going to grow by 1.4%.

    There is no more money. Right. The money was spent during the electoral cycle, whatever was left of it. She has said that she's opposed to a tax reform, but she probably will get pressured to do it because she she there's just not enough money to do what she wants to do. And so how she approaches the sort of the economic outlook of the country, I think is going to be essential.

    I think a lot of the resources that she does have, she's going to continue investing in social programs because that is like the sort of the source, right. That keeps her electoral base and AMLO's electoral base together. But I think, you know, John, what I what I'm more more concerned about in Mexico is this overwhelming amount of power that she's going to have and how she's going to use it is going to be really, you know, really significant in terms of understanding how she's going to lead the country.

    There were some people in Mexico that said that she's going to have to auto regulate herself. I mean, that is just hard to believe, right? Especially in Mexico, where the president is. She's just has so much power to begin with. And then you add more. One can only imagine what that what that looks like. I you know, one of the biggest concerns right now in the country is what how is Mexico's democracy going to look like?

    Right. Because we talk about security, we talk about migration, we talk about commercial ties, we talk about nurturing. Right. We talk about Mexico being an emerging economy. But if there's no democracy, that's going to be very hard to achieve on all fronts. Right. And so a president with too much power just has too much power. And this new Congress will take will begin on September 1st.

    AMLO doesn't need to October 1st. So and that's going to try and fast track all, if not many write of the 20 constitutional legal reforms that he already presented to Congress and I think he will first present and try to approve the judicial reform, which will basically have judges and Supreme Court justices be elected by popular vote. And if we can just, you know, from what the results of these elections were, and Morena and its coalition got more than 60% of the popular vote.

    If these judges go out to popular vote, one could expect that they're going to be closely aligned to Morena and the judicial branch, and particularly the Supreme Court has been the one institution, the one branch of government that has stopped AMLO's AMLO's government from completely taking over. Right. It has deemed unconstitutional several of AMLO's reforms, which has really kept at bay this complete state control of all sectors of Mexican society.

    And so I think that that's that's alarming. You know what? It is true they have the credibility of having been elected through the through through the vote, right through the ballot. But we've seen a lot of democracy slowly die, even though the leaders, the governors, the local officials were elected in the ballot box. Right. And once they get into power, they slowly start deteriorating sort of the democratic institutions and principles that hold a democratic system together.

    And we saw a lot of that during the AMLO tenure, hopefully under Claudia Sheinbaum, I wouldn't say auto regulate, but hopefully, hopefully she'll be moderate enough to understand that Mexican do value their democracy. It cost them a lot of a lot of time and a lot of concerns and a lot of violation to their human rights. During the 71 year rule of the PRI.

    And so I think, you know, it is a very exciting time. It's a historic time for Mexico. One cannot underscore announced the importance of having the first female president. But one can also not ignore the deep challenges of the ones we've already mentioned but have really monitoring very closely where Mexico's democracy is headed, especially how it relates to to the United States.

    Lila, as you often do, you anticipated what was going to be my final question, which was about the health of democracy in Mexico, and you've covered it even better than I might have. I think of the the old Spiderman adage, right? With great power, there must also come great responsibility. Right? That's actually what you just described. Rise. Yes, they are.

    Yeah. Well, thank you very much for the fantastic. I know you need to get some sleep. You've been running around exciting times, as we were discussing earlier, but it's also tiring. It's also I'm getting used to it. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but incredible experience. I'll just end with this. It was an incredible experience, really, being an international electoral observer and the Wilson Center, you know, led a really expert group of analysts and staff that were on the ground and just seeing firsthand.

    Right. How Mexico's democracy in terms of organizing elections was just an incredible undertaking. So thank you, John, for for inviting me to talk about Mexico. And yeah, a history was made on June 2nd. Well, terrific. Thank you, Leila. Thank you. We hope you enjoyed this edition of Wilson Center now and that you'll join us again soon. Until then, for all of us at the center, I'm John MALESKY.

    Thanks for your time and interest.


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