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Mexico elections: all you need to know

Presidential candidate Claudia Sheinbaum speaks at her closing campaign rally at the Zocalo in Mexico City, Wednesday, May 29, 2024. Mexico's general election is set for June 2.
Eduardo Verdugo
/
AP
Presidential candidate Claudia Sheinbaum speaks at her closing campaign rally at the Zocalo in Mexico City, Wednesday, May 29, 2024. Mexico's general election is set for June 2.

MEXICO CITY — During one of the presidential debates, Claudia Sheinbaum’s “empathy” was a topic of debate. Sheinbaum’s leading competitor accused her of acting cold and heartless. “An ice lady,” her opponent said. Sheinbaum didn’t take the bait. Instead, she started listing a series of allegedly corrupt actions by her opponent, who, notably, is also a woman. It was typical Sheinbaum: analytical, disciplined and unflappable.

On Sunday, Sheinbaum is poised to be elected the first female president in Mexico’s history. An environmental engineer and former mayor of Mexico City, she is a seasoned politician who also happens to have shared a Nobel Prize for a 2007 report on climate change.

But Sheinbaum’s biggest selling point is that she is the protege and ally of Mexico’s popular current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Under Mexico’s Constitution, presidents can only serve one six-year term.

Sheinbaum’s election is largely seen as a given—she is leading by roughly 20 points in most of the polls over her nearest competitor, Xóchitl Gálvez, an Indigenous, pro-business tech entrepreneur who is representing several opposition parties, including Mexico’s traditional leftist and conservative parties. Still, the extent of Sheinbaum’s mandate will largely be decided by down-ballot elections.

All 128 Senate seats are up for election, as well as 500 federal deputies (akin to the House of Representatives) and nine governorships. In addition, there are more than 19,000 open seats in municipal and state elections, said Lila Abed, acting director of the Wilson’s Center Mexico Institute in Washington, D.C.

“It’s a huge Democratic exercise for Mexican citizens,” Abed said. Voting is not mandatory in Mexico but there is generally a high turnout. Abed said around 60 percent of eligible voters have historically voted in presidential elections.

What are the presidential elections really about?

More than any single issue, the elections are a referendum on Mexico’s popular president, López Obrador, multiple political analysts tell NPR. The populist won the presidency in 2018 in a landslide with a motto that underscored his priorities: “For the good of all, first the poor.”

Since then, he has more than doubled the minimum wage and dramatically increased welfare spending, including providing cash payments to university students, farmers and out-of-work youth. He also created a universal pension benefit for seniors.

But critics say López Obrador has fueled a process of democratic backsliding that threatens Mexico’s fragile democracy. This is a country, after all, where one political party maintained uninterrupted power for 70 years. That changed in 2000, when the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) lost the presidency.

López Obrador has increased the size and power of the military, slashed funding to Mexico’s independent election institute and doxed journalists who report critically on him. He has proposed a series of Constitutional reforms that critics say would weaken the country’s democracy, including having Supreme Court judges elected by popular vote instead of being appointed.But concerns over threats to democracy are not a salient issue in the election, said Palmira Tapia Palacios, a political analyst in Mexico City.

“This argument about democracy versus dictatorship doesn’t hit home for voters,” Tapia Palacios said. “At the end of the day, it’s an abstract argument. If people have employment, that’s enough.”

Carlos Bravo Regidor, a political analyst in Mexico City, said the political candidates can’t be broken down into ideologies, like Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Instead, the elections are about whether or not voters want to see a continuation of López Obrador’s vision.

“It’s complicated ideologically but not politically,” Bravo Regidor said. “Claudia Sheinbaum stands for continuity of the López Obrador administration, particularly for the social programs and cash transfers,” he said. “Xóchitl Gálvez has come to represent resistance to Obrador-ism.”

Opposition presidential candidate Xochitl Galvez speaks during her closing campaign rally in Los Reyes la Paz, on the outskirts of Mexico City, Wednesday, May 29, 2024.
Fernando Llano/AP / AP
/
AP
Opposition presidential candidate Xochitl Galvez speaks during her closing campaign rally in Los Reyes la Paz, on the outskirts of Mexico City, Wednesday, May 29, 2024.

First female president

One thing is clear, Mexico’s next president will most likely be a woman. That is a milestone in a country where gender-based violence is a serious and ongoing problem.

Perhaps surprisingly, Mexico has for years outpaced the U.S. in terms of gender parity in politics. Fifty percent of lawmakers in Mexico’s lower house of Congress are women, female governors lead nearly a quarter of the country’s 32 states, and five of eleven Supreme Court justices are women. Part of womens’ success in politics stems from a groundbreaking 2014 law that requires parties to ensure 50 percent of their candidates are female. “There is a very healthy representation of women in Mexican politics,” Abed said. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean they will place women’s issues at the forefront of their agenda.”

What about security?

Polls show that the number one issue for voters is security. In Mexico, organized crime has become so powerful that they’re extorting everything from gas stations to avocados growers and trucking companies. Even Mexico’s poorest residents are subject to extortion by criminal groups. A soaring number of Mexicans are fleeing to the U.S., citing violence and extortion as a primary reason for migrating. López Obrador, who promised a “hugs not bullets” strategy toward drug cartels, has been unable to reduce the historically high homicide rate.

Upwards of 30,000 people are murdered a year in Mexico, compared to around 18,500 in the U.S. in 2023. The violence is also spreading into the election. As NPR has reported, more than 30 candidates have been killed so far this year.

The Associated Press reports that about 27 candidates in Mexico have been killed so far this year, while The New York Times found that at least 36 have been killed since last June. Dozens more have been threatened and even kidnapped.

“That’s the million dollar question —why doesn't it have a political cost to have such high rates of violence,” said Jorge Buendía, director of the Buendía & Márquez polling firm in Mexico. “One explanation is that no party or government has been able to put a stop to the violence,” he said. “No party is perceived as being efficient on that issue.”

Members of the National Guard custody the crime scene of the mayoral candidate of the opposition, Alfredo Cabrera, murdered during his electoral campaign closure in Las Lomas, Guerrero, Mexico on May 29, 2024.
Francisco Robles / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Members of the National Guard custody the crime scene of the mayoral candidate of the opposition, Alfredo Cabrera, murdered during his electoral campaign closure in Las Lomas, Guerrero, Mexico on May 29, 2024.

Immigration

In the U.S., immigration is one of the top issues on voters’ minds, and also a political hot potato. Record numbers of migrants were apprehended at the U.S.’s southern border in fiscal year 2023, and both Republicans and Democrats blame the other party for not doing enough to address the migration flows.

One common strategy among both parties, however, is to pressure Mexico to ramp up enforcement and stop migrants from reaching the U.S. As a result, migration has become a powerful cudgel for Mexican politicians to negotiate on other issues with the U.S., such as trade agreements. As for voters in Mexico, immigration is largely a non-issue. For all practical purposes, there is likely to be little policy differences between the presidential candidates, analysts said.

“With migration policy there will be continuity no matter who wins,” Bravo Regidor said. “Because immigration policy in Mexico these days is basically dictated by the U.S.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Emily Green
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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