By Luis Rubio
“All politics are local,” Tip O’Neil famously quipped. In Mexico, all politics today are about elections and especially about the midterms of June 6. From his inauguration, President López Obrador turned this election into a referendum of himself; in fact, he wanted to be on the ballot by creating a new figure, that of “revocation of mandate.” His objective in trying to create a new device was pragmatic and explicit: to attempt to turn a typically local election into a national one. That attempt looks increasingly like a big mistake.
It is too early to forecast what will happen in two months, and it would be a foolish errand to bet on any result, but several pointers make it possible to speculate about how Mexican politics are likely to evolve from here to there. First, the way each party nominated its slate of candidates for governorships, municipal governments, and Congress, evidenced both the enormous tensions inside the political system at large, as well as the extraordinary inability of the establishment to come to grips with how much has changed in the country’s politics both as a result of López Obrador’s election in 2018, as well as due to the pandemic. It is now all but clear that the president was elected not because the electorate loved his policy proposals, but because people were fed up with the status quo, the corruption that had been the trait of the previous administration and, in general, shattered expectations after decades of unfulfilled promises.
Second, the polls show a huge gap between the president’s relatively high (though not unprecedented) popularity and that of his government and its policies. The government’s performance was dismal from the start (the economy entered into negative territory from the very beginning) and the pandemic made everything worse. This was then compounded by the president’s refusal to support businesses or even people losing their jobs. Thus, a key question for election day is whether people who maintain a quasi-religious belief in the president will vote with their hearts or with their pocketbooks. Although some polls suggest the former, fear may well be built-in into the answer. Nobody knows.
Third, the opposition political parties have joined forces in many states and about half the federal congressional districts. Their objective is sheer pragmatism: to defeat Morena and hinder it from getting an absolute majority in Congress. Given the way the electorate relegated the three (previously) large opposition parties -PRI, PAN, and PRD- to minority status, their pragmatism was warranted, but it proved both too optimistic and rather shallow. Optimistic in that while the theory of fielding a candidate that could win and to avoid splitting the opposition vote made sense, getting the actual pre-candidates to accept the new rule proved extremely difficult and conflict-ridden: politicians traditionally combatting each other do not join forces easily. And shallow in that all the opposition is offering is a return to where things were before AMLO’s win in 2018, precisely what the majority of the electorate wanted to run from. Attempting to sell yesterday’s failed product to a crowd that wants a radically different one does not bode well for these complex alliances.
Finally, there are too few polls at the local level to make any judgment about what is likely to happen on election day. National polls are likely skewed because of the weight of the president’s figure, so they say little of relevance about how a voter might choose among candidates and political parties right there in their neighborhood: the difference between a presidential election where almost nine of every ten voters typically pick their preferred presidential candidate and vote straight for his or her party in all other contests, and a local election where national politics matter less. To the extent that local issues drive voters’ behavior, June 6 is a toss-up.
The only reason to be optimistic is the ever more evident fear the president, his government, and the Morena leaders evince in their actions, statements, and the way they conduct themselves. Their ever-growing attacks on the electoral authority more than suggest that they do not believe their rhetoric suggesting that they will once again hold a supermajority. In fact, everything seems to indicate that they would be extremely lucky if they barely reach a tiny lead over the rest.
The result of the coming election will be largely symbolic. Even though the lower house of Congress has sole authority over the budget, and thus whoever holds a majority determines what the executive can do, no small source of power, a weakened president at this stage would constitute an enormous victory for the opposition, one which has done little to merit a larger showing itself. Still, limiting or containing the president’s ability to keep on undermining and destroying each and every institution and potential counterweight is worth every vote.
Luis Rubio Mexico Institute Advisory Board Member; Chairman, México Evalúa; Former President, Consejo Mexicano de Asuntos Internacionales (COMEXI); Chairman, Center for Research for Development (CIDAC), Mexico