By Luis Rubio on November 13, 2023
The 2024 presidential election promises to be like no other since Mexico began its long, painful, and unfinished transition to democracy. Three factors make this a unique moment: an economy ever more distant from the political cycle; a political structure susceptible to collapse; and a race where the stakes are the highest in at least half a century.
The coming election is not only unique essentially because outgoing President López Obrador has raised the stakes in an already skeptical society. Whereas the previous five presidents attempted to pursue a common thread of gradual political and economic liberalization, AMLO shattered the notion that Mexico was advancing towards a democracy and an open economy. Furthermore, he has been a strong advocate for moving in the opposite direction and has created conditions for that to be furthered in the future. Even more important, also in contrast with his predecessors, he is bent on directly influencing the electoral process, regardless of whether this constitutes a crime according to the electoral legislation, which aims to secure a level playing field. This set of circumstances creates enormous risks, but also a potential opportunity.
Over the past four decades, Mexican governments provoked significant economic change through a series of reforms aimed at modernizing the Mexican economy and incorporating it into the global circuits. Despite the president’s continuous attacks on those reforms, he has been their biggest beneficiary. In fact, Mexico has become ever more closely attached to the US economy through exports, radically reducing its connection to the Mexican political cycle. Something similar has happened with the most politically sensitive economic variable, the exchange rate, which today is determined by exports and remittances, and much less so by government finances. Thus, the economy will be a factor in the coming election only to the extent that the US industrial production index experiences significant alterations.
The same cannot be said of the political arena. The biggest paradox of Mexico today is how the economy and the political system have exchanged places. The one constant through the 20th century was always the strength and resilience of the political system. Authoritarian or not, it was an extraordinary factor of stability and continuity. Mexico experienced crises, some political, others economic, and financial, but the political apparatus had the capacity to manage and remain effective. That is no longer true. The economic and political reforms of the past four decades eroded the old political structures and AMLO has further undermined the few remaining elements that used to provide stability.
The scene taking shape will thus include an extremely powerful player in the president, a rapidly weakening political context, an increasingly politicized military, a frail government-financial situation, and two relatively novice candidates for the presidency. Any one of these factors could be disruptive; the fact that there are several elements in the game could be extremely risky. And the riskiest is undoubtedly the president himself, who will not spare any asset at his disposal to get the outcome of his preference. Should that outcome fail to materialize, he could easily become the source of the gravest danger Mexicans have experienced since the end of the Revolution in 1917.
It is in this context that the election will take place. Mexicans will have to decide whether they want to pursue the course launched by AMLO or try a different tack. At present, neither of the candidates has fleshed out how she would go about addressing the big economic and political deficits that Mexicans face. Though Claudia Sheinbaum has articulated an effective structure for her campaign, at present all her proposals reflect the enormous influence wielded by her promoter, so they are not a reliable foundation to assess how a government led by her would work. On the other side of the aisle, Xóchitl Gálvez has yet to come up with an organization capable of defeating the governmental team, but her instincts and statements demonstrate a much more open, cosmopolitan, and modern thrust.
It is still far too early to reach any conclusion about the June election. The two key races -the presidency and congress- are intimately related given that few Mexicans split their votes. It is not inconceivable that voters will produce a very powerful congress without a majority in charge, an opportunity to truly begin to develop the end of the political transition Mexicans have long been waiting for. Thus, a lot rides in those votes.
Whatever the outcome, its implications will be major for both Mexicans and Americans. Mexicans will be directly affected, whether for good or ill. Americans will also be impacted because of the extraordinarily complex border their two nations share. The stakes could not be higher.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Global Fellow; Mexico Institute Advisory Board Member; Chairman, México Evalúa; Former President, Consejo Mexicano de Asuntos Internacionales (COMEXI); Chairman, Center for Research for Development (CIDAC), Mexico