Election Watch

Can Claudia Sheinbaum Emerge from AMLO’s Shadow?

She was just elected Mexico’s first woman president in a landslide. The future of Mexico’s democracy rests on whether she can break from her predecessor’s ways and carve her own democratic path.

By León Krauze

June 2024

On Sunday, Claudia Sheinbaum won Mexico’s presidency in a landslide, making history. In October, she will become Mexico’s first woman president. This election result is also significant for Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), Sheinbaum’s predecessor and political mentor. A clear majority of Mexicans favored AMLO’s project at the polls, voting not only for Sheinbaum but also for the legislative contingent of her coalition. This has granted her an overwhelming advantage in Congress, opening the doors to deep reforms that could fundamentally alter Mexico’s constitution and, with it, the country.

While Sheinbaum’s triumph as the first woman president of Mexico deserves celebration, the degree of power concentration her party has acquired does not bode well for the future of Mexico’s still young democracy. The looming figure of AMLO should be cause for wariness.

For a quarter-century, the outgoing president has dominated Mexico’s political agenda and discourse, first as a twice-failed presidential candidate and then, for the past six years, as president. AMLO fought his way to power and, once there, used his position to build a presidency rooted in grievance, intimidation, and even slander of the opposition, his critics, and the independent press. Regardless of whether his methods helped his chosen successor gain power, he destroyed much more than he built. AMLO viewed his relationship with the opposition as an irreducible antagonism: You are either with me or against me, nothing more. An astonishing example: He did not meet with the opposition’s leadership once during his term.

AMLO’s interpretation of politics as binary antagonism exacerbated a climate of severe polarization that, in the end, weakened Mexico’s democracy. Even though the constitution expressly prohibits it, the president intervened repeatedly in the electoral process. He used the state’s resources to support Sheinbaum’s candidacy and turned to the bully pulpit of his daily press conferences to barrage Xóchitl Gálvez, the main opposition candidate, and hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who marched alongside her (“traitors,” AMLO called them).

The president’s methods have tainted Sheinbaum’s victory and, in the end, could be what defines her presidency. For Mexico’s president-elect, her large margin of victory could be more of a curse than a blessing. AMLO could interpret her victory as his own, a sort of reelection by proxy. If this happens, Sheinbaum could find herself in a bind, trying to break free from her mentor’s expectations and demands. It is no secret that AMLO sees Sheinbaum as an extension of his own personal political project, something he has called “Mexico’s fourth transformation.” Sheinbaum herself has embraced the role. “We will carry on with the construction of the fourth transformation’s second story,” she tweeted after her victory. During the campaign, Sheinbaum expressly promised that she would continue AMLO’s mission.

After Sunday’s landslide, Mexico’s future might depend on what exactly that promise entails. Sheinbaum will lead a fragile country. Mexico faces myriad challenges. The electoral campaign was tainted with bloodshed: Since October, at least thirty candidates for public office were killed in Mexico. This is no coincidence. Organized crime’s hold on a growing percentage of the country is alarming, as is its aim for political clout. Mexico faces its largest fiscal deficit in decades. Access to healthcare has dramatically declined.

If Sheinbaum is to successfully maneuver around this minefield, she will have to free herself from AMLO’s directives. Vindicated by Sunday’s mandate, the outgoing president might want to remain in charge, demanding a continuation of his projects and agenda. The new Congress, which convenes one month before Sheinbaum’s October inauguration, will likely approve a series of controversial reforms that AMLO has submitted to cement his controversial legacy, including a judicial reform that would fundamentally alter the way the country’s Supreme Court is chosen.

His influence could also be felt in more subtle ways. Sheinbaum herself might interpret Sunday’s results as a clear endorsement of AMLO’s binary vision of Mexico. If polarization sells so well, why change course? If the Mexican electorate chose to reward AMLO’s steamroller, why acknowledge the legitimacy of the opposition or the validity of the regime’s critics? There will undoubtedly be voices inside MORENA, Sheinbaum’s and AMLO’s party, who will advocate for such an approach. Some might even demand it — perhaps including the outgoing president.

Sheinbaum must resist the temptation to exercise the absolute power that Mexico’s electorate has granted her. In her first speech as president-elect, she wisely spoke about “peace and harmony” as two guiding principles of her nascent government. “We envision a plural, diverse, and democratic Mexico. We know that dissent is part of democracy and, although the majority supported our project, our duty is and will always be to look out for each Mexican without distinction,” she said.

AMLO never embraced such a spirit of plurality or diversity. He was never a democrat. Sheinbaum must part ways with her political mentor. In the spirit of independence and ethical governance, she must also break that glass ceiling. The future of the country she is about to govern depends on it.

León Krauze is a journalist. He is an editor at Letras Libres magazine and a contributing columnist at The Washington Post.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image credit: Gerardo Vieyra/NurPhoto via Getty Images




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