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Mexico’s Left Faces a Tough Road Ahead

Mexico's midterm elections reflected left-wing president AMLO's high personal approval ratings — but also brought setbacks for his Morena party. If it's going to drive an enduring process of social change, Morena has to build a member-led organization firmly rooted in local communities.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, president of Mexico, raises his thumb in Mexico City, after casting his vote in the June 6 elections. (Gerardo Vieyra / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his Fourth Transformation (4T) movement scored major victories throughout Mexico in the June 6 elections, obtaining a majority in Congress and winning more than two-thirds of governors’ races. At the same time, defeats in the local elections in the key Mexico City region signaled complications for the ongoing stability of AMLO’s left-wing government.

The election was considered a key test for the 4T coalition, today consisting of AMLO’s own National Regeneration Movement (Morena) the Labor Party (PT), and the Ecologist Green Party of Mexico (PVEM). It was set against the newly formed right-wing coalition Va por México (“It’s for Mexico”), which unites the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the National Action Party (PAN), and the Party of Democratic Revolution (PRD).

4T’s main goal was to secure a majority in the federal congress in order to ensure stability for AMLO’s presidency and prevent a possible parliamentary coup by the right-wing opposition. At the same time, state- and city-level races also offered the opportunity to consolidate Morena as the country’s dominant political force.

As such, the campaign focused heavily on the party’s achievements in high office, such as the abandonment of the neoliberal-era Labor Law, the elimination of PRI-era education reforms, and the promotion of an anti-corruption drive. There was also a focus on reformation of key parts of the Mexican state (particularly the national guard), drug reform, and the justice process for the victims of forced disappearances and repression (such as the victims of the 2014 massacre in Ayotzinapa).

The Right’s campaign reflected only one objective — putting a brake on the process of change initiated by AMLO. While the forces gathered in Va por México shared a common animosity toward the 4T, the formation of this “mega coalition” of Mexico’s three largest historic parties was considered unprecedented.

While PRI represents the “old regime” of Mexico and the country’s turn toward neoliberalism in the late 1980s, and PAN symbolizes the new conservatism of the 2000s and the brutal “war on drugs” waged by presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón, the PRD represents lost progressive hopes. This latter party has mounted a sharp turn towards the center following AMLO’s departure from its ranks in 2012. The three parties had previously competed against each other in nearly every electoral contest, hence this new coalition strategy was seen as a huge gamble in defense of their power.

According to the latest results, the left-wing coalition supporting AMLO’s presidency won an absolute majority in congress. The coalition plus its individual parties scored around 42.5 percent support and will likely obtain around 280 to 290 seats out of 500. The anti-AMLO right-wing coalition obtained nearly 40 percent of the overall vote, likely to yield them between 190 and 200 deputies.

Mexico’s congress is divided between the 300 directly elected constituencies and 200 “plurinominal” seats assigned to the party lists and electoral coalitions based on proportional representation. Out of the 300 directly elected seats, Morena and its allies obtained 183 seats while the right-wing coalition obtained 109. The fate of the 200 party-list assigned seats is yet to be revealed. The polls leading up to the election pointed to a victory of the 4T coalition, although its magnitude was always uncertain. While some estimated that AMLO would retain a two-thirds majority, later polls showed climbing support for the right-wing parties.

The results of governors’ races around the country have transformed Morena and the 4T into the leading political force on the regional level. The 4T scored victories in key states like Michoacán, the border state of Sonora, the Baja California region, and Zacatecas. Furthermore, 5 out of the 11 new Morena governors are women, a record number in Mexico’s history. At the same time, Morena won the mayoral races for Acapulco (Guerrero), Culiacán (Sinaloa), Ecatepec (State of Mexico), Mexicali (Baja California), Oaxaca, Tlaxcala, and Zacatecas. Finally, in Mexico City, the right-wing scored a major victory across the local elections, winning 9 out of 16 mayoralties.

Victory for AMLO, Difficulty for Morena

These results have several implications across various levels of government.

On the federal level, the 4T’s new outright majority rests on its pact with two other parties — the left-wing Labor Party (PT) and the centrist Greens (PVEM). The Labor Party has been the country’s leading left-wing political force since its foundation in 1990, and backed López Obrador in the 2006, 2012, and the 2018 elections.

The Green Party, conversely, has a long history of adopting technocratic, neoliberal, and at times conservative positions since its foundation in the early 1990s. It has also supported right-wing governments: President Vicente Fox from 2000 to 2006 and Enrique Peña Nieto from 2012 to 2016. It formed part of the PRI-led electoral coalition during the 2018 presidential elections. Following PRI’s defeat, it chose to side with López Obrador’s presidency and formed part of the 4T coalition. Given its tendency to switch alliances to back whichever of Mexico’s parties is in government, it has been considered a “party of power” above principle.

Comparing the current result to the scores obtained in the 2018 general election, Morena lost around 50 seats and PT around 6 to 8, while the Greens added 33 seats on the back of the coalition vote. It’s tempting to regard the result as a major setback for AMLO. On the surface, the president’s coalition has lost its super-majority of 322 out of 500 deputies, thus depriving him of the legislative power to initiate constitutional changes.

But given the complexity of the assignment of seats among the individual parties and coalitions in the Mexican federal congress, the reality of both the 2018 and 2021 results is a bit different. Out of the 256 seats that Morena obtained in 2018, only 191 were won by the genuine party candidates (i.e. members and militants belonging to the party), while the other 65 joined from the Labor Party, PES, and defectors from the PRI, PAN, and PRD.

This time around, the overall number of genuine Morena deputies is again likely to be between 190 and 203 (including the party-list seats). At a press conference following the June 6 contest, AMLO similarly dismissed the notion that his coalition ever held a genuine super majority and appeared content with the results achieved.

The victories in 12 out of 15 governors’ races and most of the nation’s capitals have also given Morena a strong foothold across most of Mexico’s states, solidifying its position as the country’s most powerful political organization. It also demonstrated the party’s ability to organize successful autonomous campaigns in conjunction with its coalition partners (particularly the Labor Party).

Morena was first founded in 2012 and obtained its first electoral victories in 2015, making it the youngest political organization on the national scene. In this sense, defeating the triple alliance of Mexico’s historic parties, who between them have nearly a century of accumulated experience in managing the electoral machinery, is itself a monumental achievement.

On the other hand, the result in Mexico City shattered the city’s long-standing left-wing voting tradition and created complications for the stability of Morena’s city-level administration, headed by the popular Claudia Sheinbaum. This was particularly evident in the cases of Tlalpan, Cuauhtémoc, and Azcapotzalco, electoral bastions of the Left that Morena was expected to win easily. The country’s private media and the right-wing coalition were quick to hail the results in congress and the defeats in Mexico City as a victory against AMLO.

The Tough Road Ahead

Three factors played a key role in both the reduction of Morena’s congressional strength and series of defeats in Mexico City.

The first was a series of interventions by the country’s National Electoral Institute (INE) during the nomination process, whereby it disqualified several popular Morena candidates across the local, regional, and federal contests. The most prominent cases involved the disqualification of the Morena candidates Félix Salgado Macedonio for the governor’s race in the state of Guerrero, and of Raúl Morón in Michoacán, as well as dozens of candidates for federal and regional congresses across various states.

While the INE defended the disqualifications as based on technical concerns (failure to properly declare funding, register their candidacy, etc.), López Obrador criticized the electoral authority for disproportionately targeting Morena and thus “assaulting [Mexican] democracy.”

John Ackerman, a prominent journalist and lawyer supportive of AMLO and the 4T, stated in an interview that INE is the “principal party of the opposition” on the Mexican political scene, representing old conservative elements operating within the Mexican state that seek to undermine AMLO’s presidency. This was further aided by the relentless media campaign targeting AMLO for what they called “authoritarian” behavior by the president. This was echoed by the Economist in its now-infamous cover article that sought to persuade Mexican voters to reject him and his program of systemic change.

The Right’s campaign in Mexico City took advantage of the wave of negative press, as well as AMLO’s alleged mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mexico Metro disaster, and rising crime and insecurity. In many of their campaigns, they focused their attention on the messages of “law and order” and attempting to put a limit on AMLO’s legislative power.

In short, the results of the 2021 election have had a twofold effect on the future of AMLO’s presidency and the Fourth Transformation project. Morena and its coalition partners have entrenched themselves firmly within the country’s political institutions across every level of government. However, unless it builds a member-led party with a strong cadre organization, Morena risks the electoral defeat in the capital being replicated in future elections.

The result also demonstrates a sizable gap between the immense personal popularity of AMLO (between 55 and 70 percent) and the support for his party and the leaders that represent it. Every left-wing government across Latin America has had to contend with the difference between the popularity of their leaders (Rafael Correa, Evo Morales, Hugo Chávez, Lula) and their parties. Mexico is no exception.

The next major electoral test for 4T is the August 1 popular consultation on a planned constitutional reform. This would allow for the sentencing and imprisonment of former presidents for crimes committed during their tenures. The lessons drawn from the June 6 elections may well determine if this key reform promised by the AMLO administration will be fulfilled.