Claudia Sheinbaum, photo by EneasMx – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=145996520

Historic Election: Mexico’s New Female President will Face Old Politics

In the most important Mexican elections in the recent past, two female candidates competed over the presidency – and Claudia Sheinbaum won a historic victory.  This historical breakthrough is no longer the biggest story, however, as the new president-elect must grapple with the country’s immediate issues. 

The two women competing for the Mexican presidency went into attack mode during April’s presidential debate. Government party candidate Claudia Sheinbaum referred to her rival, opposition candidate Xóchitl Gálvez, as “the corrupt one.” Not to be outdone, Gálvez called Sheinbaum “the candidate of lies” in nearly every intervention.

With Sheinbaum and Gálvez collectively drawing around 89% of the vote during the whole race, one was sure to win the general election June 2, 2024.

Ultimately, the victory went to Sheinbaum.

The significance of this achievement cannot be understated. She is Mexico’s first female president. She will lead Latin America’s second-largest economy and the United States’s most important trading partner. At the same time, she will operate on a global stage still dominated by men, where fewer than 20 countries are currently governed by women.

In 2019, Mexico adopted a constitutional requirement for gender parity – or 50/50 representation – in all elected and appointed offices. This measure capped decades of progress on bringing women into elected office – women like Sheinbaum and Gálvez, who have extensive experience holding top political posts. Mexicans see plenty of women leading, suggesting they are ‘ready’ for a female president.

The challenge for Sheinbaum is not, however, governing as a woman. She will need to tackle the profound problems facing Mexico, from crime to climate change.

The most complex elections in Mexican history

The official campaign opened 1 March. Up for grabs were more than 20,000 posts at the federal, state, and municipal levels, including nine governorships (counting Mexico City), the entire Congress (500 lower-house seats and 128 Senate seats), seats in 31 of 32 state legislatures, and municipal governments across the territory.

These were the largest elections in Mexican history. Everyone cast votes in down-ballot races, raising questions not just about who would win the presidency—but who would control the Congress and the states.

The fate of all races hinged on voters’ feelings about the current governing party, Morena. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador – also known by his initials AMLO – founded Morena in 2011, parting ways with the long-time left party that previously sponsored his presidential bids. Morena finally carried AMLO to victory in 2018. Going into the 2 June elections, Morena held 55% of each the federal lower and upper house and 23 of 32 the governorships. They lost seats in the 2021 midterms, but gained governorships.

AMLO’s populist, personalist, and autocratic style divided Mexico. The traditional left, center, and right parties have united against him, an uneasy alliance born of necessity.

These strange bedfellows do not always walk together, however. In some state and local races, the traditional parties join forces; in others, they remain rivals. This division affected the strength the opposition coalition assembled behind Gálvez: whereas Sheinbaum enjoyed all the benefits of Morena’s reach into the states and municipalities, Gálvez could not capitalize on a unified counterforce at the state and local levels.

A clear mandate for Sheinbaum

Polls initially suggested that neither Sheinbaum nor Gálvez would enjoy a congressional majority, raising the possibility that voters would split their tickets in down-ballot races. Early polling indicated that Morena and its allies would win about 45 percent of Congress and the opposition coalition about 30 percent.

Yet the polls dramatically underestimated voters’ support for Morena. While votes were still being counted, Sheinbaum was already poised to enjoy a majority in both houses of Congress.

This dramatic outcome heightens questions about whether and how closely Sheinbaum will continue AMLO’s policies. During the campaign, she stuck to AMLO’s policy priorities, including anti-poverty measures and physical infrastructure projects that target underserved communities. And now she counts on the congressional votes to continue these programs.

Yet questions about whether Sheinbaum is her “own person” also carry some gendered connotations – namely, longstanding assumptions that women lack their own political judgment and are merely the puppets of powerful men. If Sheinbaum continues to implement AMLO’s vision and Morena’s platform, she may be seen as insufficiently independent, even as voters handed her a clear mandate to continue spending.

Violence and other problems

Violence constitutes another major governance challenge. The problem is longstanding, but 2024 marked the most violent election season ever.

In April alone the think tank Data Civica recorded 70 acts of political-criminal violence, meaning armed attacks, threats, kidnapping, and assassinations of current or former officials, including candidates. The total is more than double compared to the 2021 midterms.

The attacks crossed the political spectrum, depending on cartels’ own rivalries and goals. And the violence is not just in politics: the murder rate is nearly 30 in 100,000, compared to under 10 for the United States.

No Mexican president has successfully tackled insecurity. When former presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón waged war on the cartels, violence escalated. AMLO’s alternative – to pursue a ‘narco peace’ by ignoring the problem, avoiding confrontations, and even negotiating truces among the cartels – has not worked either.

Sheinbaum has offered to continue AMLO’s approach of tackling crime’s underlying causes, such as poverty. While there’s no clear evidence these investments have worked, other major anti-crime initiatives Sheinbaum oversaw as governor of Mexico City – raising police pay and increasing their investigative powers – did reduce homicide rates. Whether these approaches would scale to the national level – and whether Sheinbaum would pursue them at the expense of alienating AMLO – remain among the open questions facing her new administration.

And insecurity is not the only problem. Climate change has brought severe drought, with Mexico City and southern states facing acute water shortages. And – as the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) just stated recently – rising public debt caused by Morenas’ social welfare spending as well as persistent cronyism and corruption is as pressing an issue as ever. Moreover, to quote the report, “Mexico’s economy has not shown improvement under AMLO’s leadership. Despite macroeconomic stability efforts, his administration’s investment decisions are often politicized, favoring military and national enterprises without public competitions.”

The ‘first woman’ legacy  

Sheinbaum’s historic victory does not eliminate gender inequality, which remains pervasive. Sheinbaum’s and Gálvez’s all-women competition marks decades of legal progress on women’s political rights, but Mexican women remain unequal. They are underemployed in the formal economy and make less money. They trail men in digital media literacy and access.

Against this background, many of Mexico’s other problems are gender problems at heart. Within the crime data are staggering figures related to femicide: some estimates suggest ten women are murdered a day. Women are also vulnerable to climate change, as they are more likely to be poor and to live in precarious neighborhoods and conditions.

Observers keep asking whether Sheinbaum will ‘act for’ women—something rarely asked of men presidents.

However, that question just perpetrates double standards. Like the men before her, Sheinbaum has large problems to tackle. She should be assessed on her own terms, not on the question whether a woman is up for the job.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *