Mexican voters will head to the polls on June 6 to cast their ballots in what has been called the largest election in the nation’s history, which President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is hoping will shore up support for his leftist Morena party.
The midterm election will decide the makeup of the 500-seat Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress. Also up for grabs are more than 2,100 mayor and city councillor positions, along with 30 state legislator seats and 15 governorships.
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While Lopez Obrador, known colloquially by his initials AMLO, will not be on the ballot, the contest will determine whether Morena and its allies will retain the two-thirds majority they need to make constitutional changes – and set the course for the popular but polarising Mexican president’s remaining three years in office.
“This is the largest episode of political redistribution in Mexico’s history that is going to be happening during Lopez Obrador’s term,” said Lorena Becerra, a political analyst and head of public opinion research at Reforma newspaper in Mexico City.
“A great part of [Lopez Obrador’s] strength in the second half of his term will depend on the result of this midterm election,” Becerra told Al Jazeera.
‘Worse than three years ago’
Experts said the nation’s high crime rate, a sluggish economy, recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and government corruption are the main issues on voters’ minds heading into the elections. Many will also be looking at AMLO’s record since he came into office in 2018.
The president shook up the political status quo when he captured 53 percent support in the election that year, riding a wave of discontent with Mexico’s traditional parties. Calling his plan the “Fourth Transformation” of the country, AMLO promised to improve the lives of the poor, root out corruption and heal a country reeling from uncontrolled gang violence.
Since then, his supporters – who are largely older and among Mexico’s poorer classes – credit him with raising the minimum wage, creating scholarships for students and training programmes for youth, and expanding benefits for seniors and people with disabilities.
But during the last three years, observers say the issues Lopez Obrador campaigned on have not improved. The Mexican economy shrank by 8.5 percent last year, and more than 35,000 murders were reported in 2019, AMLO’s first year in office, setting a new record. The homicide rate was virtually unchanged in 2020, and the first quarter of 2021 showed the trend continuing.
The election itself has been beset by violence. According to the Etellekt consulting firm, 88 politicians – including 34 candidates – have been murdered since the election season began last September.
Lopez Obrador’s administration also has been widely accused of mishandling the coronavirus pandemic by refusing to allocate sufficient funds, resisting public health shutdowns and keeping testing low – landing the country with the fourth-highest death toll in the world from the disease, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
“You would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Mexico that says they are better off now than they were before AMLO came to power,” said Christopher Wilson, a global fellow with the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, a US-based think-tank.
“The situation on the ground is bad and it is worse than it was three years ago.”
Still, AMLO remains a popular leader.
The latest polls show six in 10 Mexicans approve of the president. He is also a dominating figure who features in daily news headlines from his favourite platform, the “mananera”, his daily morning news conference where he pushes his ideas and rails against his rivals.
“We have a polarised electorate, one in favour of the president and his party, and the other, which is not only partisan to the traditional parties, but also opposes the project of the president,” said Alejandro Moreno, head of public opinion polling at El Financiero newspaper.
“However, there is a third category of voters which is disillusioned with the president and his party, but they are not willing to go back to the traditional parties – that’s the market for Movimiento Ciudadano,” Moreno told Al Jazeera.
Movimiento Ciudadano, or the Citizens’ Movement Party, has been able to make some advances by positioning itself as a third-way party and is polling at 6 percent.
But the latest national polls suggest the president’s Morena Party leads with about 40 percent support for the Chamber of Deputies seats, while a recent survey conducted for the Mexican newspaper El Universal estimated that Morena would win 228 seats in the lower chamber, down from the 253 it currently holds.
That, added to the 94 combined seats the party’s current allies, the Green Party and the Labour Party, are expected to secure, would give their Together We Make History alliance a total of 322 seats – shy of the 334 needed for a two-thirds majority.
Trailing are Mexico’s three traditional parties, which despite being ideologically opposed and once bitter rivals have formed a coalition called Forward for Mexico (Va por Mexico).
The centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which governed uninterrupted for 71 years until the year 2000, now holds about 17 percent support, while the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) has 16 percent. The centre-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) has 5 percent.
‘Morena can only gain’
Meanwhile, the governorship races will be key for Lopez Obrador, explained Carlos Peterson, a senior Mexico analyst at the Eurasia Group, as the governors control state budgets. It would also give the president’s party a major advantage ahead of the 2024 general election.
Such gains would facilitate “what Lopez Obrador wants to do, easing pressure on him from governors asking him for resources or opposing his plans”, Peterson told Al Jazeera. “Morena can only gain from this election.”
Currently, Morena governors control six of Mexico’s 32 states, but out of the 15 governorship races that will be on Sunday’s ballots, the party governs only one: Baja California. The party has a lead in at least seven states, according to recent polls, and is competitive in several others. It could win as many as 11, some analysts have predicted.
Moreno at El Financiero newspaper said that while Morena is likely to lose in Queretaro, Baja California Sur and Chihuahua states, it will be competitive in Michoacan, Sonora and Campeche.
But all eyes remain on the Chamber of Deputies. If Morena falls short of achieving a majority, Lopez Obrador will be forced to negotiate with his rivals to pass legislation, which so far he has shown little desire to do.
Among his next plans, AMLO wants to reform the nation’s energy sector, construct an $8.9bn oil refinery in his home state of Tabasco, finish building the Mayan train project, and incrementally expand pensions over the next three years for those aged 65 and up.
To fund that agenda, Lopez Obrador will need to get the country’s 2022 budget approved – a task the nation’s lower house is in charge of.
“So far, he’s had a lot of freedom,” Peterson said. “The result of the election will either constrain him or allow him to continue doing whatever he wants.”