Who is Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico’s first female president-elect?

Long tied to outgoing President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, will Sheinbaum be able to carve out a new path?

Claudia Sheinbaum raises both arms from the stage at a campaign rally.
Presidential candidate Claudia Sheinbaum holds a campaign rally in her hometown of Mexico City on May 16 [Raquel Cunha/Reuters]

Mexico City, Mexico – She is poised to become Mexico’s first female president, after winning a historic mandate in the country’s June 2 election.

But Claudia Sheinbaum faces a challenge: how to distinguish herself from her political mentor, current President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, popularly known as AMLO.

Representing the left-leaning Morena party, Sheinbaum campaigned in Lopez Obrador’s image, embracing many of his trademark projects and policies.

But experts say her personal history and past governing experience offer valuable clues about how her tenure in office might differ from Lopez Obrador’s.

“Sheinbaum has always been disciplined and strategic,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a Mexican political analyst. “She’s not going to be as radical as AMLO.”

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador stands next to Claudia Sheinbaum, who waves.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador hands Claudia Sheinbaum a ceremonial staff on September 7, as the Morena party names her its candidate for the 2024 presidential race [File: Henry Romero/Reuters]

A mix of academics and politics

The former head of Mexico City’s government, Sheinbaum was born into a family of Jewish heritage, and she initially followed her parents into the field of science.

She studied physics and then energy engineering, pursuing research for her doctoral degree at the University of California, Berkeley in the United States.

But early on, Sheinbaum also mirrored her parents’ commitment to political engagement, becoming involved in student activism. On the campaign trail, she often credits her parents’ involvement in the 1968 student protests as an inspiration for her own work.

“I have always said it: I am a daughter of ’68,” she wrote on social media in April.

Her transition to a political career came under Lopez Obrador’s wing. In a campaign video chronicling her life, Sheinbaum explained that she and Lopez Obrador often participated in the same protests and activist work, but it was only in 2000, a week after he was elected mayor of Mexico City, that she was formally introduced to him during a meeting at her house.

Afterwards, Lopez Obrador called Sheinbaum with a proposition. “He told me, ‘Would you like to be secretary of the environment?’ I told him ‘yes’.”

In the decades since, she has campaigned on Lopez Obrador’s behalf, while forging her own academic and political career, including as mayor of Tlalpan.

In 2018, she became the first woman elected to lead Mexico City, a high-profile position often seen as a launchpad for future presidential bids. She resigned from the post in June 2023 to seek her party’s presidential nomination.

Claudia Sheinbaum greets a crowd of supporters at an outdoor rally.
Claudia Sheinbaum held a commanding lead in voter polls in the lead-up to Mexico’s June 2 election [File: Raquel Cunha/Reuters]

From the moment the Morena party tapped her as its nominee last September, Sheinbaum was the frontrunner in the 2024 presidential race.

But her campaign was buoyed in large part by the popularity of the outgoing president.

The online survey company Morning Consult has consistently ranked Lopez Obrador among the most popular heads of state currently in power, after India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi — a fact he is known to repeat in his daily news conferences.

But Mexican presidents are limited to a single six-year term, and Lopez Obrador is therefore barred from running in the 2024 race.

The circumstances surrounding his 2018 election were historic, though — and they continued to cast a shadow over this year’s race.

Born in the often-overlooked southern state of Tabasco, Lopez Obrador was something of an underdog in 2018, having lost the two previous presidential races. Critics dismissed the then-64-year-old as a populist past his prime.

His victory, however, was ultimately a landslide: Lopez Obrador was the first candidate since Mexico’s transition to democracy to score more than 50 percent of the vote.

By contrast, Sheinbaum’s solid lead in the polls — and her urban, academic upbringing — projected a different public image, distinct from Lopez Obrador’s dark-horse campaign, according to Correa-Cabrera, the political analyst.

“Aside from being a progressive politician, she’s never been distant from the elite,” Correa-Cabrera explained.

“She’s obedient to international institutions and economic systems,” the analyst added, pointing to Sheinbaum’s sunny relationship with Carlos Slim, the wealthiest man in Mexico.

Even Sheinbaum’s leading opponent, Xochitl Galvez, slammed her for her relatively privileged background.

“While you were dancing ballet at 10 years old, I had to work,” Galvez told Sheinbaum during a televised debate on May 19.

Correa-Cabrera also notes that Sheinbaum styles herself more as a pragmatist and less as a firebrand, in contrast to Lopez Obrador. While Lopez Obrador is known to speak off the cuff, for instance, Sheinbaum’s public appearances are more scripted.

A hand lifts a cloth doll representing Claudia Sheinbaum from a mat covered with election merchandise, including dolls representing Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
A vendor outside of a Claudia Sheinbaum campaign rally on May 22 sells cloth dolls representing her and outgoing President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador [Raquel Cunha/Reuters]

Refuting the ‘puppet’ label

Nevertheless, Sheinbaum has long faced criticism that she is “the puppet” — la titere — of the man she hopes to succeed as president.

“I don’t care about those things the opposition says, that mine would be another Lopez Obrador government,” she told the BBC earlier this year.

Lopez Obrador himself addressed the criticisms from the podium at one of his daily press briefings in January.

“There are no puppets with power,” he said, with a nod to Sheinbaum. “No one accepts to be manipulated when they reach public office.”

Still, Sheinbaum has adopted many of Lopez Obrador’s signature moves.

In March, for instance, she released a list of 100 commitments to achieve if elected, her version of a similar list Lopez Obrador released upon taking office, featuring 100 of his top priorities.

Sheinbaum’s list repeats her mentor’s antipoverty rallying cry: “For the good of all, the poor come first.” It also includes the continuation of Lopez Obrador’s controversial Tren Maya or Mayan Train, a $28bn infrastructure project to build a rail line through the Yucatan Peninsula.

Local activists have criticised the project for destroying thousand-year-old Mayan artefacts and archaeological sites, as well as damaging the natural environment.

But Lopez Obrador has defended the project as a means of bringing tourist dollars to impoverished areas, though critics have expressed doubt that the local population will ever see genuine cash flow.

Claudia Sheinbaum lifts her arms and holds hands with two other women on stage at a campaign rally, as confetti falls.
The silhouette of Claudia Sheinbaum — slicked-back hair, tied in a ponytail — has been printed on T-shirts and buttons sold to supporters [Raquel Cunha/Reuters]

Combatting climate change

Given her career as a scientist, one of the most scrutinised aspects of Sheinbaum’s platform is her stance on climate change.

Her 100 commitments include a goal to “promote renewable energies” through the construction of wind, solar, geothermal and hydrogen-based sources.

And Sheinbaum herself contributed to a 2007 report on climate change that won the Nobel Peace Prize that year.

But critics have accused her of embracing her party’s environmental platform, which offers no plan to cut fossil fuel emissions and includes further investments in the state-owned petroleum industry, Pemex.

Correa-Cabrera said Sheinbaum’s “education as a climate scientist” is only one part of Sheinbaum’s identity.

“Her political career is a different thing,” Correa-Cabrera explained. She believes Sheinbaum “is going to be following the guidelines of oil and gas [interests] and of the United States and China” once in office.

However, Adrian Fernandez, director of the Mexico Climate Initiative, thinks the growing threats that climate change presents, especially to Mexico’s agricultural industry, will force politicians like Sheinbaum to tackle the issue more forcefully.

“It’s not a question of hope. I am very sure the next president will shift to address climate change because it is a necessity,” he said.

Supporters raise effigies of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Claudia Sheinbaum at a rally.
Dolls representing President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and candidate Claudia Sheinbaum go on parade as Sheinbaum kicks off her campaign on March 1 [Luis Cortes/Reuters]

Security a top concern

Security was also a top concern as Mexican voters prepared to head to the ballot box on June 2.

Tyler Mattiace, a researcher at Human Rights Watch in Mexico, voiced scepticism that any candidate would reverse Lopez Obrador’s decision to expand the country’s military, a decision he fears will lead to greater abuses, not greater safety.

“At this point, you can’t really put the toothpaste back in the tube,” he said.

Already, Lopez Obrador has granted the military control over several airports and infrastructure projects. He has also attempted to shift control of the civilian-led National Guard to the army, despite court challenges.

But critics like Mattiace say there are credible allegations that military members often abuse their power — or enter into corrupt relations with cartels and other criminal organisations.

Mexico has seen more than 30,000 murders per year for five straight years. In 2022, the total number of missing people in Mexico surpassed 100,000, a number that Lopez Obrador has publicly disputed.

The majority of those disappearances — approximately 97 percent — are believed to have happened after 2006, when Mexico’s “war on drugs” began, and Mexican military troops were deployed to the streets, setting off a period of heightened conflict in which the military did anything but address violence.

Both Sheinbaum and her rival Galvez promised to address the disappearances, as part of their plan to tackle Mexico’s crime.

“I’m the only one who can show results in security,” Sheinbaum said in the last debate, citing her track record as head of Mexico City’s government.

She has also called the “war on drugs” an “absurd, terrible decision” and promised to address the root causes of crime through social welfare programmes.

But voters like Yolanda Moran Isais, whose son Dan Jeremeel Fernandez Moran went missing in 2008, fear Sheinbaum will continue Lopez Obrador’s habit of downplaying the extent of the disappearances.

Moran Isais leads a group of volunteers who search for the missing in the Mexican state of Coahuila. She expressed disappointment that Sheinbaum refused to meet with a nationwide delegation of mothers leading the search effort.

“What we need from the next president is recognition,” she said. “So far, Claudia Sheinbaum has not even acknowledged us.”

But another searcher, Cynthia Gutierrez from Mexico City, said Sheinbaum might offer hope to the movement. She gave a nod to the prospect of Sheinbaum becoming Mexico’s first female president — not to mention her identity as a mother and grandmother.

“She is a woman,” Gutierrez said. “Maybe she will empathise with our cause.”

Source: Al Jazeera