On 1 July, voters in Mexico head to the polls for what might be the most significant general election in the last century.
Mexico is facing multiple crises including rising crime (over 29,000 homicides in 2017, a record), growing inequality (over 53 million Mexicans live below the poverty line), and numerous corruption scandals involving senior government officials, among them the out-going and deeply-unpopular President Enrique Peña Nieto.
At stake in this election is the Presidency (individuals are limited to a single six-year term), the entire federal Congress (a 500-member lower house known as the Chamber of Deputies and a 128-member upper house called the Senate), a quarter of Mexico’s 32 governorships, and the mayoralties of dozens of cities. It is possible Mexico’s entire government will be rebuilt.
Third time’s a charm?
The favourite to win the Presidency is Andrés Manuel López Obrador (commonly called AMLO), a centre-left leader who lost in controversial circumstances in both the 2006 and 2012 presidential elections.
Mexican voters are in the mood for change and AMLO’s position as both an outsider and a modest man from humble origins is playing well this year. In the four-candidate race, recent polling shows him topping 50 per cent and with a nearly 2-to-1 lead over his closest rival.
AMLO has campaigned on eliminating corruption as the solution to all of Mexico’s current challenges. This clear and simple message has resonated with a restless electorate and blunted attacks from his opponents.
In addition to being an over-whelming favourite for the Presidency, the party AMLO founded in 2012, the Movement of National Regeneration (MORENA), may gain an absolute majority in the Congress. This would be the first time any party has had unified control of the federal government since 1997.
Evolution from the ‘perfect dictatorship’ to a modern democracy
On paper, Mexico has long been a democratic federal republic, with divided powers and three levels of government. The federal government rules over 32 autonomous states, each of which has executive, legislative and judicial powers of its own; while the municipalities have mayors and local councils as well. But despite these legal mechanisms, political power in Mexico, historically, has belonged to the President.
After a period of instability following the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1920, the founding of the National Revolutionary Party (now known as the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI) brought decades of stability to Mexican politics. The party governed the country, all states, and had overwhelming majorities in the Congress for almost 70 years.
‘The Party over the man’, was the only constraint on the President, who could not be re-elected but was able to designate their successor. The President had all the power but only during his term, after which he was obliged to leave office. This meant the Party dominated the country, through several Presidents, in contrast to many Latin American dictatorships where a charismatic leader would remain in power for several years.
This regime has been labelled the ‘perfect dictatorship’, due to its decades of one-party control while maintaining the appearance of a democratic country to the outside world.
The PRI’s long dominance of Mexican politics began to erode after the 1976 election, when they ran the only Presidential candidate. International pressure forced the party to allow more political opposition, leading to broader party representation in the Congress and in some states. This process of increasing democratisation even led to the PRI losing control of the Presidency in 2000, though they regained it in 2012.
What about President Trump?
President Trump is well-known for his controversial use of Mexican-related issues since he announced his candidacy in 2015.
But as much as he is a highly-divisive figure in the United States, he has managed to unite nearly all Mexicans across the entire political spectrum. Despite the high stakes in this election, all of the Presidential candidates have openly supported current President Peña Nieto in his dealings with President Trump.
Prospects for change
Given multiple domestic crises, a political establishment seen as hopelessly corrupt, and a truly competitive electoral field with most of the countries’ key offices up for grabs, the 2018 general election could be a major inflection point in Mexico’s history. No party outside of the centre-right PRI has gained unified control of the federal government in over a century.
AMLO’s simple message of eliminating corruption and breaking the mutually beneficial nexus between the country’s political and economic elites could lead Mexico into a very different future, with a centre-left party dominating national politics for the first time since the Revolution.
This article is co-published with the University of Melbourne’s Election Watch.
Banner image: A mural in Mexico City honours General Emiliano Zapata, a leading figure in the Mexican Revolution/Getty Images