Mexico's largest, deadliest and most polarised election

By Luis Gómez Romero
Senior Lecturer, University of Wollongong School of Law

Mexico is getting ready for its 2021 midterm election, the largest in the nation’s history. 94 million Mexican voters will head to the polls to cast their ballots to elect 21,368 public officials on June 6.

All 500 seats in the lower house of the federal Congress are up for grabs. Governor’s races are in play in 15 of Mexico’s 32 states. There are more than 1,923 mayoral contests and 1,063 local legislative races too.

Unprecedented violence has beset the election season. According to the Etellekt consulting firm, 89 politicians – including 35 candidates – have been murdered since campaigning began last September. Dozens more have been targeted. Mexican authorities have logged 398 threats or attacks on candidates.

Amid the electoral violence, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his National Regeneration Movement (Morena) party seek to secure the two-thirds congressional supermajority required to usher through constitutional amendments, though he would still need opposition support in the Senate. Morena currently holds, by itself, 253 of the 500 seats in the Chamber of Deputies.

Through its coalition and alliances, the party controls 332 seats and 60 percent of the Senate.

Polls show that Morena indeed will grab big wins in the impending election, with 43 percent of voter intention in the competition for seats in the Chamber of Deputies. López Obrador, however, is not taking any chances.

The Mexican Constitution and electoral laws prohibit public officials to use government propaganda to promote themselves or their political allies. López Obrador, however, has repeatedly used his daily morning press conferences, known as mañaneras, to campaign for Morena while lashing out against critics, attacking political opponents, and threatening the National Electoral Institute (INE), Mexico’s top electoral body.

The Mexican flag flies in front of an old building

The Mexican electorate is deeply polarised. Pic: Hector Lazo

Who's in the running?

Even though López Obrador is not running for office, the midterms have become a plebiscite on his political project, the self-proclaimed “Fourth Transformation” of Mexico. In 2018, Morena’s candidates rode the wave of votes that granted López Obrador a landslide victory as a presidential candidate who pledged to “transform” the country by putting “Mexico’s poor first.”

In 2021, Morena leads the official coalition “Together We Make History” (Juntos Hacemos Historia), which also encompasses the Labor Party (PT) and the Green Party (PVEM). Morena and its allies will attempt to become the first ruling coalition to maintain control of Congress in midterm elections in almost three decades.

A coalition known as “Forward for Mexico” (Va por México) represents the main opposition standing against Morena. Three of Mexico’s traditional political parties came together in the hope of loosening López Obrador’s grasp on Congress: the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), the National Action Party (PAN) and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). The PAN and the PRI, the two parties that previously had held the presidency, are polling about 20 percent of voter intention each.

The third biggest contender in the election is Citizen’s Movement (MC), a social-democratic party that decided to compete independently. MC seeks the vote of citizens disillusioned with López Obrador and Morena, but unwilling to go back to the corruption tolerated by the traditional parties. MC is polling around 7 percent of voter intention.

Violence at an all-time high

López Obrador’s presidential term has transpired through the most violent years registered in Mexican history, with an average of 97 persons – around 10 women among them – murdered every day. These intolerable crime rates, which relate to war on drugs and the involvement of the military in law enforcement, began well before the López Obrador administration.

López Obrador, however, has distanced himself from campaign promises to pacify the country, continuing instead the drug war of his predecessors. He issued last year a presidential decree extending the armed force’s deployment as law enforcement until 2024.

Insecurity has now hit the election itself, the most violent in the last twenty years. 75 percent of the attacks against politicians or candidates were perpetrated at a local level, against parties opposing the incumbent governments. Out of 89 murdered politicians, 44 were members of “Forward for Mexico” (44 percent), and 25 were members of Morena’s coalition (28 percent).

A map of Mexico surrounded by blood, with crosses symbolising deaths

At least 89 politicians have been murdered since Mexico's election campaign started. Pic: Pixabay

Violence has detonated mainly in the states of Guerrero, Veracruz and Oaxaca, where criminal groups often offer local public servants and candidates the infamous choice of “silver or lead” – take their bribes or face death. Municipalities are particularly appealing to criminal groups because they can intimidate officials to handover parts of municipal budgets and into diverting the local police away from them.

López Obrador has dismissed the reports on electoral violence as media sensationalism. In his daily press conference convened on June 2nd, he declared that Mexicans “do not live in a perfect society”, but enjoy “peace and tranquillity” across the whole country.

Violence has ramped up regardless of López Obrador’s optimism. Several candidates suspended their campaigns in Guanajuato and Michoacán after being threatened or attacked. Around 183 poll sites will not be habilitated in the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca because, under the current conditions of insecurity, it is not possible to guarantee the safety of the voters.

Another municipality in the state of Jalisco has only Morena’s contender for mayor, as the rest of the candidates declined from participating in the election after receiving death threats.

Constitutional amendments undermine liberal democracy

The Mexican electorate is deeply polarised. Against the voters who favour the president and Morena stand not only those who are partisan to the traditional parties, but also many civil society leaders and intellectuals who have called for institutional constraints and democratic checks on the “Fourth Transformation”.

Morena has taken advantage of its 2018 mandate to introduce 29 constitutional amendments and approve 289 legislative changes that substantiate a model of governance grounded on the president’s charisma and leadership. López Obrador has made clear that he aims to deepen his austerity policies and concentrate more power in the presidency in order to provide for Mexico’s poorest citizens.

Multiple legal reforms introduced by Morena, however, have raised concerns for curtailing fundamental rights or undermining Mexico’s democratic institutions. Among them is the constitutional amendment that provides for the creation of Mexico’s National Guard, which effectively expanded the role of the Mexican military in law enforcement tasks, regardless its dismal human rights record and its history of abuse against vulnerable groups such as migrants.

A soldier wearing a face mask stands on an empty road with an armoured vehicle in the background

National Guard troops man a checkpoint in Yucatan, Mexico. Pic: Flickr/Sharon Hahn Darlin

Another disquieting legislative reform requires telecommunications companies to gather identification and biometric data, like eye scans and fingerprints. At the same time that López Obrador and Morena have boosted the government’s power to inquire into the lives of Mexicans, they have vowed to abolish the National Institute for Access to Information, which was created to monitor government spending and policy implementation, as well as investigating abuses against personal privacy.

Morena also approved a judicial reform dubbed as the “Zaldívar Act”. The legislation, which was announced as an overhaul aimed at preventing corruption and nepotism in the judiciary, included an unexpected transitory provision that extends for two years the mandate of the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Arturo Zaldívar.

Critics claim this manoeuvre contravenes the Constitution and undermines judicial independence. Zaldívar is an ally to López Obrador who has called for embracing “transformative social constitutionalism” at a time when potential legal challenges to Morena’s legislative blitz lie ahead.

'To hell with their institutions'

The president has been at odds with the INE for the entire election season. At the beginning of the year, the INE instructed López Obrador to avoid commenting about coalitions, candidates or any other topic that could influence the result of the midterm election during his morning press conferences.

The president argued that the move amounted to censorship, and successfully challenged INE’s mandates before the Mexican electoral court. In the electoral magistrates’ view, the president could not be prevented from making future comments on the elections, but only sanctioned for past violations of Mexican electoral laws.

Since then, López Obrador consistently used his morning news conferences to attack critics and the opposition. For example, he gave details on how his government agencies were investigating political opponents, including a sitting governor and candidates in the current elections.

A spray-painted stencil depicts Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is known by his initials, AMLO. Pic: Flickr/Adam Jones

The INE has identified at least 29 occasions during the last month of the campaign in which López Obrador made statements that could be construed as electoral propaganda. In terms of the current electoral law, he could be sanctioned for perpetrating multiple electoral offences. The PAN and MC have lodged complaints with the Organization of American States against López Obrador’s brazenly illegal intervention in the elections.

In response to INE’s reprimands, the president has issued threats over reforming or abolishing it and appointing the federal judiciary as arbiter of the elections instead. López Obrador has aggressively accused the INE of being biased and corrupt, thus undermining popular support for this institution and its rulings, and opening the door to challenges against unfavourable, though legally valid, election results.

There is an element of déjà vu in the presidential campaign against the INE. In 2006, when López Obrador contested the legitimacy of the tight victory of PAN candidate Felipe Calderón over him in the presidential election, he made a radical statement that has haunted his political career ever since: “To hell with their institutions!” It seems that, even three years after winning the presidency, López Obrador is still unconvinced that the institutions that uphold Mexican democracy also concern him.

Paradoxically, the legal and institutional framework that López Obrador has vowed to expunge for the transformation of Mexico was the same that made possible his formidable victory in 2018. Mexican voters thus face the choice as to whether to enable his troubling transformative project, or strengthen the political and institutional checks and balances that have made democracy possible in Mexico.

Banner image: Mexico's incumbent president Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2020. Source: Flickr/Eneas De Troya

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