Mexico election notes - Sept 2023
MORENA is still the favorite in next year's election, but the opposition has improved its chances for a 2024 upset.
In recent months, everything has gone right for the opponents of Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador.
The coalition of opposition parties including the PRI and PAN united behind Senator Xochitl Gálvez, who surged in national polls both among the parties within the opposition coalition and the general electorate.
Gálvez is a great candidate. Her personal story is compelling. She is not corrupt nor linked to past corrupt networks. She has espoused a mixture of pro-business and pro-welfare policies that can make her difficult to pin down on a left-right economic spectrum (I place her slightly left of center, but am not confident about it). This allows her to appeal to a broad coalition of interests and voters. She appears authentic on social media and in public appearances.
And perhaps most importantly for the moment, Gálvez has gotten under AMLO's skin. López Obrador has controlled the daily political narrative for more than five years. The fact AMLO has been using his morning press conference to attack Gálvez, including disclosing her financial records, is almost certainly a violation of Mexican electoral law. But also, it's a sign that he's concerned and he's losing control of his agenda-setting magic. Gálvez is the first person since 2018 to even remotely challenge AMLO for control of the national zeitgeist and the president is not happy about it.
As Gálvez rose, the MC party collapsed. The one party that refused to join the PAN, PRI, and PRD coalition hasn't been able to decide on a candidate as most of its major politicians have declined to run. A few months ago, there was a potential that MC, which only represents about five percent of the national party system, could put forward a dark horse candidate who gained momentum and split AMLO's opponents. That now seems far less likely.
Then the MORENA primary happened. In spite of the party-built hype around Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, former Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard organized his supporters better around the party selection of the candidate. The actual results of the process were likely close to a tie between the two candidates. But we'll never know the real results because AMLO and the other party leadership rigged the survey, forced Ebrard's people out of the room after they complained about irregularities, and dedazo'd Sheinbaum as the winning candidate by a fake margin of 14 points (Lucy was right). As Ebrard himself said in a statement after the event, MORENA increasingly looks like the old PRI in terms of how it handles its internal processes.
There is a big question about how Ebrard will handle the situation, and he has kept his options open. He hasn't announced a candidacy with another party, but he is organizing his own political movement that has both some grass-roots activism and more than a few MORENA party politicians appearing to join him instead of AMLO and Sheinbaum. Even if Ebrard only controls five to ten percent of the national vote through this political movement, that could be the deciding margin in a close election.
Ebrard is not building a majority coalition, but he is building a big enough group that could swing the election. If he finds a way to run for the presidency as a third-party candidate, he is unlikely to win and it’s not clear which side his candidacy would help (early polling of the hypothetical question suggests it slightly helps Sheinbaum, but I have doubts about whether that holds up in reality in July 2024). However, as a non-candidate leader of a political movement, he could be more strategic and find ways to turn the election towards the candidate he chooses. It’s real leverage and the uncertainty benefits Gálvez’s chances for the moment, though it’s not impossible that Ebrard cuts a deal with Sheinbaum.
In spite of everything going right for Mexico's opposition, polls show that AMLO, Sheinbaum, and MORENA still have the lead. Mexico's economy is doing ok, neither good enough to guarantee incumbent victory nor bad enough for voters to demand change. López Obrador is manipulating the government budget to give his party a boost next year. Even with the Ebrard split, MORENA still has the strongest grass-roots organization of any party and their control of state governments will help them get out votes across the country. In terms of national government budgeting and clientelism via local party networks, Ebrard's point that MORENA increasingly looks like the old PRI also appears true.
Any prediction model should show MORENA remaining as the favorite for next year. But if you had to write a “premortem” narrative script for what has to happen for an opposition victory to occur in Mexico, it would look a lot like the past few months of Mexican politics. Combine that with the fact the region remains in an anti-incumbent environment, and there are good reasons for AMLO to be nervous.