This is a guest post from Javier Pérez Sandoval at the University of Oxford.
Among many other things, democracies are systems in which parties lose elections. Early this month, Mexican voters elected a new president and come December, for the third time in a row in the post-transition era, Mexico will have had a relatively peaceful party alternation in government. That is, while observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) have highlighted multiple instances in which cartel related violence threatened electoral integrity at the local level, their preliminary report also commends Mexico for successfully celebrating the largest and most complex elections in its contemporary history.
I have outlined the good, the bad and the ugly about the Mexican 2018 campaigns elsewhere. Here I intend to do three things: First, I will offer a brief account of the Election Day. Second, I will break down the results, aiming not only to summarize them but also to offer highlights and alternative explanations to what is now called the MORENA tsunami. In the third and last section, I present two political challenges faced by Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) as well as one key task for Mexico’s political regime. My conclusions ponder what this electoral result could mean for Mexican democracy.
There are multiple detailed accounts of the contenders and their coalitions and the National Electoral Institute (INE) has a fine-grained description of the Mexican electoral process. Here, however, I focus on three aspects of Election day that are worth emphasizing:
- Citizens’ involvement – This has been perhaps the most transparent and the most effectively watched election. Throughout the day, over 1.4 million citizens in charge of polling stations, along with 2.6 million party representatives and 33 thousand national and international observers shielded voting as a mechanism for decision making. In addition, not only did the vote-from-abroad tripled, but also, and most importantly, 63% of registered citizens voted. It is worth highlighting that the 2018 electoral race had roughly the same turnout that gave Mexico its first alternancia at the turn of the century.
- (Relatively) Peaceful Process – Three incidents marked election day: A) Five politically motivated murders were registered, b) Citizens in Mexico City protested ballot insufficiency at “special” (in-transit) polling stations and c) tension through the day culminated in contention in the results in the state of Puebla. Weighing up Mexico’s overall context and considering that roughly 97% of polling stations reported either minor or no incidents at all, it is safe to say that the vast majority of the population voted freely.
- Acknowledging the results – Not even 2 hours had passed after polling stations closed and all other candidates —Ricardo Anaya, Jose Antonio Meade and Jaime Rodríguez Calderón — had publicly recognized AMLO’s victory. While only two out of the three vote-counting stages are over, the presidential election had a clear and certain result before midnight. Mexico’s electoral authority will finish up counting the votes and come month’s end, INE will make the results official.
The Results: Re-Shaping Mexico’s Political Arena
Elsewhere I suggested that the 2018 election had the potential to completely redefine Mexico’s political landscape and looking at the electoral outcomes, it appears that they did. Considering that over 3,400 public officials were elected, a full overview of the results is beyond the scope of this paper. Consequently, I first broadly summarize the main results in Table 1 and then I move on to present three highlights and three alternative explanations for the outcome.
Table 1.- Mexico’s 2018 Results
Not only did López Obrador win by a considerable margin, but the Juntos Haremos Historia coalition (MORENA-PES-PT) also won the majority of congressional seats —at the federal and local level— along with a significant number of Governorships and Mayoralties (not displayed here). Before presenting the highlights, it is worth noting that for the first time in Mexico’s history a) women will obtain equal participation both in Cabinet and in Congress and that b) unfortunately, the first truly independent candidates at all government levels lost their respective races. Along with these factors, the electoral outcomes have three further implications:
- Strong Mandate – Not only is the election an interesting case for exploring coattail effects, but also, it has been almost 4 decades since a Mexican President obtained such an ample electoral support —and it is the first time this happens under competitive elections. This fact should prove fundamental in the implementation of the coalition’s policy platform.
- Renewed Legitimacy – The high turnout rate, a clear mandate and the fact that Mexico will have its first left-of-centre government in 80 years, help strengthen democratic legitimacy in two ways: First, contrary to previous experiences (i.e. Mexico in 2006), there is no doubt on the social legitimacy of the newly elected government. Second, and most importantly, the 2018 process boosts the legitimacy of the electoral mechanism itself. It shows that votes —and not guns— are an effective tool for securing and redistributing political power.
- Political Geography– Beyond showing that democracy is now the only game in town, this outcome also tackles its uneven spread. Along with the national change, this electoral process opens up a new era of subnational politics. For the first time in Mexico’s contemporary history the majority of Governors will face divided governments, buttressing representation as well as local checks and balances. Moreover, as Map 1 shows, alternancias at the local level should reshape political bargaining across and between governmental levels.
Map 1.- Mexico’s Political 2018 Geography
To explain the results, 3 alternative hypotheses have been offered: First, some analysts suggest that angry and disenchanted voters punished Enrique Peña Nieto’s government for the multiple corruption scandals and for its poor economic performance. A second hypothesis suggests looking at AMLO’s effective campaigning, his distinct policy agenda along with his populist appeal. Closely related, the last alternative that has been offered emphasizes AMLO’s broad social and political coalition. Suffice it to say that there is enough material for social and political scientists to disentangle.
Looking Past Election Day: Upcoming Challenges
In addition to the social, international and economic challenges, in the upcoming months, the newly elected government will face two specifically political dilemmas. At the same time, the flexibility of Mexico’s presidential democratic regime will also be tested. I briefly address each of these issues below:
- The Delivery Paradox – It has been suggested that AMLO’s new administration is in a bind. Using his majority in Congress to implement his policy platform will allow his opponents to accuse him of brining Mexican hyper-presidentialism back; if he doesn’t, and consequently fails to comply, he risks losing popular support. Past the honeymoon period, carefully navigating this paradoxical situation will require bargaining and political innovation.
- Taming the beast – To secure his victory, AMLO articulated a socio-political movement in which many groups and sectors coalesced for electoral purposes. Successfully dealing with the previous challenge will require, among other things, managing to transform that movement into a somewhat disciplined and coherent party organization.
- Checks & Balances – Given the overwhelming support for AMLO’s government, at the regime level, in order to guarantee the survival and consolidation of democracy, finding political counterweights is key. Actors coming from three distinct arenas will play a crucial role in balancing Mexican politics: 1) Civil Society and Media, 2) International and national Markets and 3) Opposition parties. Members of these last group have a difficult task ahead, as they first need to regroup and redefine themselves. Here scholars of Mexican parties will need to be creative in exploring and explaining upcoming changes to the party system.
The night after the election citizens paraded the streets across the country, their message was one of hope and illusion. Latin America and the world also expectantly observe the Mexican political scenario. Ironically, Langston’s book on PRI’s survival was published the year in which the party obtained its worst electoral result. In their new book, Michael Albertus and Victor Menaldo, argue that flawed democracies successfully overhaul their elite-biased institutions once the old authoritarian guard passes away. Can the electoral catastrophe of the PRI be interpreted as its (political) death? And if so, will Mexican democracy consolidate? Or will it be fatally injured by this pyrrhic victory? The cards are now on the table, and as the authors clearly suggest, only time will tell.
Javier Pérez Sandoval (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a DPhil in Politics candidate at the University of Oxford based at Wolfson College. He hold a BA in Politics and an MPhil in Comparative Government. He is passionate about regime change, subnational politics, presidentialism and socio-economic development. He teaches the Latin American Politics tutorial to undergrads at the University of Oxford and has worked as an Associate Lecturer at Brookes University for a similar course. Beyond his keen interest in Argentinian, Brazilian and Mexican political dynamics, he is also a sci-fi and cinema aficionado.