The profound issues at stake in Mexico’s midterm elections


On June 6, the Mexican people will vote in the country’s midterm elections. Midterms frequently draw less attention than voting for the president. But far more is up for grabs than the country’s Chamber of Deputies, 15 of the 32 state governorships, 30 state congresses, and some 1,900 municipal governments. At stake is not just President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s free hand to rule for his remaining three years but also key elements of the Mexican democracy and the very rule of law.

When López Obrador won a landslide victory in the 2018 elections, many wondered whether he would rule the country as a populist leader (whose political tactics for decades featured disruption, street power, and disregard for rule of law) or as the pragmatist mayor of Mexico City he had also been. His anti-establishment agenda — what he calls the Fourth Revolution to counter “the mafia of power” —all along raised concerns that he would attempt to usher in a counterproductive de-institutionalization of Mexico. Distressingly, those fears have proven correct and López Obrador has clearly revealed his hand: Not just as a populist leader, but also one with strong tendencies against political pluralism.

The profound issues at stake in Mexico's midterms

If Mexican voters again give his MORENA party and its allies an absolute majority in the Chamber of Deputies, compounding the simple majority López Obrador and MORENA enjoy in the Senate, he will have a much freer hand to continue dismantling Mexico’s institutional checks and balances and attacking any critics even though many of his policies are deeply troubling.

The president’s core agenda for addressing Mexico’s profound inequalities and countering widespread corruption are critically important for Mexico. Even before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, almost 40% of Mexicans lived in poverty and social marginalization, despite the fact that Mexico is a middle-income G-20 country. However, the means by which López Obrador has chosen to prosecute both goals are as dangerous as the ills he seeks to cure.

Since coming to office, President López Obrador accomplished some of his redistribution promises: He has secured pensions for all elderly Mexicans and doubled its rate (a policy initiative he also successfully undertook as the mayor of Mexico City). And he has increased the minimum wage. He has also handed out scholarships and technical training stipends to Mexico’s young who had dropped out of school but remained unemployed.

Yet many of his policy moves are highly problematic. His response to COVID-19 has been deeply inadequate — negligently underplaying the severity of the illness and failing to take both appropriate public health measures as well as economic stimulus policies. By some accounts, Mexico’s COVID-19 toll has been over 477,000, one of the worst in the world. Mexico lost 3.2% of its regular jobs in 2020 and at least 16.2% of Mexican people had to work fewer hours than they would prefer. The country’s GDP shrank by 8.5%, yet the president’s economic stimulus-response has been feeble.

This meager non-response is all the more striking in that López Obrador has otherwise exhibited statist centralist tendencies. For example, he has sought to get private market aspects out of Mexico’s healthcare system, without his reforms clearly expanding either the scope of the number of people covered or the benefits they receive.

He has similarly sought to eliminate privatization from Mexico’s energy markets, something a country highly dependent on oil income but with a moribund hydrocarbon infrastructure badly needs. In seeking to rid Mexico’s energy markets of private investments, he has violated contracts and has empowered dirty, climate-disastrous, inefficient, expensive, and under-delivering providers, hoping to resurrect the country’s long-defunct state oil monopoly. However, López Obrador’s calls for Mexico’s energy independence and divestment of foreign presence in Mexico’s energy sector ignore the fact that Mexico’s hydrocarbon assets that its state oil company PEMEX is capable of extracting on its own are severely depleted. Indeed, it was the realization that PEMEX’s dated technologies and crumbling infrastructure do not permit exploration of new oil and gas fields and are divorced from the global thrust on green energy and climate that led the Enrique Peña Nieto administration to permit foreign investment in energy.

President López Obrador’s environmental policies have been equally troubling. His Maya Train for cutting through Mexico’s pristine biodiversity hotspots was pushed through without any meaningful environmental assessment, being based instead on a referendum with very low turnout but stuffed with MORENA supporters. López Obrador has used such orchestrated referenda as a decision-making tool to bypass the Mexican Congress and institutional and technocratic processes when he is uncertain of favorable outcomes from them. The Maya Train, for the construction of which López Obrador problematically hired the Mexican military, is highly unlikely to stimulate beneficial eco-tourism and can easily enabling extractive industries, such as logging and mining, as well as wildlife trafficking. Yet the COVID-19 lesson should have been to keep primary biodiversity areas, particularly in the tropics, free of habitat destruction. Nor has the government paid attention to burgeoning illegal fishing in Mexico, even when its impact on species extinction, such as of the porpoise vaquita marina, has led to a slate of painful economic sanctions on Mexico. Deforestation in Mexico is also rampant. Tragically, the López Obrador government’s biggest environmental and job creation plan, ill-conceived in its poor design of plantation monocropping and insufficient diversity of native species, backfired further: Some farmers cut down old trees to get paid for planting new ones. Overall, environmental concerns remain very low on López Obrador’s policy agenda, and many environmental government institutions have seen their budgets severely decimated and their functionality in regulation, oversight, and enforcement gravely diminished.


Mexico Daily Post