Analysis: Mexico goes to the polls in elections marred by violence against candidates

And then there’s the social media influencer who seeks to become a member of Congress by promising, among other things, “boobs for every woman.” In her platform, she proposes breast implants covered by the public health system.

That’s only a small part of the stage as Mexico gets ready to hold midterm elections Sunday, the largest in the country’s history. More than 93 million registered voters will choose candidates for more than 21,000 elected posts in all three levels of government.

But despite its size, this elections is, in many respects, about a single man: current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
President López Obrador attends the daily briefing at Palacio Nacional on May 28, 2021 in Mexico City, Mexico.

López Obrador is not on the ballot, but Mexican analysts, experts, a former President and a former presidential candidate consulted by CNN say the elections amount to a referendum on the 67-year-old President, a populist, leftist political veteran and former Mexico City mayor who won the presidency in 2018 on his third attempt.

Luis Carlos Ugalde, former president of the Federal Electoral Institute, says that this election is about one thing: “Voters are basically split between those who love [President] López Obrador and those who don’t trust him.”

Uncontrolled violence ahead of the vote

Lopez Obrador came to power promising “hugs, not gunshots,” but has so far failed to curb gun violence in Mexico. A wave of political assassinations has shaken the current campaign season leading up to the June 6 election in a country already devastated by organized crime turf wars for most of the last two decades.

“The country is at peace. It’s being governed. There are no risks of instability,” López Obrador said Tuesday. But he also acknowledged what has become painfully obvious to millions of Mexicans. “We are facing the scourge of violence every day,” López Obrador said.

Between September of last year (when the electoral process began) and the end of May, there were 89 assassinations of politicians in Mexico and 782 crimes committed against them, according to Etellekt, a risk management firm. Thirty-five of those murdered were candidates running for office in the upcoming election.
Why Mexico's election is all about the man who is not running
Victims include Alma Rosa Barragán, a mayoral candidate in the state of Guanajuato, who was gunned down in the middle of a rally 12 days before the election.
The following day, José Alberto Alonso Gutiérrez, who’s running for mayor of the beach resort city of Acapulco, barely survived an armed attack.
Abel Murrieta, a mayoral candidate in the town of Cajeme (Sonora state) and former state’s attorney, was shot and killed in broad daylight on May 13 as he handed out campaign flyers. Murrieta was also an attorney for the LeBaron family who lost nine of its members with dual Mexican and American nationality in late 2019 in a region of northern Mexico known for widespread organized crime presence.
The following day, President López Obrador recognized that “this is indeed a difficult time because of the campaign, the competing interests being generated across different regions and we have to protect the candidates.”

Fears of a too-powerful President

Voters should not allow the extreme political violence to obscure several other major issues, says Luis Rubio, president of México Evalúa, a Mexico City think-thank. The vote comes as the country is still reeling from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic that not only put its health system to the test, but also shrank its economy 8.5 percent in 2020, according to government figures.
The vote comes as the country reels from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Even before López Obrador took office, Mexico was already suffering from another “pandemic,” as described by the country’s former health secretary Juan Ramón de la Fuente. He referred to gun violence, a challenge that has only gotten worse during the current administration. To put this in perspective, there were 10,579 homicides in the first four months of 2018 (before López Obrador took office). The figure rose to 11,307 in the same 2019 period and increased to 11,736 between January and April 2020, according to government data.

Rubio, also a former adviser to Mexico’s Secretary of the Treasury, says this election is about nothing less than the survival of Mexico’s democracy. He and other analysts criticize what they perceive to be an authoritarian bent that López Obrador has shown.

At different times, the President has railed against the judiciary, independent election officials, the central bank and the free press, not to mention opposition parties that have formed an alliance, in spite of big differences, in a desperate effort to prevent the President from increasing his power in the legislative branch.

López Obrador has long dismissed criticisms of his attitude toward governmental checks and balances. “We said before taking office that a transformation was necessary to reverse Mexico’s breakdown,” he said during one of his daily morning press conferences, where he frequently mocks political rivals.

Rubio warns that if López Obrador’s party, Morena, gains an absolute majority in the lower house this Sunday, the President “will have a clear path towards strengthening his [political] project, meaning recreating the 70s, which is a way of governing that he’s very comfortable with.” From the late 1930s and especially during the 1970s, Mexican Presidents who rose to power under the wing of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) controlled everything in the country through an almighty party, while keeping the external appearance of a democracy.

Former Mexican President Vicente Fox, a conservative who in 2000 became the first President in more than 70 years who didn’t belong to the PRI, says he’s encouraged that a coalition including the PRI, his own Party of National Action (PAN) and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) can stop López Obrador from consolidating power.

“The goal is to make Mr. López Obrador think before making proposals like the daily wisecracks he comes up with,” Fox said.

A former first lady of Mexico goes even further. Margarita Zavala, wife of former Mexican President Felipe Calderón (2006-12), and who ran an unsuccessful presidential campaign as an independent candidate in 2017, harshly criticizes López Obrador, who, in her opinion, has a dictatorial bent.

The vehicle which political candidate José Alberto Alonso Gutiérrez was traveling in during an armed attack.

“I’m not exaggerating when I say that we’re at the crossroads between democracy and dictatorship. We have been talking for the last two years about bad decisions, deaths, [Covid-19] infections, appalling budgets, additional millions of people who have become poor, an economic downturn, lack of infrastructure progress and two years of lies,” Zavala said in an interview with CNN.

Yet the President and his party remain enormously popular. López Obrador’s approval rate remains as high as 61 percent, according to one poll.

Part of his appeal has to do with the fact that many middle and lower class Mexicans (especially his base and those who voted for him) feel that, for the first time in decades, they have a President from the people and for the people who actually listens to them and understands them. His daily press conferences often serve as a conduit to reinforce his views and political platform, instead of answering policy questions from the press.

Luis Antonio Espino, a Mexican communications consultant and author of a book about the President, says that López Obrador’s communication strategy has effectively worked to change the perception of reality to his favor so that people evaluate his performance based on his intentions and not results.

“The complexity of our country and of Mexican society gets reduced to the same narrative that he uses on a daily basis […]. He substitutes communication with propaganda with the purpose of manipulating the perception people, creating a parallel reality that it’s always favorable to him,” Espino told Mexican news website MVS Noticias.

During a recent video the President published on YouTube, where he appears dining on fish with a view of a dam in Chiapas state, he promises people that “power rates are not going to increase.”

After he tells them what they want to hear, he adds, “beyond inflation.”




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