A Landslide Victory for the Mexican Left

A Landslide Victory for the Mexican Left

The election of Claudia Sheinbaum, building on the record popularity of her predecessor AMLO, is one more step in the decline of the once-hegemonic PRI.

Claudia Sheinbaum on election night in Mexico City (Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images)

This piece was originally published in Nueva Sociedad.


The victory of Claudia Sheinbaum in the Mexican presidential election marks a turning point in the country’s history, strengthens the Latin American left, and counters the advances that the extreme right has made in the region in recent years.

The results demonstrate the falsity of the assumption that one of the necessary effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is the defeat of ruling parties, regardless of their ideology. Unlike what happened in Brazil or Argentina, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador managed to guarantee the continuity of the National Regeneration Movement (Morena). He did so with the help of Sheinbaum, the sixty-one-year-old scientist who swept the election on Sunday, June 2, with almost 60 percent of the vote. On October 1, she will become the first female president in Mexico’s history.

Several other Mexican women, representing parties of both the left and the right, have been presidential candidates before. This year, Sheinbaum and her main opposition candidate Xóchitl Gálvez, who never managed to position herself as a competitive rival, were added to that list of pioneers. In a country and region characterized by a frequently sexist political culture, the victory of a woman stands out as one of the groundbreaking features of the election.

Nevertheless, simply having a woman in power is not a guarantee of a feminist administration. During the campaign, Sheinbaum included issues such as care work in her platform and repeated the slogan, “I don’t arrive alone, we all arrive.” However, throughout her political career she has not strongly embraced feminist struggles. Tensions with the women’s movement that have dogged her since her time as head of government of Mexico City are still latent, and it remains to be seen if her rise to power will translate into policies that expand women’s rights.

On the other hand, Sheinbaum’s triumph represents one more step in the decline of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the once omnipresent political force that governed Mexico for seven consecutive decades until losing power in 2000. The right governed the following two terms, with Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón. Then the PRI returned, with Enrique Peña Nieto. The left, represented by López Obrador, won in 2018, and Sheinbaum’s victory ensures it will remain in power until 2030.

The historical roots of these leftist leaders are diverse. López Obrador, like Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas (who broke with the PRI to challenge it from the left in the 1988 elections), was born politically in the PRI. No one can claim that past for Sheinbaum. She has always been a leftist militant. That is why she represents not just a change of gender but also of political generations.

The electoral process has possibly left the PRI on the verge of extinction. Its alliance with the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), its former rivals, showed that its only job was to offer an emotional and classist opposition to López Obrador. The PRI’s campaign focused on fear: it constantly declared that, if Sheinbaum won, Mexico would “become Venezuela,” a “dictatorship” would develop, and the country would be governed by “communism.” The PRI’s strategy resulted in Gálvez’s erratic and, at times, embarrassing campaign and tended to deepen the crisis that the party has been experiencing for almost two decades. Far from being a positive development, its alliance with parties it previously confronted led it to dilute its identity.

The opposition faced a president who controls public conversation and sets the political agenda through his daily press conferences—known as “mañaneras”—and who, in the final stretch of his time in office, enjoys record popularity, well above 60 percent. Sheinbaum capitalized on the achievements of the presidential administration thanks to the support of the president himself. She promised to continue the “Fourth Transformation,” as López Obrador baptized his administration, equating it with the Independence of 1810, the War of Reform of the nineteenth century, and the Revolution of 1910. In the early hours on Monday, with her triumph already confirmed, Sheinbaum once again demonstrated her loyalty and called the president “an exceptional man who has transformed the history of our country for the better.”

In turn, in his first post-election message, López Obrador reiterated his “affection and respect” for Sheinbaum. “I confess that I am very happy, proud to be the president of an exemplary people, the people of Mexico. Today’s election day demonstrated that ours is a very politicized people,” he said, stressing that in 200 years of history, a woman had never governed Mexico.

This exchange of praise crowned a political relationship that began twenty-four years ago, when López Obrador won the government of the capital city and invited the then-academic Sheinbaum to join his cabinet as secretary of the environment. Since then, they have never separated. She served as a spokesperson in López Obrador’s first campaign (2006) and was one of the founders and political operators of Morena. With the support of her mentor, in 2015 she won the Tlalpan mayor’s office and, a few years later, the head of government of Mexico City. Sheinbaum was sworn in as mayor of the country’s capital five days after López Obrador was sworn in as president. Six years later, he will transfer the presidency to her, consolidating them as the most successful political duo in contemporary Mexico.

López Obrador will leave Sheinbaum with an economy in good condition. Mexico has a stronger peso, better salaries, and less poverty than before his administration, along with a battery of new social programs aimed at the most disadvantaged. It is likely that Sheinbaum will continue to use popular Obradorist rhetoric about “humanism” and “social justice” and to pursue the sort of policies that allowed López Obrador to displace, in just a decade, the PRI-PAN-PRD triad and turn Morena into the most important party in the country. In fact, Morena has gained congressional seats. According to the most recent data, Morena will have a veto-proof majority in the Chamber of Deputies and may obtain one in the Senate as well.

The legacy that Sheinbaum inherits from AMLO is not wholly positive. Among Mexico’s problems, the incessant violence that plagues the country stands out. Reducing violence, as well as securing reparations for the families of victims, should be a matter of utmost priority. Violence claimed the lives of thirty candidates during this very electoral campaign. Although President López Obrador tried to minimize the facts and present the elections as the “cleanest and most peaceful in history,” the data shows that numerous citizens decided to “vote” for some of the more than 100,000 missing persons, writing their names on the ballots to render visible a tragedy that the political leadership, starting with the president, tends to ignore.

Many of the organizations and groups representing relatives of the victims distrust the president and the president-elect. Sheinbaum’s closeness to Omar García Harfuch, a police officer and former secretary of citizen security of Mexico City, is, for these organizations, worrying. García Harfuch has been identified by relatives of the forty-three students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School who disappeared in 2014 as helping to construct a controversial “official narrative” around the kidnapping. This fact leads the organizations to view Sheinbaum warily, as García Harfuch not only forms part of the new president’s team of advisors but is rumored to be part of the next cabinet.

On the foreign relations front, the Mexican elections balance the distribution of power in Latin America, where the false idea of an inevitable shift to the right has spread. On Saturday, June 1, just one day before Sheinbaum’s election, the president of Argentina, Javier Milei, and the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, embraced each other, smiling, trying to show an extreme right front that is advancing steadily on a global scale. The next day, Morena’s triumph in Mexico once again attracted the spotlight to the diverse democratic left in which Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Brazil), Gustavo Petro (Colombia), Luis Arce (Bolivia), and Gabriel Boric (Chile) coexist.

As happens with almost all women who reach high positions, Sheinbaum faces multiple prejudices. Having been promoted by López Obrador, she has been accused by her political and media opponents of simply being a “puppet” of the sitting president. In fact, those same opponents argue that it will be the founder of Morena—who has already announced his upcoming retirement from politics—who will continue to govern behind the scenes. Sheinbaum now has the challenge of demonstrating her political autonomy without implying disloyalty. That will be one of the main challenges for the new president.

In that process, she is not alone. Another milestone left by the election is that the country’s capital will also be governed by a woman. Clara Brugada, who comes from land rights struggles and was the former mayor of Iztapalapa, does define herself as a feminist, and she is considered as a possible successor to Sheinbaum in 2030. But that is another story.

Translated by Patrick Iber.

Cecilia González is a journalist and the author of Narcosur and Everything You Need to Know About Drug Trafficking.