Mexico’s ruling party on Wednesday chose Claudia Sheinbaum, former mayor of Mexico City, as its candidate for next year’s presidential election, creating a watershed moment in the world’s largest Spanish-speaking country where voters are expected to choose for the first time between two leaders. candidates who are women.
“Today, democracy has won. Today the Mexican people have decided,” Ms. Sheinbaum said during the announcement, adding that her party, Morena, would win the 2024 elections. “Tomorrow begins the electoral process,” she said. “And there’s no time to lose.”
Ms Sheinbaum, 61, a physicist with a doctorate in environmental engineering and a protege of Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, will face the opposition’s main competitor, Xóchitl Gálvez, 60, an outspoken engineer of indigenous descent who rose from poverty to become a technology entrepreneur.
“We can already say it today: Mexico, by the end of next year, will be governed by a woman,” said Jesús Silva-Herzog Márquez, political scientist at the Institute of Technology in Monterrey, Mexico. , adding that it was an “extraordinary change”. for the country.
Ms Sheinbaum built her political career mainly in the shadow of Mr López Obrador and emerged early on as the party’s preferred candidate to succeed the current president. The link is believed to give him a crucial advantage ahead of next year’s election thanks to the high approval ratings enjoyed by Mr López Obrador, whose Mexican constitution is limited to a six-year term.
In recent months, Mr. López Obrador has insisted that he will have no influence once his term ends. “I’m going to retire completely,” he said in March. “I am not a leader, and I feel even less irreplaceable. I am not a strong man; I am not a messiah.
But some analysts say her influence will endure no matter which candidate wins in 2024. If Ms Sheinbaum wins, “some policies could be changed, though the outlines of her program will remain intact,” according to a recent report by the ministry. Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research institute in Washington
If defeated, López Obrador “will not quietly fade into the background”, the report said, citing a large base of loyal supporters allowing him to wield substantial influence. Certain legacies of her administration — notably austerity measures or the army’s immersion in social, security and infrastructure roles — could also pose obstacles for Ms Gálvez if she seeks to roll back her policy.
While both candidates target weaknesses in their respective campaigns, they share some similarities. Although neither is explicitly feminist, both are socially progressive, have engineering degrees and say they will maintain broadly popular anti-poverty programs.
Both women also support the decriminalization of abortion. In the case of Ms. Gálvez, this position contrasts with that of her conservative party. Mexico’s Supreme Court on Wednesday decriminalized abortion nationwide, building on an earlier ruling giving authorities the power to authorize the procedure on a state-by-state basis.
Ms. Sheinbaum, born to Jewish parents in Mexico City, would become Mexico’s first Jewish president if she wins the race. She was the subject of a disinformation campaign on social media, falsely claiming that she was born in Bulgaria, the country from which her mother emigrated; Ms. Sheinbaum’s supporters called the effort anti-Semitic.
She studied physics and energy engineering in Mexico before continuing her doctoral research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. After entering politics, she became Mr. López Obrador’s top environmental official when he was mayor of Mexico City.
When Ms Sheinbaum herself was elected mayor of the capital in 2018, she made public transport and environmental issues a top priority, but she was also the target of criticism following fatal accidents in transport systems of the city, including the collapse of a metro overpass in 2018. in which 26 people were killed.
With polls placing Ms Sheinbaum at the top of the charts, her ties to Mr López Obrador required discipline to maintain his support, even if she disagreed with his decisions. For example, when Mr. López Obrador downplayed the coronavirus pandemic and federal government officials changed data to avoid a lockdown in Mexico City, she remained silent.
“What stands out is his loyalty, I think blind loyalty, to the president,” said political scientist Mr Silva-Herzog Márquez.
Nevertheless, while adhering to Mr. López Obrador’s policies, Ms. Sheinbaum also flagged some potential changes, notably expressing her support for renewable energy sources.
In contrast to her rival, Ms. Gálvez, a senator who often travels around Mexico City by electric bicycle, focused on her origins as the daughter of an indigenous Otomí father and a mestizo mother.
Ms. Gálvez grew up in a small town about two hours from Mexico City, without running water and speaking her father’s Hñähñu language. After receiving a scholarship at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, she became an engineer and founded a company that designs communication and energy networks for office buildings.
After Vicente Fox won the presidency in 2000, she was appointed head of the presidential office for indigenous peoples. In 2018, Ms. Gálvez was elected as a Senator representing the Conservative National Action Party.
Mr. López Obrador has repeatedly made her the target of verbal attacks, which has had the effect of raising her profile in the country while underlining the influence that the president and his party wield throughout Mexico .
A combative leader who has embraced austerity measures while doubling Mexico’s dependence on fossil fuels, López Obrador looms over the countryside. He pledged to end a long-standing political tradition of Mexican presidents picking their successors with their “big finger,” replacing that practice with nationwide electoral surveys.
Historically, Mexican political parties selected their candidates opaquely and lacked inclusion. Manual selection was more common than a “free and fair competition for a candidacy,” said Flavia Freidenberg, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
The new selection process has changed that tradition, but concerns persist about the lack of clarity and other irregularities that some analysts and other presidential candidates have complained about. Both the ruling party, Morena, and the broad opposition coalition, called the Broad Front for Mexico, have used public opinion polls “which have not been fully transparent,” Ms. Freidenberg added, “ and are not necessarily considered democratic procedures”.
The new procedures also ignored federal campaign rules, with process officials from both the ruling party and the opposition advancing the selection by months and cryptically referring to Ms. Sheinbaum and Ms. Gálvez as the “coordinators” of each coalition. of “candidates”.
“These irregular activities occurred under the gaze of public opinion, politicians and electoral authorities,” Ms. Freidenberg said. “It’s not a minor issue.”
Next year’s general elections, in which voters will elect not only a president but also members of Congress, could also determine whether Mexico can return to a dominant party system – similar to what the country has known under the once hegemonic Institutional Revolutionary Party, which held an uninterrupted supply for 71 years until 2000.
Despite some setbacks, there are signs that this is already happening. In June, Morena’s candidate won the race for governor of Mexico State, the country’s most populous state, beating the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party.
The victory brought the number of states under Morena’s control to 23 out of 32, up from just seven at the start of the president’s term in 2018.
The question is “whether Morena reconfigures itself into a hegemonic party like the old PRI”, said Ana Laura Magaloni, a law professor who advised Ms Sheinbaum’s mayoral campaign. “And it depends on how much of a fight the opposition can fight. »