Mexico’s Mid-Term Elections: MORENA at a Crossroads

By Neil Harvey

Mexico’s mid-term elections on June 6th were the largest in the country’s history. More than 20,000 elected offices were at stake, encompassing national, state and municipal governments. Despite fears that turn-out would be negatively impacted by the ongoing pandemic and the alarming number of cartel-related killings of candidates and campaign staff in the previous nine months, 53% of eligible voters cast their ballots in what many saw as a referendum on the current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and his governing party, the National Regeneration Movement (Movimiento Regeneración Nacional, MORENA).

AMLO and MORENA had swept to power in a landslide victory in July 2018, handily defeating both the once-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI) and the conservative National Action Party (Partido de Acción Nacional, PAN). Both the PRI, which controlled almost all levels of government for 71 years from 1929 to 2000, and the PAN, which held the presidency for two consecutive 6-year terms from 2000 to 2012 until the PRI’s return in 2012-18, were associated with neoliberal economic policies that led to increased inequality and persistent poverty for half of the population.

In 2018, AMLO and MORENA promised to address three widespread demands: to improve living standards for the majority of the population; to get rid of corruption and impunity in government; and to end to the daily insecurity produced by the violence of criminal organizations and cartels who, often with the support or acquiescence of elected officials and law enforcement, carry out acts of extortion, killings and disappearances against innocent citizens, journalists, community activists and migrants.

The 2018 victory allowed MORENA, with the aid of allied parties during and after the campaign, to hold 334 of the 500 seats in the lower house, the two-thirds super-majority required to initiate constitutional reforms. This kind of majority had not been seen since the heyday of the PRI’s total control of Congress.

Despite the fact that constitutional reforms had been passed through the allied voting blocs of PRI and PAN legislators in the following decades, including the energy reform bill of 2013 that opened up the once publicly-owned oil and electricity sectors to private and foreign investors, the PRI, PAN and its newest ally, the former leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (Partido de la Revolución Democrática, PRD), argued that AMLO and MORENA were a threat to democracy. They claimed they were seeking to centralize power through a super-majority in Congress that could rewrite the constitution without opposition. This argument, repeated in pro-business outlets such as the Economist and Wall Street Journal, missed the irony of one of the longest-running anti-democratic parties in the world (PRI) and its allies in the concentration of wealth (PAN) accusing AMLO of being yet another authoritarian populist with little regard for the democratic process.

This message did, however, seem to have some impact in the mid-term elections, at least in the wealthier areas of Mexico City, where MORENA lost in five of the boroughs it had previously governed. The less affluent areas of the city continued to support MORENA and now the city appears on a map as divided by a line running from north to south that demarcates the PAN and its allies who govern nine wealthier boroughs to the west, while MORENA and its supporters govern the city’s poorer seven boroughs to the east. While some have jokingly compared this line to a new Berlin Wall, it more accurately reflects the deep social class divisions that exist in the nation’s capital.

Another important factor that possibly affected voting behavior in Mexico City was the collapse of a Metro rail line in a southeastern, pro-MORENA area just one month before the election, killing 26 people and injuring another 70. The government was criticized not only for its slow response to the victims of this tragedy but also for faults in the original construction of the line and lack of proper maintenance ever since. Although MORENA still won in this part of the city, it is possible that voters elsewhere saw this as further proof of why it was not to be trusted.

The main political damage seems most likely to be borne by the current Foreign Minister, Marcelo Ebrard, since the Linea 12 Metro was built during his administration as mayor of Mexico City in 2006-12. Ebrard had been widely mentioned as a likely presidential candidate for MORENA in 2024, as has the capital’s current mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum. Exactly one week after the mid-term elections, a report published in the New York Times claimed that government documents show that there were serious construction flaws in the section of the Línea 12 Metro line that collapsed.  This section was built by the Carso company, which is owned by Carlos Slim, Mexico’s wealthiest man and one of the wealthiest billionaires in the world.

According to the NYT reporters, the lack of attention to these problems resulted from the political expediency of completing infrastructure projects rapidly before Ebrard’s term as mayor ended, despite the risks of cutting corners. This tragedy calls for a full investigation but, in the meantime, it is likely that AMLO, Ebrard, Slim and Sheinbaum will reject the NYT’s report as another political attack from foreign sources opposed to the goals of the MORENA government.

At the national level, MORENA also lost ground, although this is not unusual for governing parties in mid-term elections as voters often feel disenchanted with government performance. In the case of MORENA, this has been exacerbated by the poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s limited response to the economic crisis and hardships that have ensued.

MORENA and its allies in the Green and Ecology Party of Mexico (Partido Verde Ecologista de Mexico, PVEM) and Workers’ Party (Partido del Trabajo, PT), who campaigned as the “Together We Make History” coalition (Juntos Hacemos Historia, JHH), will hold approximately 280 of the 500 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. At the time of writing, the final count of the 200 seats allocated according to proportional representation rules has not been completed.

The opposition bloc of PRI, PAN and PRD, which campaigned together as the “It’s For Mexico” coalition (Va Por México), will hold some 200 seats. Another party, Citizens’ Movement (Movimiento Ciudadano, MC, which is more aligned with Va Por México than MORENA) will have the remaining 20 seats. MORENA and its allies therefore saw a loss of 50 seats or more, depriving it of that two-thirds majority that could have put forward constitutional reforms.

Nevertheless, with a simple majority of over 50% of seats, they can and probably will pass legislation with the same goal of boosting public investment in the state-owned oil company, Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), and Federal Electricity Company (CFE). Their simple majority will also allow it to support other legislation, particularly to increase tax rates on the wealthiest and increase protection of labor rights, as well as voting for the president’s proposed national budget in which he may seek increased social spending on health and education.

In contrast to the losses in Mexico City and the Chamber of Deputies, MORENA performed well in state elections, winning 11 of the 15 governorships that were in contest. This represents an increase from just six of Mexico’s 31 states, plus mayor of Mexico City where MORENA governed prior to this election. The fact that MORENA now holds half of the country’s governorships up and down the country shows that the political map has shifted significantly. Just as Mexico City is no longer dominated by the MORENA, voters in the north and center of the country are moving away from their traditional allegiances to the socially conservative and business-oriented PAN and the long established clientelist machinery of the PRI.

This shift will provide MORENA an opportunity to more effectively implement reforms passed by its majority in the Chamber of Deputies, thereby overcoming some of the gridlock that has been common when governors are of a different party to that of the president. It will also allow it to contest more successfully at the local level of municipal government, where the opposition performed much better than MORENA and its allies in this election. Given that the PRI lost the governor’s office of seven states, reducing its total to just four of the country’s 32 governorships, it will struggle to sustain the flow of resources that has, until now, been one of the main reasons for its longevity as a competitive party. Overall, MORENA can look forward to the 2024 elections from a stronger position in more regions of the country, while the opposition parties will find some encouragement from their increased share of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies and in Mexico City.

The governorship elections also revealed the greater gender parity that has emerged in recent years in Mexico’s elected bodies. Six of the new 15 governors will be women, five from MORENA and one from the PAN-PRD alliance in the state of Chihuahua. When added to the current mayor of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum, this figure is almost as many as the number of states (nine) ever governed by women in Mexico’s modern history. This parity is a result of years of campaigning for gender parity in government, which resulted in legislation over the past decade that has had similar impacts in the Chamber of Deputies where just under 50% of legislators are women. It remains to be seen how women’s demands, particularly for justice and an end to killings and sexual assault of women across Mexico, will be addressed.

Despite the opening of the electoral system and the plurality of parties that now alternate in office, there remains scepticism among social activists about the real ability of federal legislators, state governors and municipal governments to respond effectively to the ongoing violence and insecurity faced by women, as well as by the most marginalized and vulnerable members of society. These include:  

  • the ongoing dispossession of lands held by rural and Indigenous communities through the imposition of large scale development projects in mining, export agriculture and hydroelectricity production, which have been denounced most vehemently by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) and the National Indigenous Congress (Congreso Nacional Indígena, CNI);
  • the targeting of critical voices that denounce corruption in law enforcement and the military, such as human rights defenders and independent journalists – as noted recently by the UK-based advocacy group, Article 19, which AMLO publicly criticized for allegedly seeking to undermine the Mexican government;
  • and the attacks on the least protected group of all, the thousands of migrants fleeing violence, poverty and corruption from within and beyond Mexico, who are routinely and brutally kidnapped and extorted by criminal organizations with the complicity of law enforcement and politicians.

The power of these organizations and cartels is not to be underestimated. According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, there were at least 250 political murders between September 2020 and the start of June 2021, including at least 89 politicians and 35 candidates for election, as well as relatives, journalists and civil servants. Besides these deaths, the same office reported at least 782 other politically motivated attacks, mostly due to how criminal organizations have proliferated and compete violently with rivals for control of territories and routes valued for profitable drug trafficking operations as well as the daily extortion of local citizens, businesses and migrants.

These challenges will not disappear with a newly formed Chamber of Deputies, borough councils of Mexico City, state governorships and municipal governments. Although MORENA still retains a simple majority in Congress, its ability to promote constitutional reforms has been lost, while the networks of local support for opposition parties continue to shape local politics. MORENA will have to do some of the hard work of reaching out to the people that it claims to represent in its ideological conflicts with the neoliberal alliance of PRI, PAN and PRD (and probably MC).

 While it may have been enough to win the 2018 election by making a familiar populist appeal to “the people” to reject the deservedly discredited elite, the mid-term elections show that this is no longer enough. MORENA is at a crossroads. It can either become invested in the familiar game of trading favours for votes from their erstwhile adversaries in the PRI, something which AMLO, without even blushing, hinted at just days after the election results became known. Or it can develop deeper and more responsive connections to the large part of society that is still suffering from the effects of poverty, insecurity and corruption, in the context of a slow and uneven emergence from the pandemic and economic collapse in 2020. Which way MORENA chooses to go will shape its political identity, public support and electoral fortunes in the coming years.

Neil Harvey is a Professor in the Department of Government at New Mexico State University.

Image: Mexican Legislative election-Constituency Results. Author: Ayvind-Bjarnason, derived from File:2018 Mexican general election – Chamber of Deputies.svg, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Colour code explained:–Constituency_Results.svg

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