Mexico’s elections were free and fair
The first thing a U.S. audience should know is that the elections were free, fair and well run. The National Electoral Institute organizes all aspects of federal elections, doles out mass media time by formula (there are no party, candidate or private ad buys), and manages the public financing that accounts for nearly all legal campaign resources. Polling officials are chosen at random, much like jury duty in the United States. More international observers were accredited than for any prior election.
All but 10 of the 156,807 polling stations nationwide opened and operated as planned. This is an astounding feat for a country plagued by extreme levels of violence.
It was a tectonic victory
This year, the second-place finisher, Ricardo Anaya, who represented an uncomfortable coalition of the center-right PAN and the center-left PRD, will be around 30 points below at about 22 percent. José Antonio Meade of the incumbent and formerly dominant PRI will turn in a weak 16 percent. Despite fanfare about Jaime Rodríguez (“El Bronco”), Mexico’s first-ever independent candidate will scarcely peak above 5 percent.
Together with its coalition partners, AMLO’s Movement for National Regeneration (Morena) party will hold a majority of seats in both houses of Congress. This represents democracy’s clearest mandate, and means AMLO will be able to pass ordinary legislation without straining to strike deals. The political capital to pass constitutional reforms is not far from reach. This level of control means that a public hungry for results will hold his government solely responsible for successes, and its shortcomings.
Believe it or not, Trump was not a major factor
Although some readers may be surprised, the election wasn’t about President Trump. All three candidates stood up for Mexico in relations with its northern neighbor, but the contest was between those who supported the sociopolitical system and those who critiqued it.
AMLO argued that corrupt governments and the broader “mafia of power” (a pliable concept that he sometimes used to include business interests and sometimes did not), has caused persistent poverty and inequality, inefficient public services and perilous insecurity. The other candidates struggled to position themselves as responsible reformers (Meade), sensible leaders who would prosecute corrupt officials but leave the socioeconomic system intact (Anaya), and tough guys who would crackdown on wrongdoers violently if needed (Rodriguez).
The style and substance of Mexican politics really will change
AMLO will bring a new style to the presidency. His rhetoric will be more down to earth and designed to help ordinary people understand what government is doing. He will likely hold near-daily early-morning news conferences to set the agenda for the day, and thereby control the news cycle. He will forgo the pomp and privileges of the presidency, casting an image of humility and ordinariness that many find appealing.
Enough with the analogies: AMLO is not Chávez, Trump or Sanders
Some observers have suggested analogies between AMLO and other political figures. Those are tempting when the future is unclear, but the main comparisons fit poorly.
Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez rose from the ashes of a fragile party system; AMLO competed through an established one and an institutionalized electoral system. Chávez benefited from tremendously high oil prices that rely less on cross-national economic ties; Mexico’s economy centers on manufacturing exports. Chávez was able to cow and dismantle core institutions in Venezuela’s democracy; even if AMLO wanted to enhance the power of the presidency, he would be constrained by a better organized state.
Mexico’s shifting party system
Although AMLO rose through an organized party system, he leaves an uncertain landscape in his wake. In their scramble to survive against the AMLO juggernaut, the PRD and PAN formed an alliance that undermined their brands. The PRD may not survive. The PAN has some soul-searching to do to overcome internal rifts, but it is well-positioned to counter AMLO in the public debate.
The biggest loser is the formerly dominant and current incumbent party, the PRI. It has struggled for an identity under democracy, eventually promoting itself as the party of experience and stability. Those attributes were roundly rejected in this election. Yet the PRI still holds 13 of 32 statehouses, so whether Mexico emerges with a two-bloc or three-bloc party system will depend on how well these governors coordinate between now and the 2021 midterms.