Unless, of course, López Obrador is not really looking ahead — but actually looking to the past.
Before former president Vicente Fox ended the long, uninterrupted rule of the PRI, Mexico’s hegemonic political party throughout much of the 20th century, in 2000, the choice of the ruling party’s presidential candidate was a matter of morbid national fascination. Since the PRI’s victory was all but guaranteed through mostly undemocratic means, the true mystery lay in the identity of the person favored by the outgoing president, who had the exclusive prerogative to choose “el tapado” (“the veiled one”). Once revealed, the “tapado” was entrusted with the future of the party and the protection of his predecessor and his legacy. Some adhered to the script more than others, but this shrewd system of continuity became a crucial piece of the autocratic puzzle that sustained the PRI’s rule over seven decades.
Although Mexico has never truly evolved toward a transparent electoral primary process, the “tapadismo” had been mostly eradicated. Though Enrique Peña Nieto, the most recent president from the PRI, personally chose his potential successor, other parties had tried to move past this method.
Not anymore. By arranging the pieces on the presidential chessboard this early, Mexico’s current president might be setting up his own preferred terms of succession and, more importantly, permanence for the project he has labeled Mexico’s “fourth transformation,” a radical remaking of the country’s form of government. For it to take root or show positive results (so far, the outcome has been dismal), López Obrador needs an effective, and pliant, chosen successor.
That might be easier said than done. In his search for an ideal candidate to carry the banner of Morena, Mexico’s ruling party, built around López Obrador himself, the president faces several hurdles.
The first is the weakness of his most likely choice. For more than two decades, Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico City’s mayor, has been a faithful López Obrador lieutenant. Her loyalty has earned her the president’s personal affection and political sympathies. But it has also carried a price. Aware of López Obrador’s dislike for dissenting opinions, Sheinbaum is loath to contradict her mentor’s policies. The dynamic has been in full view during the pandemic, as Sheinbaum, a scientist by training, delayed the adoption of sensible policies needed to fight both the coronavirus and its economic consequences lest they contradict López Obrador’s irresponsible handling of the crisis. Sheinbaum has also mimicked some of the president’s confrontational disposition toward the media and even his vocal distrust of worthy social causes critical of the government, such as the movement against gender violence.
Sheinbaum has also faced criticism over her handling of the accident that saw 26 people die when one of the Mexican capital’s main subway lines collapsed. Perhaps fearing for her political future, López Obrador instructed Sheinbaum to leave all matters related to the tragedy to him. “There is an agreement that everything will be handled through the president," she said. Hardly an example of independent leadership. Last month’s midterms worsened Sheinbaum’s troubles: Under her tutelage, Morena lost half the capital, the left’s worst defeat in a quarter-century of government in Mexico City.
Besides Sheinbaum, López Obrador could call on Marcelo Ebrard, the country’s foreign minister, who has also declared his intention of running. Over the past two decades, Ebrard has had an ambiguous relationship with his current boss, who has been both a mentor and an insurmountable political obstacle.
Ebrard could have sought the left’s candidacy in 2012, after his own stint as leader of Mexico City. López Obrador persuaded him otherwise, perhaps with the promise of a high-profile appointment that never materialized. Eight years later, Ebrard has been given myriad responsibilities, behaving more in the model of a U.S. secretary of state. He oversees the acquisition of vaccines, a role he frequently explodes to garner domestic policy relevance, often out of reach for foreign ministers. He has taken López Obrador’s place on the international stage, acting like a de facto president in lieu of a man who famously loathes traveling abroad.
Like Sheinbaum, Ebrard loyally follows his boss’s preferred narrative. He has given in to then-President Donald Trump’s demands on immigration, proudly welcomed the deposed Bolivian leader Evo Morales and giddily tweeted (in Russian) his delight after visiting Moscow. Recently, Ebrard criticized America’s embargo of Cuba while avoiding condemnation of the regime’s tyranny. He also announced Mexico’s intention to reinstate full diplomatic relations with North Korea.
In any case, Ebrard also has some serious baggage: For starters, the collapsed subway line was built during his time as mayor of Mexico City.
For now, though, all liabilities might be beside the point. What clearly matters to both Sheinbaum and Ebrard — the two clear front-runners, even if there are others in the mix — is to please the man who seems to hold the board and all the pieces. And that is already a tragedy.
For a while, Mexico seemed to have outgrown this illiberal political pageantry. Its revival, as most everything that puts too much power in the hands of just one man, can spell only trouble.