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Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador consolidates power in state, local elections

Gubernatorial candidate Miguel Barbosa of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) shows his ink-stained thumb after casting his vote in the state of Puebla. (Stringer/Reuters)

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s most powerful president in decades extended his influence as his party picked up two governorships and a slew of seats in local elections, according to results released Monday.

Sunday’s elections in six states were considered a referendum on the first months in office of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a leftist who scored a crushing victory in July and won majorities in both houses of Congress. It’s the first time since 1997 that a Mexican leader has had such a broad mandate.

The vote Sunday, the first since López Obrador was inaugurated in December, indicated the length of his coattails. His party — the National Regeneration Movement, known by its Spanish acronym MORENA — won the governorships of Baja California and Puebla and legislative majorities in Baja California and Quintana Roo, according to early returns and exit polls.

MORENA now has governors in seven of 31 states and legislative majorities in 23. The party also won many mayoral races Sunday.

The results show the remarkable rise of a movement that didn’t even exist as a party six years ago. Mexico was governed for 70 years by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) before transitioning to full democracy in 2000. 

“This demonstrates the capacity of López Obrador to rebuild essentially a dominant party system,” said Denise Dresser, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

The returns were a boost for López Obrador as he faces one of his biggest challenges yet. President Trump has threatened to impose escalating tariffs on all Mexican exports unless the country blocks the growing number of Central American migrants traveling through its territory to the U.S. border. 

The Mexican leader has sought to maintain good relations with Trump to avoid anything that would derail his ambitious domestic plans.

López Obrador campaigned on pledges to battle corruption and direct more attention toward the poor. Since entering office in December, the populist leader has taken high-profile steps to eliminate official privileges, selling the presidential jet and banning many senior bureaucrats from using chauffeur-driven cars. He has pledged to cut 20 percent from the personnel budget for government managers. 

“People think he is truly changing things,” said political scientist Luis Carlos Ugalde, director of Integralia Consultores, a political risk firm in Mexico City. “For the first time,” he said, voters think that “there’s a president of the people, who is ending the privileges of the elites.”

But Ugalde noted that there has been little progress on serious problems such as violence, and sluggish economic growth.

“In four months, if he doesn’t provide results on other themes, this early enthusiasm will diminish,” he said. 

The vote shows how much López Obrador and his party have scrambled Mexico’s electoral map. Baja California holds particular symbolic importance in Mexico as the first state in which the opposition kicked out the PRI. The Conservative Action Party (PAN) claimed the governorship in 1989, and has ruled the state ever since.

But on Sunday, Jaime Bonilla, the MORENA candidate, appeared headed for the governorship, and the leftist party won most mayoral races, as well as seats in the local legislature. 

The state has been grappling with an increasing number of homicides. But voters’ key concern, political scientist José María Ramos said, appeared to be scandals involving corruption and lack of transparency on the part of the PAN.

“This has generated impatience and frustration on the part of the people,” said Ramos, of the Colegio de la Frontera Norte.

The elections also demonstrated the weakness of Mexico’s opposition. The PRI was tarnished by corruption scandals under López Obrador’s predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, who left office in December. Many of its members have switched to MORENA.

In Puebla, too, former PRI members wound up supporting Miguel Angel Barbosa, the MORENA candidate. He spent most of his career in the leftist Revolutionary Democratic Party. That party also has shrunk as its members have signed on with MORENA.

Such defections are expected to increase around the country as long as López Obrador remains popular. 

“It’s going to become even harder for the opposition to compete at the state level,” Dresser said.

MORENA is far from becoming a new PRI, analysts say. It remains poorly organized at the local level, more a movement than a party. But López Obrador’s enormous political capital, and his moves to centralize power, have generated criticism that he’s reintroducing some of the autocratic ways of the past.

The president is trying “to restore that imperial presidency,” Dresser said. The concern, she said, is “what MORENA’s dominance at the state level and also at the congressional level poses for the future of democracy in Mexico.” 

López Obrador’s supporters say his landslide win shows that he has brought hope to Mexicans who were becoming increasingly pessimistic about democracy.

He has maintained his popularity, with approval rates of 60 percent to 80 percent, depending on the poll.

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