As Mexican Election Looms, Voters Ready for Change

Mexico will have its presidential election Sunday, and voters appear to be heading to the ballot box with sweeping change in mind.

Polls consistently show the left-leaning Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador — widely known as AMLO — with a double-digit lead. Voters also will pick candidates to fill 128 seats in the country’s Senate and 500 seats in the Chamber of Deputies — the country’s higher and lower legislative bodies, respectively.

Outgoing President Enrique Pena Nieto, first elected in 2012, sports a historically low approval rating — slipping as low as 17 percent last year, according to Pew Research Center polling. The Mexican constitution restricts candidates to one six-year term, with no chance of re-election. And Pena Nieto’s six years were marked by social and economic turmoil.

In 2012, Pena Nieto came to power in a country dealing with violence — much of it linked to the country’s notorious drug cartels — and a sluggish economy. Pena Nieto’s critics have said he has done little to address those ills, with some insisting he has made them worse.

In 2017, Mexico saw more than 25,000 homicides — the highest number since the country began recording data on homicides in 1997. According to CNN, officials attribute the increase to a surge in drug-related crimes since 2014, when 15,520 people were slain.

That was the year notorious drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was captured in Mexico. In July 2015, he escaped from a Mexican prison for a second time, after Pena Nieto rejected an offer by the U.S. to prosecute Guzman after his first escape. Guzman has since been recaptured and extradited to the U.S.

“Pena said it wasn’t necessary to send him because our system works,” political analyst Jose Antonio Crespo told the Los Angeles Times. “When he escaped, the whole world saw what we already know: that the level of corruption is extremely high.”

Such allegations of corruption have long plagued Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. The party held virtually uncontested control of the country from 1929 to 2000. PRI recaptured the presidency in 2012 and is apparently fighting to hold on to it.

“The machinery seems to have completely broken down as local operators are deserting the party,” Mexico scholar Michael Lettieri told Forbes. “The party’s best efforts to mobilize deeply priista groups of government employees and peasants have not provided a meaningful push for the PRI’s presidential, legislative or gubernatorial candidates.”

Economically, 2017 saw historical devaluations of the Mexican peso, as well as widespread protests over gasoline price hikes, colloquially known as the “gasolinazo.”

U.S. President Donald Trump rose to power in 2016 after campaigning on a key promise — to build a wall along the border with Mexico and make Mexico pay for it. The rhetoric offended many Mexicans, who questioned Pena Nieto’s decision to invite then-candidate Trump to a meeting. Trump also has threatened to pull out of NAFTA, a trade agreement involving the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

The candidates

These issues have made the ground fertile for Lopez Obrador, 64, who has campaigned on a platform of sweeping change and has been described as a nationalist. Indeed, this is the first presidential election for Lopez Obrador’s party, the National Registration Movement (MORENA), which is running in coalition with the left-wing Labor Party and right-wing Social Encounter Party.

This is not Lopez Obrador’s first time running for Mexico’s highest office; he has run twice before, in 2006 and 2012, losing both times. In the 2006 election, his opponent Felipe Calderon compared him to then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a socialist. Calderon won the election, and Lopez Obrador has found it hard to shake off the label.

Lopez Obrador has rallied against the political and economic elites of the country, referring to them as a “power mafia.” His campaign has reflected that, pledging to fight against corruption in the country and bolster social mobility.

“In the main, it’s an anti-PRI vote and, by extension, the PAN [National Action Party], which has certainly been fairly close to the PRI in terms of governing these past six years,” Lettieri told CNN.

Previously, he served as executive of Mexico City, the country’s capital and largest city.

Lopez Obrador’s greatest competition is expected to come from Ricardo Anaya, PAN’s presidential nominee. The right-leaning party was the first to break PRI’s hegemony in 2000, when Vicente Fox was elected president. Polls have shown Anaya, the former leader of PAN within Mexico’s lower legislative chamber, consistently in second behind Lopez Obrador.

Anaya, 39, has developed a reputation as a technocrat. He supports NAFTA, which Lopez Obrador has said needs renegotiation, echoing Trump’s stance on the trade agreement.

Jose Antonio Meade, the nominee of the incumbent PRI party, has consistently polled third, arguably because of Pena Nieto’s unpopularity. Meade, 49, has held several Cabinet positions in the Mexican government, including foreign affairs secretary in Calderon’s government, and finance secretary in Pena Nieto’s.

Meade is an independent and not officially a member of PRI — perhaps a reflection of Pena Nieto’s, and the party’s, deep unpopularity.

“The best thing that happened to Lopez Obrador is the Pena Nieto administration,” Carlos Bravo Regidor, an analyst at Mexico’s Center of Economic Investigation and Studies, told The Washington Post. “AMLO’s stance is the same, but now people are angrier and more eager for change.”

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