The Coming Mexican Election: It's Not All About Trump
On July 1, the Mexican voters will choose a new president. Coverage in Mexico describes this election as a historic occasion with more offices on the ballot than ever before. To a casual American observer, however, the election sounds like it is being shaped by Mexican antipathy for Donald Trump. Virtually every story in the U.S. media about Mexico references some outrageous demand from President Trump and an equally over-the-top response from a Mexican political figure.
These feuds have little bearing on Mexican politics surrounding the upcoming election. In reality, Trump’s real impact will be minuscule, because this contest is shaped by its own powerful dynamic completely outside the influence of our commander-in-chief.
Mexico, the third most populous country in the Western Hemisphere and eighth largest democracy in the world, is going through a rough transition. As in the United States, economic sentiments are generally trending in a positive direction, with climbing consumer confidence and 2 million new jobs created since 2014. Yet – again like the U.S. – the Mexican public is widely discontent. The country is plagued with vast inequality, unprecedented violence, and longstanding government corruption. In some respects, the deep-seated national angst echoes the trends that brought Trump to power, drove the U.K. to Brexit, and resulted in a French election between neophyte Emmanuel Macron and nationalist Marine Le Pen. Mexico is dealing with its own version of the populist wave and voters are looking for anti-establishment figures to bring the country back.
The upcoming election will be an open contest because the current president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, is term-limited. His low approval rating – in the mid-teens – indicates that his designated successor in the PRI (Institutional Revolution Party), José Antonio Meade Kuribreña, is very unlikely to succeed him. Peña Nieto’s unpopularity isn’t purely personal, either. It’s symbolic of the Mexican people’s disillusionment with the country’s two major political parties, PRI and the principal opposition party, PAN (National Action Party). This disenchantment leaves a wide opening for an alternative candidate to emerge.
The Peña Nieto administration’s inability to deal with three major issues concerning a majority of Mexican citizens drives the debate in Mexico today. Recent Ipsos polling illustrates these trends. We find that 65 percent of Mexicans say crime and violence are one of the greatest worries facing their country. This is followed by 53 percent who cite corruption and 40 percent who call out poverty and inequality as one of their top concerns. These statistics emerge from real-life experiences: The homicide total hit over 29,000 last year as cartel violence spreads, and bribes and fraud rarely get exposed, much less prosecuted.
As a consequence of the system breaking down, our recent surveys find that very few Mexicans have faith in either the leading political system (10 percent), the government (23 percent), big companies (36 percent), or the media (32 percent). An astounding 89 percent of Mexicans believe their country is headed in the wrong direction. They express an appetite for a strong man to take the country back from the corrupt elites (81 percent agree). The prevailing sentiment is that the existing system cannot deal with the pernicious problems the Mexican people face. They need someone from outside the system to “do what is necessary” to bring the country back from the brink. We saw similar sentiments in the United States in the run-up to the 2016 election.
Hence, the firebrand Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (known as AMLO) currently leads in election polling. On paper, Lopez Obrador – a left-wing career politician and former mayor of Mexico City – does not outwardly resemble Donald Trump. However, like Trump, AMLO (pictured) has broad name recognition among the public, is defiantly anti-establishment, and benefits from the same distrust of existing institutions that Trump was able to harness in the U.S. Reprising the 2016 campaign to the north, Lopez Obrador regularly channels the anger and frustration of the Mexican masses at the elites, whom they see as uncaring and out of touch.
It should come as no surprise that the Mexican people seek a remedy. And with the traditional political parties discredited by their inability to end cartel violence, entrenched corruption, or jump-start the economy, people are turning to non-traditional leaders. Trump may not have much impact on who wins the Mexican election, but the anti-establishment forces that created him are just as real south of the border and are too powerful to be contained by any line on a map.