Will Mexico Return to a One-Party Democracy?

March 25, 2023 Topic: Mexico Region: North America Tags: MexicoAMLOMORENAUnited StatesPRIPAN

Will Mexico Return to a One-Party Democracy?

Mexico’s MORENA party faces challenges as it seeks to be the country’s permanent party.

Mexico’s presidential elections are more than a year away, but the jostling has already begun. The president is already limited to one six-year term, and the left-wing governing party, MORENA, has already narrowed it to two viable candidates: Mexico City’s Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum and Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard. Officially, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador—or AMLO, as he’s popularly known—states that MORENA supporters will choose the candidate by a poll. Still, some observers expect the president to use el dedazo to select his successor unofficially. Regardless of the primary’s results, the presidential candidate will be elected in July 2024. Yet with MORENA likely keeping the presidency and possibly Congress, some wonder whether Mexico is returning to an era of one-party democracy. While there are some indications that MORENA can lead Mexico without meaningful opposition for decades, there are several questions about whether the party can successfully be in power without AMLO as its head.

Mexico’s Democratic Moment

Mexico has had a long-experienced history of authoritarian rule, whether openly so or not. In the twentieth century, this took the form of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which was founded to preserve the power structure that emerged after the turmoil in the 1910s. While the country was officially a democracy, PRI’s monopolistic control of Mexico’s political institutions remained strong until the late 1980s, thanks to the party’s repression of dissidents, co-option of interest groups, and electoral fraud. Their grasp of the country fell only due to economic turmoil starting in the 1970s and a split between the party’s left-wing base and its neoliberal elite. Mexico’s democratic moment was short-lived, as the rise of competitive elections spawned political violence that plagues the country today.

Furthermore, the administrations of Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon of the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), the conservative party, proved to be no less capable of promoting social equity or clamping down on corruption than their PRI predecessors. With the failure of the PAN to live up to this moment, many Mexicans became disillusioned about democracy, turning to AMLO and his left-wing, anti-establishment MORENA party. In 2018, MORENA won a historic victory, as AMLO was the first candidate in thirty years to win with an absolute majority, cementing both his presidency and his party’s dominance.

Can MORENA be the new PRI?

On the surface, MORENA appears capable of re-establishing Mexico as a one-party democracy for two main reasons.

First, the opposition remains fractured and discredited after decades of misrule from both the PAN and the PRI. While both parties cooperated under the alliance Va Por Mexico and had some success in the 2021 midterm elections, their coalition wasn’t enough to prevent MORENA from winning four gubernatorial elections last year. Moreover, the coalition could split the vote if the parties ran separate candidates for the presidency. But another reason is that MORENA seems to have captured most political institutions, solidifying its control over the government. This can be seen partly by the party using the military and national guard to provide security and social services. Additionally, a recent election law passed by the party in the Mexican Congress cut the national electoral institute budget and election oversight. Most Mexicans do not approve of these reforms, and the country was awash in protests to prevent the law from being passed to no avail. Without a strong bastion of political or bureaucratic opposition, MORENA is at the cusp of having a monopoly of political power for decades.

Second, as powerful as MORENA is today, whether the party can sustain its power permanently remains an open question. It has failed to deliver a new era of peace, prosperity, and order to Mexico, despite the lofty promises made in its foundation. AMLO’s proclaimed “Fourth Transformation” has been a series of contradictory policies that haven’t delivered the robust economic growth seen from 1950–1980, or become mired in bureaucratic boondoggles, such as the Maya Train or energy reform. Some of his changes will indeed take longer to bear fruit, such as the recent nationalization of Mexico’s lithium reserves, though MORENA’s legitimacy will corrode if they cannot provide faster economic growth.

MORENA without AMLO?

For now, MORENA’s failures haven’t dampened its popularity, thanks to the charisma and popularity of AMLO. Yet his enduring popularity masks an issue of whether the party can succeed without him at its head. Political parties that depend on an individual for power have difficulty surviving without their charismatic leader, such as UKIP’s Nigel Farage in the UK. The only way parties can survive is through a measure of institutionalization, which develops talent through the party and provides a measure of political cohesion. The PRI was adept at this, as there was massive coordination and organization in the party from the federal government to the municipalities. So far, AMLO hasn’t created much of an organization within MORENA, as he made the party into his electoral campaigning with almost no consideration for the party after his departure. With AMLO’s successors experiencing ongoing criminal issues or lacking charisma, MORENA’s standing power will likely not last long after its leader’s departure.

If MORENA wishes to sustain itself in power, it must develop a campaigning and political organization separate from AMLO’s personality to survive. Unfortunately for the party, AMLO has demonstrated remarkably little interest in supporting a political movement that he is not leading. This bodes poorly for AMLO’s successor, as that candidate will struggle to develop his (or her) own independent administration. In other words, AMLO will not really leave the presidency—he will instead allow his successor to wear the sash while he remains in the background. This bodes poorly for Mexico—historically, such arrangements do not last long, providing further political instability in a country already awash in poverty and violence.

Heberto Limas-Villers is a management consultant living in Washington, DC. He was previously a graduate fellow at the National Defense Industrial Association focusing on naval policy and the defense industrial base.