On July 1, 2018, as many Americans reluctantly begin to think about the forthcoming midterm elections, and with the primary season in full swing, another non-U.S. election will occupy the minds of policymakers in Washington and a number of state capitals. On that day, Mexicans go to the polls to elect a new president, 128 federal senators, five hundred federal deputies and nine state governors, as well as mayors and state congressional representatives. For most Americans, this election will be just another item in their news feed, but it may also turn out to be a more significant political juncture for the United States—more so than anything else that might happen in 2018.
Though Mexico has been in the headlines in the United States for the past two years, first as an issue in the 2016 election campaign and then as grist for the mill in the Trump administration’s trade agenda, most Americans remain shockingly unaware of the importance of the bilateral relationship that the United States maintains with its southern neighbor. Although it is true that there is a substantial trade deficit with Mexico, it is the United States’ third largest trade partner (in 2016 this amounted to almost $600 billion), the second largest importer of American goods and services, and it is the first or second export market for twenty-nine states. The United States has substantial surpluses in the bilateral energy and services trade. Mexico is also a crucial element in the North American manufacturing platform that guarantees the competitiveness of thousands of American firms, and is directly tied to almost five million U.S. jobs. Additionally, in recent years Mexico has become a critical partner in protecting the United States from terrorist threats, as Mexican and U.S. officials have worked ever more closely on intelligence and information sharing.
What is most surprising for many people is Mexico’s changing connection to U.S. immigration. Although Mexico was the largest source of illegal immigration flows during the first decade of the twenty-first century, there is now net negative Mexican migration, meaning that there are now more Mexicans leaving the United States than arriving. Furthermore, Mexico has become a reliable and crucial partner in controlling flows of Central American migrants: for the last two years the Mexican government has deported more Central Americans during their journey across Mexico than the United States has from American territory.
For all these reasons, July’s election will have far-reaching implications for the United States. The next government in Mexico will determine the extent of ongoing cooperation with the United States and whether or not the friendly nature of bilateral relations will continue. Although bilateral affairs have been transformed over the past thirty years from enmity to friendship and partnership, continuity is far from guaranteed. While it is true that the majority of the contenders profess an amicable approach to Washington, the current front-runner has a complicated relationship with the United States and is perhaps the most stridently nationalist.
Although polls show that Mexicans are far from convinced about the benefits of democratic politics for their lives, they are nonetheless motivated by a number of issues in this electoral cycle. Disappointing economic growth, a seemingly perennial issue, combined with a dramatically worsening public security situation and rising levels of violence due to the drug conflict in many parts of the country, are pushing Mexicans to seek new policy ideas. Trump and the NAFTA negotiations have raised the profile of the bilateral relationship and the specter of anti-Americanism in an election for the first time in decades. But perhaps corruption is the most important issue for voters this time around. The current government of President Enrique Peña Nieto is immensely unpopular and has been hit by a number of corruption scandals, including an ongoing investigation into the connections between Odebrecht and the national oil company, Pemex. Surveys have identified fighting corruption as a policy priority for Mexicans, although most have little faith that politicians will ever be able to break their dependence on what they see as a well-established system of kickbacks and payoffs.
One candidate in particular has seized on the salience of this issue. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, or AMLO as he is known to almost everyone in Mexico, has been one of the most recognizable political figures in Mexico for almost eighteen years. As leader of the leftist PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) he was elected mayor of Mexico City in 2000, he used his platform as the head of government in one of the world’s largest cities to proselytize his message of change for the country, and narrowly missed out on winning the presidency in 2006—an election that he still claims was stolen from him by electoral fraud. AMLO then proceeded to set himself up as the “legitimate president” of Mexico, occupying downtown Mexico City and challenging the credibility of President Felipe Calderon. AMLO’s massive public events in the center of the city, often attracting hundreds of thousands of fanatical followers, became a regular feature of political life in the country. He ran again in 2012, coming in second again, but this time by a much wider margin to the winner, Peña Nieto. In 2013, AMLO broke with the PRD and created a new party, MORENA (Movement for National Regeneration), which performed well in the midterm elections in 2015 and is now building its national presence ahead of the July elections.
AMLO remains an enigma to many: he is most commonly portrayed as a “firebrand” radical populist who will upset the established political and economic order in Mexico. However, his previous policy experience, particularly as mayor of Mexico City, showed him to be a pragmatist who made important improvements to the city’s infrastructure and social security system. In fact, rather than his radicalism, it may be his lack of depth on contemporary policy issues that presents the biggest threat to Mexico. This was seen clearly in a lackluster performance at a Wilson Center event in Washington in the Fall of 2017 and recently in a much criticized suggestion that he would offer amnesty to organized crime bosses if he wins the presidency. AMLO supporters, however, openly recognize that he is not a policy man, but rather a passionate leader who speaks for the weak, vulnerable and dispossessed.
Running a distant second at this point in the polls and representing the current ruling PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) is the former finance secretary, Jose Antonio Meade. Meade is among the best qualified candidates ever to run for the Mexican Presidency: in addition to his role as Secretary of Finance, he has held cabinet posts for energy, social development and foreign affairs across two different governments of different political persuasions and has a PhD from Yale. Meade is almost universally recognized as a dedicated public servant, talented policy maker, charming conversationalist and sophisticated thinker, and he has the backing of the PRI, which changed its internal rules to allow a non-party member such as himself to be the party’s candidate. As such, he has many of the qualities that should make him a viable contender for the presidency.
But Meade must overcome three major obstacles that block his path to the presidency. The first is that he is clearly associated with the current government and especially President Peña Nieto, who has record low approval ratings for a Mexican president. The unpopularity of the current administration is a major problem for Meade and he must try to distinguish himself from its policies and personalities without alienating the party base. Secondly, having never run for elected office, Meade has not spent any time building his own brand, and is still largely unknown among the electorate, despite his impressive record in two cabinets. This means that he has the opportunity to build a positive image with the electorate, but he must start early in 2018 to gain momentum if he is to stand a chance of catching AMLO.
The third serious contender for the presidency is Ricardo Anaya Cortes, former president of the center-right PAN (National Action Party), which has opted to ally with the leftist PRD party and Movimiento Ciudadano, a smaller party that has shifted its alliances in recent years. Anaya will be only thirty-nine years old when the election is held, but he has already been a major figure in national politics for six years. He is smart, he is a strategic thinker, and he hails from Queretaro in the PAN heartland of the Bajio, which is the plateau to the north of Mexico City. The PAN appeared to be well-positioned to challenge AMLO in 2018 until a very public dispute between Anaya and Margarita Zavala, the wife of former President Felipe Calderon, resulted in Zavala quitting the PAN and taking around 7 percent of voters with her, thus seriously handicapping both her and Anaya’s bids for the presidency. Thus far Anaya has been unable to generate broad support among the Mexican electorate, but the campaign season kickoff in March will offer him (and Meade) the opportunity to take on the front-runner.