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.