Mexican Democracy

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In July 2018, I was part of the UK delegation to observe the Mexican electoral process, organised by the Mexican pro-transparency network RUCD (Red Universitaria y Ciudadana por la Democracia) and the London-based group Justice Mexico Now. I wrote up the experience in a diary blog piece for the London Review of Books blog, and later published a more reflective account on the Pluto Press blog. Both pieces were extracted from my attempts to think through the experience, and should form one short, continuous article of 2,300 words. Here it is (with blurry pictures taken in late June and early July 2018, though none of people actually voting, for obvious reasons). 

On Sunday 1 July 2018, Mexico held its largest ever elections, which returned a landslide victory for president elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or ‘AMLO’ as he is more commonly known. His party Morena, and coalition, Juntos Haremos Historia (‘together we will make history’), won majorities across parliament, senate, mayoralties, and local authorities. AMLO took 53% of the presidential vote, on a turnout of over 60%. Morena, which is the Spanish word for ‘brown’ as well as the acronym for Movimiento Regeneración Nacional, now hold 308 of 500 congress seats, and a slightly smaller majority in the senate (69 of 128 senators). In both houses, the gender balance is close to 50-50, although none of the major parties are led by a woman.

The importance of this result for Mexican politics and society can hardly be overstated. AMLO, the perennial opposition candidate to the ruling two-party state system comprised of the PRI and the PAN, seems finally to have broken through. People refer to the PRI and the PAN with the dismissive compound ‘PRIAN’, in acknowledgement of the way elections have been sewn up one way or the other since the liberal centre-right Partido Acción National (PAN) first loosened the Partido Revolucionario Institutional (PRI)’s 80-year reign over Mexican politics and official culture in 2000. AMLO broke away from the PRI in 1988 to form the PRD (Partido de la Revolución Democrática), and in one sense this is the moment AMLO himself and the Mexican left more broadly have been working towards for decades.

Election advertising for MORENA / Juntos Haremos Historia

I observed the electoral process as part of a delegation from the UK, organised by the Mexican pro-transparency network RUCD (Red Universitaria y Ciudadana por la Democracia) and the London-based group Justice Mexico Now. The delegation, headed by University of Sheffield academics Peter Watt and Rupert Knox, comprised representatives of trade unions, activists, academics, a journalist and a member of parliament. International delegations, of which the UK’s was the largest, monitored the elections along with thousands of Mexican nationals concerned about the endemic fraud, violence and impunity that characterised the electoral process: 152 candidates were murdered during the most violent campaign in Mexico’s recent history. Our presence in Mexico could have been seen as symbolic rather than efficacious. But the visibility of an international community concerned about human rights and democratic transparency in Mexico played, perhaps, a small but significant part in the ensuring these elections were cleaner than expected, despite the high levels of violence leading up to polling day.

Mexico losing to Brazil the day after the elections

In the check-in queue at Heathrow on Wednesday 27 June, all the talk was of politics and football; the AeroMéxico staff wore green football shirts in support of the Mexican national team in the World Cup. While waiting I chatted with a dentist from Matamoros, Tamaulipas, on the Texas border. I told her why I was going to Mexico. ‘Pues por favor que observen bien, que no quiero que gane’, she replied (‘observe well then, I don’t want him to win’). ‘He’, it goes without saying, refers to AMLO. Why not? Because he is too old, she said, not tech-savvy, doesn’t speak other languages (‘when he goes to Canada they’ll make fun of him’), and too nationalistic. But AMLO’s brand of protectionist nationalism is fundamentally distinct from that which currently holds sway in ‘El Norte’, because it is articulated from a position of relative weakness. He looks to Benito Juárez, Salvador Allende and Lázaro Cárdenas for examples of socialist-internationalist nationalisms. AMLO’s robustness in his projected relations with the United States was one of the factors that garnered support for his campaign; for once, he said, Mexico wouldn’t just let US capital produce and export at will. That will be easier said than done.

Ricardo Anaya Cortés, the PAN candidate that she supported, would have continued to court international capital had he won. But he scores on the other points. He speaks French and English. As the youthful neoliberal pretender, his candidacy embodied these qualities as signifiers for an image of Mexico’s techno-hip modernity. AMLO wants to build more oil refineries and isn’t interested in wind farms, she continued, when Mexico should be going green. There are nearly no recycling bins and very little in the way of an anti-waste culture.

These are good arguments, and I certainly wasn’t going to defend the socialist-statist approach to industry and fossil fuels. But really, she continued, she could never support AMLO because ‘communism doesn’t work’, the old refrain. She returned several times to the familiar discourse of ‘hard work’ in support of her arguments in favour of private wealth, underscored by the old rhetoric of the undeserving. ‘If you’ve worked hard others shouldn’t get something for free’, and so on. ‘I didn’t go to a good school, but I applied myself’. I try to gently suggest that the ground when the starting gun was fired might not have been completely level, but don’t get very far. Time to check in.

Atizapán de Zaragoza


On election day, we were advised to look out for people trying to vote twice, or ferrying voters to polling stations, or taking pictures of their ballot papers (a form of proof if they’d sold their votes). In many parts of the country social security payments are dependent on political support; people not voting the right way face destitution. But fear, coercion and bribery did not work on the same scale as they have in the past. Insecurity, above all, appears to have compelled people to vote for something different. The polling stations I observed were in Atizapán de Zaragoza, a municipality in the State of Mexico, a sprawling conurbation of 16 million people north-west of Mexico City. Traditionally a PRI rotten borough, on 1 July it voted Morena.

PRI propaganda outside a casilla

An estimated 31,000 boletas electorales (voting cards) had been stolen up to 30 June, and the Electoral Tribunal had ruled that the independent candidate ‘El Bronco’ should be allowed to stand, despite having forged a significant proportion of his supporting signatures. There were serious incidents in Puebla days after the vote, but it was difficult to know what was true amongst the static of Twitter. The main irregularities observed by the delegation were polling stations opening late – in some cases by up to an hour and a half – which denied people the chance to vote. There was a serious issue with the casillas especiales – polling stations for those not registered in a municipality – which were massively undersupplied with voting cards, disenfranchising more mobile sectors of the electorate. We reported illegal PRI propaganda outside our first polling station, fixed to a car which had moved by the time we came out.

At an incredibly busy polling station in a small courtyard, one of the voting booths was turned round so the voters’ preferences were clearly visible to anyone walking by. Seven thousand people were registered to vote there. A taco stand and an ice-cream vendor outside were making the most of the market-day atmosphere. In the confusion, we were frequently approached by voters who took our clipboards, tabards and lanyards as signs that we would be able to help them find the right queue.

Jesus Solano and Jenny (Brigada 11)

At 8 p.m. the official Instituto Nacional Electoral exit polls came out. Whispers went round and people started heading for the Zócalo, Mexico City’s main square. Around 11 p.m., AmLo arrived; we were still finishing up our count and missed his address to thousands of supporters. I caught up with the crowds an hour or so later, as the carnival mood spread through the city centre and paralysed the traffic. ‘¡Sí se pudo!’ (‘Yes he could!’) people chanted. The ‘Cielito Lindo’ was being sung everywhere. As a Mexican friend said two days later, people were so used to being on the streets in protest that it felt strange to be out there celebrating.

The Centro Historico after the exit polls were announced; AMLO supporters converge on the Zócalo

Almost half the electorate on 1 July was millennial, and as expected the youth vote broke overwhelmingly for AMLO. As with Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, the apparent paradox of a perennial challenger from the old left receiving the youth vote might be put down to young people preferring policy over image. They are tired of violence and corruption, and see AMLO as the only option not tainted by graft. We stayed for the count in a polling station in Mexico City, which went on until around midnight. Young scrutineers, many of them women, double and triple-checked the count, as well as the procedures for announcing the result and for packing up the ballots securely.

During the campaign, memes and songs played a significant role. Almudena Ortiz Monasterio’s viral hit ‘Niña Bien’, for instance, is spoken by a ‘niña bien’, a rich girl, who’s going to do the unthinkable:

 Aunque sea una niña bien

Voy a votar por ya sabes quien

(‘Although I’m a rich girl,

I’m going to vote for you-know-who’)

During the campaign, #YaSabesQuien, ‘you-know-who’, became the unspeakable signifier for the seismic reconfiguration of the party system observed by the pollster Jorge Buendía. Like ‘AMLO’, #YaSabesQuien is another strategic way of not quite naming the inconceivable. It almost seems as though these nominal evasions channelled the subconscious of the political class: its disbelieving displacements found themselves expressed through the discourse that contested its hegemony by meme, hashtag, music video.

At a press conference for the networks that had brought together the delegations of observers on 2 July, the day after the vote, it was stressed that AMLO had won so decisively not only for his stance against corruption, violence and impunity, but also because he was the only candidate to talk about popular sovereignty. Unlike the fear-driven campaigns of his opponents, AMLO had proposed government for and by the people, a message which had triumphed against the entire apparatus of the Mexican state, media and official culture.

PAN advertising in La Roma before the election

Once the new executive takes office on 1 December, however, he and they will have to work with those institutional structures. Morena’s majority across congress, senate and local authorities means it suddenly wields a great deal of power with few constitutional checks and balances. The temptations of absolute executive power need to be resisted. In order to pursue corruption as promised, the connections between political institutions and the cartels will have to be traced at the level of financial transactions. The previous two PRIAN governments preferred to beef up the state’s military presence rather than ask difficult questions liable to rebound on themselves, which only intensified the violence. But in order to be able to carry out this kind of investigation the public prosecutor’s office would have to be split from its politicised role as one of the governing party’s tools for settling scores with enemies. That is a considerable amount of power to willingly give up.

As congress was sworn in on 1 September, the chant ‘es un honor estar con Obrador’ (‘it’s an honour to be with Obrador’ rang round the parliament building. The Morena coalition is fewer than 30 congress seats shy of the ‘qualified’ majority needed for constitutional changes; in the senate they are 16 short. With the electoral landscape in flux, the prospect of further alliance-building and major constitutional reforms looks possible. AMLO has signalled that he will re-separate the Secretary of Public Security and the Ministry of the Interior, which were amalgamated by the last PRI government; make it possible to try a sitting president; and reduce salaries across the judicial and executive branches of government. The longer-term legislative agenda will include education reform, including the way teachers are evaluated.


By some accounts, AMLO has moved to the right in terms of macroeconomic policy and may take a more conciliatory approach to corporate interests than parts of his base would like. AMLO’s gestural politics so far has echoed José Alberto “Pepe” Mujica’s in Uruguay: he has refused to live in the presidential palace, which he has vowed to turn into a public park, and he plans to sell the presidential jet. In policy terms he is perhaps more likely to emulate Lula in Brazil, essentially maintaining fiscal discipline while ameliorating poverty and inequality. But the decision to allow a popular vote on the New International Airport for Mexico City (announced by former president Enrique Peña Nieto in September 2014), is cause for optimism. The vote, held on 30 October 2018, was in favour of cancellation. But while a formal decision remains to be made, construction is ongoing. The project is contentious partly because the airport is planned to be built on the Zona Federal del Lago de Texcoco (referred to as the ZFLT, part of the dry lake bed of Lake Texcoco, which once filled the whole of the Valley of Mexico before the Spanish drained it and unwittingly established the geological foundations of Mexico City’s vulnerability to earthquakes). The ZFLT is the only remaining part of the lake, and is in theory protected by a 1971 presidential decree that centres the environmental regeneration of the area, and the metropolitan region more broadly, around the preservation of this wetland space. How far it will be possible to push back against the financial interests vested in such large-scale infrastructure projects remains to be seen.

Indeed, it is hard to see how he will be able to effect radical economic change within NAFTA’s neoliberal framework: although it is also far from clear what the trading block will look like after its recent revamp, with Canada’s involvement uncertain. Peña Nieto toasted the new deal announced in late August with ‘a glass of tequila’, but Morena will be responsible for the consequences. It will need to strike a delicate balance on trade policy between members of its coalition, particularly around energy and sovereignty. The future cabinet looks to be more business-orientated than the left of the coalition will be comfortable with, while still troubling foreign investors with its rhetorical commitment to socialism.

Daniel Eltringham, July-October 2018.



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