Today, Sunday 6 June, elections are held in Mexico to renew the Chamber of Deputies, 15 of the 32 governors of the federal states and thousands of local offices. These are important elections, because the success of the policies of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador depends on their result, a left-wing populist elected in 2018 and harshly criticized in recent years for his authoritarian style of government, which nevertheless guaranteed him high approval ratings among the population.
They are also elections marked by the highest degree of political violence in recent times: 89 politicians have been killed since September, almost all candidates for various public offices, largely at the hands of groups of drug traffickers and organized crime.
Sunday’s elections in Mexico are quite similar to the midterm elections in the United States (the Mexican political system was modeled on the American one, with a few exceptions): in the middle of the president’s term the Parliament is renewed (in this case only the Chamber ) along with numerous other public offices. In all, around 20,000 representatives will be elected, mostly linked to local politics as mayors and city councilors. According to Los Angeles Times this makes Sunday’s elections the largest in the history of Mexico, at least in terms of the number of offices involved.
The election campaign was monopolized by two themes: violence and the controversial figure of López Obrador.
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In Mexico, the annual rate of homicides caused by organized crime has been very high for decades, but the numbers of deaths and victims have increased enormously since 2006, when the government sent the army to numerous cities declaring open war on drug trafficking. Since then, all the presidents who have succeeded one another (Felipe Calderón, center-right, who started the war on drug trafficking; Enrique Peña Nieto, center, and finally López Obrador) promised to put an end to the violence, without success.
López Obrador’s strategy against violence – reducing military pressure and attempting compromise and criminal recovery operations – has so far failed rather blatantly. In Mexico, the homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants, which was 8 before the war on drug trafficking began (there are still many, in Italy the homicides are 0.5 per 100,000 inhabitants) in 2020 was 27, one of the highest ever, and this despite the restrictive measures imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Violence against politicians and candidates is also the worst in decades: according to the Etellekt study center, 89 politicians have been murdered since September last year, while according to the government since April, that is, since the formal opening of the electoral campaign, they are about 150 candidates needed an escort because they had received death threats.
Among the candidates killed is Abel Murrieta, former prosecutor of the state of Sonora, in the north of the country, and candidate for mayor in Ciudad Obregón, shot dead by two men in broad daylight, while he was handing out leaflets in the street. In his latest election message, the day before his death, he urged his fellow citizens to “not be afraid” and said he would fight the criminals who are now “the masters of our streets”.
The death threats have prompted dozens and possibly hundreds of candidates to withdraw: over 60 candidates for mayor have done so, plus many others who competed for lesser positions. Among them is Cristina Delgado, a candidate for mayor of the city of Santa Lucía del Camino, in the state of Oaxaca, in the south of the country, who retired earlier this year after receiving numerous death threats, including a message left on the town square ordering her to leave Santa Lucía, accompanied by a severed pig’s head.
Violence against politicians is nothing new, but it is on the rise: in 2015, in the previous midterm elections, 61 candidates and politicians were killed in the nine months before the vote, according to Etellekt.
The murders of candidates and politicians in Mexico in recent months also have some characteristics: they did not pay much attention to the parties (both members of the majority and the opposition were targeted) and concentrated in Mexican states where drug trafficking groups are stronger and have greater economic interests: Veracruz, Oaxaca, Puebla, Guerrero, Estado de México and Michoacán.
The most recent killings, violence and threats have concerned only local politics. In other electoral campaigns there had been several assassinations of national politicians: in 1994 Luis Donaldo Colosio, a favorite candidate for the presidency, was killed; in 2010 the candidate for governor of the state of Tamaulipas, Rodolfo Torre Cantú, was killed, along with four people of his staff. In the last year, on the other hand, mainly candidates for mayor and other lower positions have been threatened and killed, often in rather small towns.
This is because, unlike a few years ago, when a few and large drug trafficking cartels divided up the territory of Mexico and kept the smallest groups under their power, today the situation of organized crime in the country has largely disintegrated. Large cartels, such as the Sinaloa cartel and the Jalisco Nueva Generación cartel, still exist, but their control of the territory is not as generalized as it once was: according to government estimates, about 200 groups of drug traffickers are active in Mexico today, many of them which are small independent groups that have deeply rooted criminal interests in specific places.
These small and local groups have no interest in influencing national politics, but they often find themselves at the center of very fierce struggles for the control of drug trafficking routes and strategic territories for their activities, and therefore instead of bribing a minister they prefer to threaten , persecute or even kill candidates for mayor and other offices who do not want to cooperate with them.
Falko Ernst, an analyst with the International Crisis Group study center, told al Wall Street Journal that it is not excluded that some of these killings were commissioned to criminal groups by rival candidates.
According to President López Obrador, violence (political and otherwise) and the very high murder rate in Mexico are the legacy of the “neoliberal” policies of previous governments. López Obrador, a former trade unionist, attributes most of the adverse events that have affected his government to neoliberalism: from the poor economic results to the mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic, which in Mexico has caused one of the highest death tolls in relation to the population of the world.
Sunday’s elections do not concern him personally: the next presidential elections will be in 2024, and just like the president of the United States, that of Mexico is very difficult to remove while he is in office. The results of the Chamber of Deputies, however, could determine the rest of his mandate: López Obrador’s party, MORENA, is given the lead in the polls and should get an absolute majority, but would need a two-thirds majority to be able to approve the major structural reforms wanted by the president, such as the re-nationalization of the oil sector.
In his first three years in office, López Obrador was very popular in his homeland, with an approval rate still above 60 percent, which in the last few weeks alone dropped to 57 percent. Instead, it has been heavily criticized by the business community and by most international observers.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador (Hector Vivas / Getty Images)
Among the reasons for his success are the austere style (no one, not even his worst opponents, has ever dreamed of accusing him of corruption), an empathic way of relating with the voters (which sometimes however results in verbose: he holds long monologues two-three hours on live TV, everyday) and various policies to support the poorest sections of the population, such as a major increase in minimum pensions.
Among the main criticisms addressed to him are those relating to various controversial economic initiatives. López Obrador is in fact a nostalgic of the period in which the extraction of oil supported the Mexican economy and a generous welfare, and he has focused a lot on the development and nationalization of hydrocarbons, snubbing and in some cases penalizing renewables. The president is also criticized for his populist style of government, which risks worryingly leading to authoritarianism.
López Obrador is a decision-maker: according to Mexican newspapers, his favorite exclamation during meetings with ministers is “¡Cállate!”, Which means “Shut up!”. Above all, he is very annoyed by criticism and opposition. During his river press conferences he publicly targets political enemies and journalists who criticize him, often accusing them of being enemies of the people, corrupt or mafia.
He tried to undermine several democratic institutions: he forced a judge who was critical of him to resign and he passed a law to extend the mandate of a Supreme Court judge in his favor. To get some controversial decisions approved, such as the closure of the Mexico City airport expansion works when they were half completed, he called arbitrary referendums and used the favorable result to argue that he had the people on his side. A few months ago he even proposed putting all five presidents who preceded him to trial.
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According to some analysts, it is not excluded even that López Obrador will try to change the constitution and obtain a second presidential term: the Mexican political system, as opposed to that of the United States, to prevent the president from accumulating too much power, prevents his re-election, and none of López Obrador’s predecessors ever attempted to transgress.
L’Economist, last week, argued that López Obrador is dangerous for Mexican democracy and “hungry for power”, and that the opposition should unite to oppose him in every way (“It’s propaganda,” he replied). Much will depend on Sunday’s elections, especially the result in the Chamber of Deputies.