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Thursday, June 20, 2024

Mexico elects AMLO protege Claudia Sheinbaum

Mexico is poised to elect its first woman president today, likely climate scientist and former Mexico City mayor Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo

But as the protégée of current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, she hasn’t significantly differentiated herself from the populist leader, especially in the areas where AMLO, as the current president is nicknamed, has failed to deliver — including Mexico’s astronomical homicide rate, crime due to narco-trafficking, and government corruption. Now the question is to what extent Sheinbaum will be able to make progress on these concerns while operating under the shadow of her mentor.

Sheinbaum’s early career was as an environmental engineer and climate scientist; she was part of a Nobel Prize-winning team behind a report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007. She started her political career as AMLO’s environmental minister during his time as Mexico City’s mayor in the early 2000s and later served as the capital’s mayor herself. But during AMLO’s tenure, she’s been in her mentor’s shadow in terms of policy, especially as the current administration’s investments in fossil fuel contradict the urgent need to switch to renewable energy — and drain the administration’s coffers.

Sheinbaum is outpolling her closest competitor, businesswoman and former Senator Xóchitl Gálvez, by around 20 points leading up to Sunday’s election. Gálvez is backed by a three-party coalition that includes El Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and El Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), which controlled Mexico for seven decades before AMLO was elected in 2018.

If polls bear out, once Sheinbaum is in office she’ll have plenty to tackle. She’s promised at times to pursue a more market-friendly approach than AMLO, and at others to take his policy to the “second floor.” The question will be: While riding on AMLO’s popularity and likely juggling his ongoing influence, how will she lead Mexico if and when she, not her mentor, is the president?

Sheinbaum has campaigned on AMLO’s popularity

Sheinbaum isn’t the first hand-picked successor in Mexican politics; it’s a common feature at the national level for presidents, who serve one term, to have a protégé selected, Joy Kathryn Langston, a political science professor at the College of Mexico’s Center for International Studies, told Vox. 

Mexico’s economy is performing well by some metrics, and AMLO has expanded the welfare state, which has helped Sheinbaum and the Morena party she represents — while also stymieing her ability or desire to come out of AMLO’s shadow, at least while on the campaign trail. 

AMLO’s policies have been significantly focused on the economy, as Juan David Rojas wrote in the journal American Affairs in 2022. Investing in domestic oil production, curbing government spending, and cracking down on petrochemical theft have helped shore up foreign investment in the form of national bonds. The peso is at a 20-year peak, the best-performing major currency so far this year according to Bloomberg, due to high interest rates, extremely high remittances from the US, and the possibility that companies could build factories in Mexico to be closer to their US consumer base.

None of that is likely to change too much under Sheinbaum. “It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Sheinbaum will be a continuation of the status quo,” Christian Lawrence, a strategist at Rabobank, told Bloomberg in March.

While that’s important on the world stage, AMLO’s social welfare policies have more direct impact on Mexicans’ everyday lives. 

Social welfare spending tripled during AMLO’s first five years in office, reaching $24 billion last year. That has boosted his popularity among the working class, particularly when combined with his enmity toward Mexico’s political and corporate classes. Sheinbaum polls especially high among voters who receive or have family members who receive welfare benefits, beating Gálvez by some 40 points, an April poll in the newspaper El Financiero found. 

The impact of social welfare spending has been significant, at least politically speaking. Though not as far-reaching as past welfare programs, the pension for Mexico’s elderly population — Indigenous people over 65 and non-Indigenous people over 68 — has been extremely popular, even winning over people in states like Oaxaca, long the domain of the PRI. AMLO has also increased the minimum wage and proposed a universal pension program, which would be the first in the world to pay people equal to their full salaries after they retire. 

AMLO has also increased infrastructure spending, including a new airport in Oaxaca, a state-run airline, a tourist train called the Tren Maya, and many other civilian and military infrastructure projects. In some ways, it’s been a boon, providing better jobs for people in Mexico’s poorer southern states in particular. But there are also complaints that the projects are rushed and shoddy, incomplete, over budget, environmentally destructive, and overused military and security resources, which prevent them from fighting violent crime. His policy of pouring money into PEMEX, Mexico’s state-run petroleum agency, will also likely be a major debt burden for Sheinbaum to deal with.

Still, many aspects of the spending push have been politically popular — so much so that if Mexico’s constitution would let him run again, AMLO would likely win. Sheinbaum will be the next best thing, many voters seem to have decided. But without AMLO’s signature populist charisma, she will have to focus on delivering real results, especially in the places where AMLO has failed, like crime and corruption. 

“Whether [Sheinbaum] will change is obviously impossible to say,” Langston said. “You can only base your predictions or my predictions on what she has stated publicly, which is that she will not radically change the major money-guzzling budget-busting policies of the last six years.” But eventually, that will hamper the state’s ability to continue the social welfare spending that is AMLO’s calling card.

Sheinbaum may need to introduce some unpopular policies, such as increasing taxes, in order to keep those popular programs afloat.

But Sheinbaum faces many major hurdles

Sheinbaum — or whoever wins today — will face major challenges once she gets into office, including environmental issues exacerbated by climate change, high homicide rates, and eventually, the economic burden of AMLO’s welfare spending.

And some of those challenges will be hard to face from a policy perspective, thanks to her predecessor. “[AMLO] determined the political agenda for the next two years, even before he left office,” Langston said. “He did that in roughly between January and March, by placing all of these incredibly complex policies and reforms, many of which can damage democracy, putting them in under a new legislative bill.” That fact, combined with the likelihood that Morena will not achieve a majority in the congress following today’s election, could also make it difficult for Sheinbaum to enact her own policy priorities.

Mexico is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in Latin America and the Caribbean, and is vulnerable to extreme weather events and coastal flooding, which affects the coastal tourist industry. The overall tourist industry accounted for 8 percent of Mexico’s GDP before the Covid-19 pandemic, and nearly 6 percent of the workforce was engaged in the tourism industry, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 

One primary question outside observers have about Sheinbaum is whether she’ll follow her scientific training when it comes to climate change policies. She’s been fairly mum on the topic throughout the campaign, and her record on climate change policy as mayor of Mexico City is somewhat mixed. During her tenure, the capital city’s buses went electric, and she started work on the world’s largest urban solar panel factory. But she also fast-tracked construction of a highway bridge through Mexico City’s protected wetlands before an environmental impact report was completed. 

As president, Sheinbaum has pledged to invest in other green energy initiatives and electrify bus services across the nation. And supporters say that science will lead her climate change initiatives — not her mentor’s construction projects or petrochemical development.  

The cartel crisis has also continued under AMLO, and in some ways has gotten more entrenched, as Associated Press reporter Megan Janetsky told Vox’s Sean Rameswaram

“Under AMLO, cartels and other criminal groups have expanded in power,” Janetsky said. “Extortion has expanded. These groups have grown more complex to the point where oftentimes they’re compared more to giant illegal companies that are constantly ahead of authorities in this cat-and-mouse game, because they’re warring with each other.”

While AMLO did put an end to Mexico’s drug war, which started under former President Felipe Calderón and arguably exacerbated the violence associated with with the cartels, his “hugs, not bullets” policy (meant to target systemic issues fueling the violence) has not resulted in a significant drop in homicides; Mexico still sees about 30,000 crime-related deaths each year. An average of one journalist is killed each week, and in the embattled southern state of Chiapas, 14 political candidates have been killed by the cartels during this election season.

Sheinbaum has said that she will coordinate closely with the US to reduce narco-trafficking, human trafficking, arms flows, and money laundering. But there’s a lack of clarity around exactly how she plans to stanch the immense violence, which includes forced disappearances and extortion. Like AMLO, she has pledged to continue to address the systemic issues like poverty and lack of education and job opportunities that make criminal enterprises appealing. “We are going to rescue young people from the clutches of criminal gangs, and we’re going to give them support,” she said in a May 19 debate. She has also promised to bolster the National Guard, giving it more officers and surveillance capabilities. But that could also increase the militarization of policing and fighting crime, a significant human rights concern.

For Sheinbaum, actually governing the country will likely be much more difficult than winning the election, as AMLO leaves behind a complex governing legacy.  And without AMLO’s personal appeal, she will likely have to deliver — and sacrifice — in ways he couldn’t or wouldn’t.

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