Mexico’s presidential campaigns officially started March 30, but the frontrunner has been competing for the country’s top post for more than 12 years. A large portion of polls give Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, a formidable double-digit lead as candidates hunker down for what’s promising to be a dirty fight to the July 1 finish. Does that kind of poll lead mean we can call it at this point? Not necessarily, as past elections show. Mexico has no runoff and the last two elections were won with less than 40 percent of the vote, so divided electorates and undecideds have a major role to play in this race. Still, widespread discontent among voters is playing in AMLO’s favor: he’s painted himself as an outsider candidate at a point when 4 out of 5 Mexicans feel the country is on the wrong path.
But, given that there are more seats up for grabs in this election than any other in Mexico’s history, what’s at stake goes beyond the presidency. Here’s a look at the election basics, as well as profiles of the presidential candidates and coalitions. AS/COA Online will be exploring different aspects of the race—from voter profiles to top issues—so check out our 2018 Election Guide for more updates on this highly competitive race.
The race by the numbers and a shift on reelection
In July, more than 89 million voters will be eligible to select the next president for a six-year term known as a sexenio. There’s no presidential reelection in Mexico. They’ll also see a complete turnover of Mexico’s 128 senators and 500 deputies in the country’s bicameral Congress. In the case of the Senate, legislators are elected to six-year terms, with voters in the 32 states electing 64 senators by relative majority while 32 seats go to the party that came in second in each state. Another 32 senators, referred to as plurinominales, are chosen by the parties and gain seats based on proportional representation. In the case of the lower house, 300 deputies gain seats by winning a plurality of votes in their federal districts and another 200 are plurinominales, elected for three-year terms.
One big change is coming: reelection. Mexico, worn out by Porfirio Díaz’s seven terms as president that spanned the turn of the nineteenth century, banned consecutive reelection in the 1917 Constitution. A 2014 political reform changed all that to allow consecutive reelection of legislators in both chambers. Those in power now can’t run again, but those who win seats in July can try to win reelection to stay in power for up to twelve consecutive years, so two terms for senators and four for deputies.
On top of the federal races, nearly a third of Mexico’s states will pick new governors. Mexico City will vote for a new head of government, and eight states—Chiapas, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Morelos, Puebla, Tabasco, Veracruz, and the Yucatán—will hold gubernatorial races. On top of all that, local elections will take place in 30 states, and mayors and local legislators will also be able to start seeking reelection thanks to the aforementioned political reform.
The unlikely coalitions
Mexico’s gone from being a country where one entity, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), dominated politics for more than 70 years to one of coalitions that don’t fit into simple left-right slots. Here’s a quick look at the main ones that formed with the hope of cobbling together the votes needed to win.
Everyone for Mexico (Todos por México) is perhaps the least surprising coalition. Dominated by the governing PRI, it also includes the New Alliance Party (PANAL) and the not-very-environmental Ecologist Green Party (PVEM), the latter of which joined forces with the PRI the last time around as well. The coalition candidate is José Antonio Meade.
One party also leads the way in the Together We’ll Make History (Juntos Haremos Historia) coalition, and that’s National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), which the alliance’s candidate AMLO founded after the last presidential election. Given that AMLO is usually labeled a leftist populist, it’s not so surprising that the Labor Party (PT) joined the coalition. A seemingly odder match is the partnership with the Social Encounter Party (PES), led by religious conservatives who oppose same-sex marriage.
Then there’s Forward for Mexico (Por México al Frente) that has as its candidate Ricardo Anayaof the center-right National Action Party (PAN), the party that broke the PRI’s hold on the presidency from 2000–2012. The coalition is often referred to simply as “el Frente” and includes the center-left Citizen’s Movement (MC) and Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). AMLO also helped found the PRD, a party seen as weaker since he left to start MORENA.
The independents and the signature saga
There are certain candidates who not only don’t have a coalition, but they don’t even represent political parties. The 2014 political reform allowing reelection also paved the way for independent candidates to appear on the ballot if they attained 866,593 signatures of support distributed across at least 17 states by a February 19 deadline. The electoral agency, known by its abbreviation INE, then took about a month and determined that only one candidate, Margarita Zavala, had enough valid signatures (870,168) to make it on the ballot, despite the fact that, overall, 45 percent of the 1.58 million she collected could not be verified.
INE rejected two other candidates. The agency found that 59 percent of more than 2 million signatures attained by Jaime “El Bronco” Rodríguez could not be verified, leaving him about 31,000 signatures short. INE also determined that out of the 1.77 million signatures Armando Ríos Piter received, just 14 percent were valid, leaving him with an approved 242,646 signatures. When official campaigns began on March 30, Zavala was the only independent to launch a candidacy.
But the saga of the signatures wasn’t over. On the night of April 9, Mexico’s electoral tribunal made a ruling in the case of Rodríguez, determining in a 4-3 vote that INE had failed to provide the candidate with the conditions for proper verification of the invalid signatures. While the court did not find that those signatures were valid, it determined that the electoral agency should allow Rodríguez to appear on the ballot. The tribunal also gave Ríos Piter 10 days to review the signatures determined invalid by INE, meaning that at the time of this update the fate of his candidacy remains unclear.
The candidates profiled
El peje: AMLO is a former Mexico City mayor making his third go at the presidency, after coming in second in 2006 and 2012. In fact, in the 2006 vote he came in about half a percent behind Felipe Calderón and refused to accept the results. Instead, AMLO declared himself the legitimate president, had himself inaugurated, and set up a parallel government. Such moves irked many after his supporters took up residence for weeks in the streets of the capital. But, 12 years later, memories have dimmed, and some voters may not really remember what went down in 2006 at all: millennials, who could make up close to half the electorate, give AMLO a 22-point poll lead over his next closest rival.
What’s fresher in the minds of Mexican voters is the series of scandals, impunity, and rising violent crime rates marring the current PRI government of President Enrique Peña Nieto. AMLO may be nicknamed el peje for the slow-moving fish from his home state of Tabasco, but he’s been quick to define himself as the anti-establishment choice for those disillusioned with what he describes as lamafia del poder (mafia of power). His critics point out that he came of political age in the PRI before leaving for the PRD and, later, MORENA.
Some paint him as Mexico’s answer to U.S. President Donald Trump. AMLO officially launched his campaign in the border city of Ciudad Juarez (named for the Mexican president who kicked out the French) by saying that Mexico will not “be the piñata of any foreign government.” Detractors compare him to Hugo Chávez and claim he will turn Mexico into Venezuela, while others argue he is more moderate than the deceased strongman. Some worry he’ll try to turn back the clock, seeing as he suggests revisiting decades-old economic policies.
AMLO has questioned Peña Nieto’s energy and education reforms, as well as a massive Mexico City airport project. He suggested trilateral renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, should be concluded after the election and that, should he take office, he’d put his mandate up for referendum every two years. His campaign is collecting proposals to turn the presidential residences, known as Los Pinos, into a cultural center.
The boy wonder: Ricardo Anaya, the youngest of the candidates at 39, earned himself a nickname to reflect the fact that he got his start in the PAN at the age of 17 and was speaker of the Chamber of Deputies by the time he turned 34. He’s been both lauded and mocked for running his candidacy like something out of a TED Talk and he kicked off his campaign with a hackathon.
Anaya generally polls second and gets framed as the best hope to catch up to AMLO. Or at least he did until a money laundering scandal came to light in February involving a property deal he made in his prosperous home state of Querétaro. Anaya released a video with flipcharts mapping out how the deal was kosher and accused the PRI of using the attorney general’s office to go after him. If the PRI really was trying to get its candidate higher in the polls, the plan seems to have backfired and only helped AMLO instead. But Anaya has another problem: those in his party who supported Zavala as a candidate paint him as a traitor who blocked her path and divided the PAN.
Among Anaya’s proposals are a pitch for a universal basic income. He also backs corruption investigations into the current government.
The technocrat: José Antonio Meade has held a variety of major cabinet posts covering everything from foreign affairs to social development, and he’s done so in both PAN and PRI governments, all of which has supporters saying he can capture votes destined for both parties. Dogged by scandal, the PRI changed rules last year to allow Meade, who is not a party member, to be its candidate.
It’s not clear whether the voters, nearly half of whom say they would never cast a vote for the PRI, are going to buy it, though. The Yale-educated economist has never run for office and generally polls third, and some observers describe his candidacy as lackluster. In addition, PRI supporters tend to come from lower economic rungs and they see Meade, a former finance secretary, as the face of gas-price increases leading to hikes in everything from transportation fares to food costs.
Meade supports keeping Peña Nieto’s reforms, running the gamut from fiscal to energy, in place. He also says he will battle corruption and has made pitches such as equal pay for women, higher salaries for teachers, and better access to credit. Mexico has been in a violent drug war against organized crime groups since 2006, and Meade says he will continue the fight but with “intelligence” and “better results.”
The breakaway independent: Pollsters have been publishing studies for years forecasting the outcome of the 2018 election and early polls often showed Margarita Zavala as a strong contender, but she fell behind when she quit her party after more than 30 years and switched gears to become an independent. That doesn’t mean the former plurinominal deputy can’t play an important role in the election’s outcome, particularly if her numbers inch up and because the former PAN member can sap votes from Anaya. The fact that she’s a former first lady married to ex-President Calderón can both help and hurt her. On the one hand, she can win the backing of calderonistas, but many Mexicans won’t forgive or forget that her husband started the drug war that’s claimed tens of thousands of lives. It looks like she won’t be getting the youth vote: she’s the candidate with the highest unfavorable rating among millennials.
On the security front, Zavala says the landscape’s changed since 2006, that she’d create a national police system, and that she would eventually pull the armed forces back to the barracks. She also wants to cut funding for political parties and create an ethics office in the presidential branch. She’s drawn criticism for not coming out in favor of same-sex families.
El Bronco: Jaime Rodríguez, a survivor of two assassination attempts, made history in 2015 by becoming the first independent candidate to triumph in a gubernatorial race in Mexico. In his bid for the presidency, he’s taken a leave of absence from his post as governor of the northern state of Nuevo León, which he won in part through savvy use of social media. Like AMLO, Rodríguez casts himself as an anti-corruption outsider but, like AMLO, he spent years in the PRI. Given that he competes for the anti-establishment vote, some see the controversial ruling to include him on the ballot as a strike against AMLO.
Known for being outspoken, he’s come under fire for making comments that range from suggesting that recent earthquakes were caused by loose morality to saying nobody likes fat girls to recommending that societal problems can be solved by allowing teachers to discipline students using corporal punishment. His proposals include lowering tax rates, and cutting bureaucracy and spending.
The electoral calendar gives candidates 90 days to duke it out, and the three official debates offer a forum for them to do it. Those take place April 22, May 20, and June 12.