¡Sí se pudo!

Daniel Eltringham

The elections in Mexico on 1 July returned a landslide victory for Andrés Manuel López Obrador (a.k.a. AmLo). He took 53 per cent of the presidential vote, on a turnout of more than 60 per cent. His coalition, Juntos Haremos Historia (‘together we will make history’), now holds 312 of 500 seats in the chamber of deputies, and 70 of 128 seats in the senate. In both houses, the gender balance is close to 50-50. The coalition also did well in gubernatorial and local elections. The importance of the result for Mexican politics and society can hardly be overstated.

The Partido Revolucionario Institucional’s seventy-year reign was loosened in 2000, when Vicente Fox, the leader of the conservative Partido Acción Nacional, was elected president. But AmLo’s victory appears to promise a real break with the status quo; the PRI and the PAN are together known by the dismissive compound ‘PRIAN’. AmLo has been an opposition figure for decades. He left the PRI in 1988 to join the Partido de la Revolución Democrática, running for president in 2006 and 2012. After his second defeat, to the PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto, he left the PRD to form the Movimiento Regeneración Nacional, or Morena (which also means ‘brown’ in Spanish).

I observed the elections as part of a delegation from the UK, led by Peter Watt and Rupert Knox of Sheffield University, on behalf of the Mexican transparency network Red Universitaria y Ciudadana por la Democracia and the London-based group Justice Mexico Now. There were 28 of us, including trade union reps, activists, academics, a journalist and a member of parliament. International delegations monitored the elections along with thousands of Mexicans concerned about the endemic fraud, violence and impunity that have characterised both the electoral process (152 candidates were murdered during the most violent campaign in Mexico’s recent history) and daily life in many parts of Mexico.

The vote itself was far cleaner than expected. All the same, an estimated 31,000 ballot papers had been stolen before 30 June, and the Electoral Tribunal had ruled that the independent candidate ‘El Bronco’ should be allowed to stand, despite having forged many of his supporting signatures. 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.

There were irregularities: polling stations opening late in the morning – in some cases, 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 people who weren’t registered in a municipality, which were massively undersupplied with voting cards, disenfranchising the 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.

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.

As expected, the youth vote – around half the electorate – broke overwhelmingly for AmLo. They are tired of violence and corruption, and see AmLo as the only candidate 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.

It seems that AmLo won so decisively not only because of his stance against corruption, violence and impunity, but also because he was the only candidate to talk about popular sovereignty. He had proposed government for and by the people, a message which had triumphed over the fear-driven campaigns of his opponents, and the apparatus of the Mexican state.

Once he is sworn in as president in December, however, AmLo will have to work with those institutional structures. The PRIAN has accepted the results, at least for the moment. But Morena now wields a great deal of power with few constitutional checks and balances. Tackling corruption will mean probing the connections between political institutions and drug cartels at the level of financial transactions. The previous two PRIAN governments preferred to beef up the military, which only intensified the violence. But to carry out this kind of investigation, the public prosecutor’s office would have to lose its politicised role as one of the governing party’s tools for settling scores. That is a lot of power for AmLo and Morena to willingly give up. There will be a lot of jockeying for position between now and the autumn, when congress will be sworn in.


  • 13 July 2018 at 1:56pm
    alexdecoss says:
    It is great to see the first-hand account of an international observer about the last elections in Mexico. As a Mexican living in the UK, I was not able to be part of this outpour of popular support and celebration. My intuition is that I probably would not have been part of it in any case. It is not that I believe that the bedtime stories that AMLO's rivals told have any purchase; the Venezuelan menace, the Russian connection or the Monarchical conspiracy are such terrible narratives that they elicit little more than laughter. Yet, I do not share the vision that AMLO's triumph is an outright popular victory. While there is some truth to this, in particular given the high levels of participation, there are other scales and levels in which this narrative might be less credible.

    While in previous occasions AMLO's run for the presidency had been marked by a staunch opposition not only to corruption, but to neoliberal policies at large, this time his stance seems to have moderated, or rather lurched to the right. The inclusion in his future cabinet of businessman Alfonso Romo, as head of the Office of the President, speaks of this shift. Romo has been busy building bridges with the Mexican oligarchy, both during the election and in its aftermath. Whilst before AMLO promised to cancel the building of the new Mexico City Airport, he is now happy to let it be built as an entirely private endeavour. Similarly, his once staunch opposition to the privatisation of Mexican oil and gas, is now just a promise to review contracts and cancel them if found suspicious. Finally, his future cabinet - and himself - have promised to continue the implementation of controversial development plans in southern Mexico, which plan to hand in large swathes of land to private developers for them to administer for 80 years, all this in exchange of building key trade and logistics infrastructure. This is part of the current government's push to subordinate this regions to the production requirements of overseas economies, in particular China.

    There are other issues that can be discussed. I will not do so here, except for pointing out one: AMLO's refusal to increase taxes, and his continued commitment to fiscal discipline. These macroeconomic policies put him on the right of any economic spectrum, and cast some doubts in his future government's ability to pursue the ambitious development plans he has put forward. Amidst weak public finances, it will be the private sector who will be in charge, and in control, of building these projects, and indeed many others. A popular victory in the hands of Mexico's wealthy elite sounds like a contradiction that will unravel soon enough.