On Sunday, Mexican voters elected former Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum to the presidency with nearly 60 percent of the vote. Her closest challenger, Xochitl Gálvez, secured just 29 percent at the head of a coalition of opposition parties of the right, left, and center. The president-elect will make history as the nation’s first female and Jewish head of state, but she also represents continuity with the past six years, during which President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, popularly known as AMLO, and his left-wing Movement for National Regeneration (Morena) have consolidated power at the expense of the country’s political establishment. 

The election was widely viewed as a referendum on the policies of the outgoing president, and the results speak for themselves. Around the country, Morena and its allies secured 7 of 9 governorships as well as two-thirds control over the Senate and Chamber of Deputies. 

“Ordinary Mexicans are better off than when López Obrador first assumed office.”

Sheinbaum’s victory, like AMLO’s popularity, is readily explicable. By virtually every metric, ordinary Mexicans are better off than when López Obrador assumed office in 2018. Unemployment hit a record low of 2.5 percent in 2024, while energy prices rose just 0.1 percent in 2023, despite a global energy crisis. Between 2018 and 2022, the share of Mexicans living below the poverty line fell to 36 percent, down from 42 percent, and has almost certainly declined further since then. 

Morena’s crowning achievement is the empowerment of the Mexican working class. The monthly minimum wage rose to 7,468 pesos ($440), from 2,650 pesos in December 2018. The governing coalition has also bolstered the ability of workers to form independent unions and outlawed labor outsourcing. As a result, real wages rose by around 35 percent across all labor categories between 2019 and 2023. As one voter who traveled all the way from the border state of Tamaulipas to see Sheinbaum’s campaign close in Mexico City told me, AMLO “was the first president in my lifetime who ever gave a damn about the people.”

What makes these gains all the more remarkable is that economic growth remained tepid at around 2 percent through much of AMLO’s term, although a post-pandemic nearshoring boom pushed up GDP  by 3.4 percent in 2023. Put simply, AMLO and his party have redirected gains from limited growth to the benefit of the majority of Mexicans, as opposed to crony capitalists and state bureaucrats. For perspective, real wages in Mexico have grown as much as in the Dominican Republic, another epicenter of recent nearshoring, where the growth rate has exceeded 5 percent during the same period.

Defying the stereotype of left-populist leaders as irresponsible big spenders, AMLO has also shown considerable fiscal responsibility. Since 2018, Mexico’s cumulative budget deficit has averaged around 3 percent, far lower than both Latin-American and developed peers. Consequently, debt-to-GDP ratio has remained stable around 55 percent, with the central bank amassing significant dollar reserves. Meanwhile, the administration has tightened the screws on tax evasion, increasing collection from the country’s highest earners by 60 percent

All this is mostly ignored by progressive media outlets one might assume would be sympathetic to a popular left-wing leader. International coverage, like the largely opposition-controlled Mexican media, has preferred instead to focus on both the real and imagined flaws of Morena’s rule. In the first category, crime and insecurity remain a serious problem. The question now is whether Sheinbaum can not only preserve, but build on AMLO’s achievements. 

Claudia Sheinbaum differs from her predecessor in background and temperament. AMLO is a rabble-rousing machine politician from a modest background in the country’s rural south. Sheinbaum grew up in Mexico City in a family of scientists immersed in radical politics. She followed her parents’ example by joining left-wing student movements and obtaining degrees in physics and energy engineering. By 2000, she served as AMLO’s environment secretary during his term as mayor of Mexico City while both were members of the Democratic Revolutionary Party or PRD, the largest left-wing opposition party. During AMLO’s presidential bids in 2006 and 2012, she became one of his closest confidants and a founding member of Morena after he split from the PRD in 2014. In 2018, Sheinbaum followed in her mentor’s footsteps, becoming mayor of Mexico City, serving until she stepped down to campaign for president last year.

AMLO is beloved by many for his fiery oratory, which gets him accused of demagoguery by his enemies. In contrast, Sheinbaum is seen as perhaps overly technocratic, if also an effective administrator. During her tenure as mayor, she oversaw an even more effective expansion of social programs than Morena achieved at the national level, and presided over a noticeable improvement in security. Many voters told me they were struck by her skill at giving detailed answers to interview questions, but also felt that she often appeared overly rigid and uncharismatic. Sheinbaum has hewed so close to AMLO during the campaign that at times one gets the sense that she is telling morenistas—and the president—what they want to hear. 

Those familiar with Latin-American politics will recognize a pattern that could be dubbed the “successor curse.” From Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia to Lenin Moreno in Ecuador, various presidential successors ended up betraying their popular predecessors and in some cases, presided over stunning political downfalls. Sheinbaum has shown an enduring loyalty to AMLO, and thus seems unlikely to turn her back on his legacy. Instead, the precedent that troubles observers sympathetic to Morena is that of Brazil’s impeached former left-wing president, Dilma Rousseff, who succeeded Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva after his second term ended in 2010. Rousseff’s lack of charisma and reluctance to engage in the sort of pork-barrel politics that had sustained Lula’s popularity helped bring about her ouster and a social unraveling from which Brazil has yet to fully recover.

Yet unlike Brazil’s Workers Party under Rousseff, the incoming Sheinbaum administration will have commanding majorities in the legislature, and the president-elect has executive as opposed to just cabinet experience. Further, in the 21st century and even before the advent of nearshoring, Mexico’s industrial economy has shown consistent if low growth, making it less vulnerable to the commodity boom-and-bust cycles that have wracked peers like Brazil.

On the other hand, most of Morena’s governors as well as many of its legislators were, until recently, part of the establishment Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, with a smaller proportion coming from the conservative National Action Party, or PAN. This has given AMLO and his party access to a great deal of operational expertise, the absence of which doomed populists elsewhere in the region. But it also means that Sheinbaum runs the risk of seeing a number of opportunists within her party and coalition jump ship should her leadership falter.   

The president-elect is less heterodox than her mentor, who has shown a profound respect for the conservatism of the Mexican masses. He is prone to moralistic and religious rhetoric, has single-handedly blocked the legalization of marijuana, and is currently promoting a constitutional ban on the use of vapes. In all likelihood, Sheinbaum will lead a far more conventionally progressive administration that gives greater priority to activist causes. 

In truth, Sunday’s vote was effectively a contest between shades of social progressivism. Gálvez campaigned in favor of LGBT and abortion rights, even as she pledged to reopen Mexico’s energy sector to foreign capital and chastised non-homeowners as lazy. For her part, Sheinbaum as mayor was a champion of LGBT rights and opened gender clinics for Mexico City’s trans population. In and of itself, this was relatively innocuous in terms of public opinion in the nation’s cosmopolitan capital, famous for its gay-friendly culture. At the national level, however, a harsh pivot away from AMLO-style social conservatism could fuel a backlash. That said, Sheinbaum showed signs of pragmatism in her term as mayor, generally prioritizing development over activist concerns. 

In terms of US-Mexico relations, Sheinbaum says she wishes to maintain good relations with the White House and has pledged to cooperate on immigration enforcement, regardless of who prevails in November. Remarkably, Ramón de la Fuente, a likely frontrunner for foreign minister in Sheinbaum’s cabinet, has openly criticized US asylum policy as an impediment to reducing border crossings. When I asked a member of Mexico City’s government whether he feared another Trump term, he replied: “Trump is all talk. Besides, he and AMLO are friends. I’m sure he’ll get along with Claudia.” Surprisingly, several Morena voters I spoke to expressed warm feelings towards the 45th president and drew parallels between his travails against the political establishment and AMLO’s.

By far the biggest failing of AMLO’s presidency is on security, although the picture here is more mixed than high overall homicide statistics might suggest. States like Guerrero, Zacatecas, and Guanajuato are truly lawless and plagued with endemic cartel violence, kidnappings, and extortion. Conversely, states such as Yucatán, Puebla, and the capital region are relatively safe, with crime rates comparing favorably with some major US cities. One voter I spoke to in Mexico City told me that she felt safe using her cellphone and walking alone in various parts of the city, far more so as opposed to around her home in the more violent nearby state of Mexico. Sheinbaum deserves credit for a reported 50 percent reduction in homicides during her tenure as mayor; polls indicate city residents feel safer than in 2018. 

Government figures suggest that the homicide rate has dropped 10 percent since 2018, and independent estimates found that kidnapping declined 60 percent in the same period. AMLO’s detractors point to a record number of disappearances and counter that the government is rigging crime statistics. Regardless, he deserves criticism for maintaining a militaristic and sometimes incoherent approach toward security that has upset all sides of the political spectrum. Having campaigned since 2006 on returning the military to its barracks, instead the number of troops deployed for security purposes rose to around 200,000, up from 50,000. Abuses by the military are still common, and AMLO failed to fulfill his promise to bring justice for past abuses such as the Ayotzinapa massacre in 2014. 

Sheinbaum has defended López Obrador’s record on security. Her most interesting proposal aims to scale up a reform of Mexico City’s police department, granting it the authority to gather intelligence and investigate crimes (in Mexico, prosecutors investigate crimes while police conduct arrests). The sad reality, however, is that crime rates are unlikely to see significant improvements in the short to medium term.

“AMLO has laid the groundwork for a workers’ republic in Mexico.”

Notwithstanding the dire security situation in parts of the country, most Mexicans hold the current administration in high regard. A poll from Gallup this week found that 73 percent of Mexicans feel their living standards have improved, and 80 percent approve of AMLO’s leadership. During her victory speech in Mexico City on Sunday night, Sheinbaum referenced the outgoing leader’s latest book (AMLO is a prolific author): “Mr. President, you recently wrote a book titled Gracias; from here, we say back to you: Gracias!” By far the most successful left-wing leader to emerge from the populist ferment of the 2010s, AMLO has laid the groundwork for a workers’ republic in Mexico. Progressives, including the president-elect, would do well to draw the right lessons from his remarkable six years in office.  

Juan David Rojas is a Miami-based Compact columnist, covering the Iberian Peninsula and Latin America. He is also a contributor to American Affairs.


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