Battered Mexico Opposition in Disarray as AMLO Pushes for Reform

(Bloomberg) -- Mexico’s opposition failed to stop Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s Morena party from keeping hold of the presidency and making massive gains in elections earlier this month. Now the battered and tenuous coalition is facing an even steeper challenge: How to prevent him from approving his controversial slate of sweeping constitutional reforms before leaving office.

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AMLO, as Mexico’s leader is known, and President-elect Claudia Sheinbaum have signaled plans to use the massive majorities Morena won in Congress to advance a long-sought overhaul of the country’s judiciary as soon as September, when lawmakers will take office.

The possibility has roiled markets and caused the peso to plummet, turmoil that has been exacerbated by fears that the opposition that blunted AMLO’s efforts at times during his six-year presidency will prove unable to thwart his agenda again in the final month of his term, or once Sheinbaum takes office on Oct. 1.

It is a gargantuan task for the parties that long dominated Mexican politics but have steadily lost ground to Morena since 2018. The slate of constitutional reforms has sparked worries about the erosion of checks and balances and Mexican democracy itself, and failing to block them could deal a severe blow to the ability of anti-Morena forces to rebound.

“What is most worrisome for the opposition is that this landscape is likely to give Morena the ability to modify the rules of the game on a number of fronts, including the electoral authority and the judiciary,” said Gustavo Flores-Macias, a professor of government and public policy at Cornell University. That would have “important consequences for the opposition’s ability to regain ground.”

AMLO’s status as one of the world’s most popular leaders led the PRI, which controlled Mexico for nearly a century, to join forces with PAN and the PRD, two parties that had traditionally opposed it. What started as an effort to cut into the governing coalition’s majorities in 2021 midterm elections focused this year on beating Sheinbaum and preventing Morena from amassing even more power at every level of governance.

The results were disastrous. Sheinbaum beat opposition candidate Xochitl Galvez by more than 30 points in the presidential race. Morena won Mexico City and six of the eight governorships at stake. Its coalition also won a supermajority in the lower house of Congress and fell just three seats shy of achieving the same in the Senate.

That has left AMLO needing to negotiate with only a few senators in order to win the votes necessary to pass reforms that require two-thirds support in each chamber. The most controversial proposal would require all judges, including those on the Supreme Court, to be elected by popular vote. Another would replace the federal elections agency with a new body whose members would also be elected by voters.

But as he and Sheinbaum press forward, the opposition has largely remained stuck in the same identity crisis that kept it from taking off.

“Its structure, proposals and alliances are based on its opposition to AMLO, and that has been a mistake,” said Carlos Perez Ricart, an assistant professor of international relations at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics in Mexico City. “Now they are orphaned of enemies, orphaned of everything.”

Days before the June 2 vote, PRI leader Alejandro Moreno called reporters to the party’s headquarters, where he ran through a slide show of data he claimed proved Galvez still had a chance to win the election, despite polls showing Sheinbaum holding a double-digit lead.

Since then, the opposition has shown a similar refusal to reckon with the results. Galvez spent the immediate aftermath pledging to request a recount before abandoning the plan, and has continued to allege that AMLO wielded improper influence over the race. The heads of PRI and PAN have refused to resign and also questioned the results.

Eventually, the opposition parties will have to craft an agenda that can make the case Galvez couldn’t: That a turn away from Morena is not merely a turn back to the past they represent, and that Mexicans have resoundingly rejected in the past two presidential votes.

“I have a hard time thinking that there’s a proper agenda for the opposition as a whole, other than simply opposing the Morena government just for the sake of opposing it,” said Matias Gomez Leautaud, analyst for Eurasia Group.

But in the immediate term, its relevance may be staked to its ability to fend off AMLO’s efforts to peel away the votes he needs to finally push his reforms through the Senate.

“From the beginning, the opposition has to show itself united,” said Jorge Buendia, head of the Buendia & Marquez polling firm. “It has to build a reputation that it is effectively a dam and can hinder constitutional reforms.”

“If the opposition supports Morena’s proposals from the first moment,” he added, “it will be more difficult to have credibility in the future.”

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