Opinion: Mexico's election of Claudia Sheinbaum is historic. But should we be celebrating it?

Ruling party presidential candidate Claudia Sheinbaum addresses supporters at the Zocalo, Mexico City's main square, after the National Electoral Institute announced she held an irreversible lead in the election, early Monday, June 3, 2024. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Mexico's president-elect, Claudia Sheinbaum, addressing supporters in Mexico City's main square early Monday. (Marco Ugarte / Associated Press)

Mexico City mayoral candidate Santiago Taboada quoted the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda on social media recently: “They can cut all the flowers, but they can’t stop the spring.” It was a jab at outgoing Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, and his Morena party. Party members had been seen removing Taboada’s campaign flyers in the Mexico City Metro and replacing them with advertisements for their own candidates.

A conservative politician quoting a communist writer was a sign of a dramatic shift in Latin American politics: The Cold War-era dichotomy between right and left has given way to a struggle between populist authoritarians and “conservatives,” who now tend to encompass all meaningful opposition, liberal or conservative.

Sunday’s decisive victory of AMLO’s handpicked successor, former Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, over opposition candidate Xóchitl Gálvez promises to continue the president’s “socialist” agenda. But if Sheinbaum’s penchant for stretching the truth is any indication, she will be as avid as her predecessor in employing the “three P’s” — populism, polarization and post-truth — to consolidate power and further degrade Mexico’s democracy.

Read more: Opinion: Mexico's June 2 election has already made history — for violence

The Venezuelan journalist Moisés Naím identified the three P’s as the standard playbook of 21st century autocrats. Today’s aspiring authoritarians are less likely than the 20th century’s to show up as right-wing strongmen, using violence and repression to seize power. Rather, they come into office through traditional elections, cloaking their campaigns in the rhetoric of democracy while using divisive rhetoric to galvanize support. Once in power, they destroy or subjugate the institutions that could check them, allowing them to govern as they please.

Much has been said about Mexico’s democratic decline under AMLO. Instead of building social programs, he has used populist tactics like his daily propaganda show to obfuscate and polarize. He has also wooed Mexico’s poor with regular monetary handouts and raised the minimum wage, which was one of his more constructive achievements.

Despite AMLO’s constant railing against “neoliberals” — code for the United States — it is on his watch that Mexico’s democracy and social prosperity have declined.

Read more: Opinion: From Mexico to Brazil, Latin America's democracies face a common threat from within

AMLO’s pension program essentially robs Mexico’s young people for political expediency, taking money from the pension funds of hardworking Mexicans to allow immediate payments to the elderly, boosting his popularity.

The sociologist Máximo Ernesto Jaramillo-Molina found that from 2018 to 2022, Mexico’s spending on social programs as a share of gross domestic product increased only 0.7%, to 4.7%. That’s less than during the first three years of the administration of López Obrador’s predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, or the first four years of the previous presidency, Felipe Calderón’s. Under AMLO, El Economista wrote, “the social policy of the federal government … stopped privileging the poor and ended up benefiting the richest households in the country.”

The Mexican president has also bestowed unprecedented power on a loyal military. He attempted to disappear the country’s National Electoral Institute, transferring election oversight to the judiciary. And he elevated a political ally with no judicial experience to the Supreme Court.

AMLO also effectively killed the Mérida Initiative, the vast, joint U.S., Mexican and Central American anti-drug program that attempted to counter organized crime and strengthen the rule of law. His policy on the cartels, “hugs, not bullets,” is effectively a non-policy. Despite his recent claim that homicides had dropped 20% during his presidency, a government security agency found that his term had seen over 171,000 homicides, more than any previous administration.

Mexico has elected its first female president, a historic event that should be cause for celebration. But I’m afraid AMLO’s protégé is too steeped in Morena methodology to make real progress for Mexico.

In the most recent presidential debate, for example, Sheinbaum claimed that homicides had declined 58% during her mayoralty, when they had actually increased 9%.

Sheinbaum, who has an environmental science degree, sometimes speaks like a committed environmentalist; she told the Associated Press she supports renewable energy. But she also promised to increase generation by state-owned power plants that rely on fossil fuels. As the only G-20 country without a net-zero-emissions plan, Mexico needs a climate change leader, not a labyrinth of empty words.

Born into an elite family with a history of financial opacity, Sheinbaum falsely denied their involvement in the Panama Papers scandal, betraying her inclination for posverdad, or post-truth. The investigation revealed that six of Sheinbaum’s family members, including her mother, hid millions in offshore tax havens.

Mexico’s populists are, in short, no friends to its people. Sheinbaum’s election means we’re still waiting for the arrival of Mexico’s democratic spring.

Kristina Foltz is a Rotary scholar who writes about populism and disinformation in Latin America.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.