Mexicans voted for change — now what?

Mexicans voted for change — now what?
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Mexicans awoke on July 1 ready for an historic day. A buzz pervaded across Mexico City with lines forming outside polling locations well before opening time. The frontrunner, a jittery Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, arrived at his local voting center nearly a full hour early. Seventeen hours later, he gave a victory speech in which he called for “reconciliation” among all Mexicans while supporters had crowded Mexico City’s main square, the Zócalo.


Sunday’s vote was set to be what U.S. elections have often been termed: a change election. And that is what Mexico got. So what does an AMLO government mean for Mexico, and for its U.S. relations?


AMLO had long been expected to win. With a double-digit lead throughout the campaign, Mexicans who decried a system seen as not working for them gravitated to López Obrador’s message of change and of fighting for those left behind, especially in southern Mexico, the president-elect’s birthplace. Pent-up frustration with corruption, impunity, citizen insecurity, and a clamor for a new beginning motivated 53 percent of Mexicans — more than double the vote total over second-place finisher Ricardo Anaya — to eschew traditional political parties and put their hopes with a candidate making his third run for the nation’s highest office.

When President-elect López Obrador takes office on Dec. 1, he will inherit a country rife with deep polarization — an all-too-familiar phenomenon these days. Divisions played out on the airwaves, at campaign rallies, and in social media. On-the-ground Atlantic Council disinformation monitoring found aggressive campaigns across social platforms to spread false stories about all the candidates but with a particular focus on AMLO. Polarization will not end automatically after Election Day; reaching out to non-supporters should be a priority of the president-elect. 

But non-AMLO voters are unlikely to give him much of a honeymoon period. And López Obrador, who maintains messianic status among supporters, will face high expectations for campaign promises to quickly be put into action. To do so, he will need to count on congressional support. Here, his party, Morena, also scored big, with its coalition picking up a majority of seats in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. 

Some may assume that Mexico’s election was a vote for a “change candidate” as a response to bilateral tensions. But that fundamentally misses the mark in why the three more established political parties — even after building coalitions — couldn’t capture the necessary voter support in the presidential race.

As is seen across Latin America and beyond, the citizenry has awoken to the ills of corruption, seeing it not just as an elite problem with elite implications but a stain on society that most acutely affects the less well off. Schools suffer. Health systems underperform. And valuable social programs are deprived of needed resources. President-elect López Obrador has vowed to fix endemic corruption at the federal, state and local levels — and will now need to put in place a plan to do it.

AMLO has also called for reforming Mexico’s economic model to reduce inequality and to eliminate the gap in “The Two Mexicos.” The key question will be how to rightly close the economic gap while boosting the fiscal resources needed to pay for it. That means attracting more foreign investment while giving assurances to Mexico’s robust business community that encourages continued domestic investment. Reducing informality would also be a win-win: greater job protections for the people and more tax receipts for the state.

Tackling citizen insecurity — which has only grown in recent years — and impunity will be top priorities as well. A good place to start would be to double down on investigations, and to bring to justice those responsible for each of the over 100 political assassinations throughout the campaign, as well as the six journalists killed.

And although bilateral ties were not at the top of voter minds, elections bring opportunities for change — and a new start in relations is fundamentally needed with the United State’s No. 2 export destination. NAFTA modernization talks will continue to move forward and AMLO and his team have all expressed their desire for a quick resolution to the talks. A relatively seamless transition should be expected between the Peña Nieto and the AMLO negotiation teams. But the president-elect should be expected to stay firm on core values deemed to be in the interests of Mexico and its ability to globally compete as part of North America. Caving into pressure — whether from the United States or from Mexican antagonists — is not the AMLO that Mexicans elected. 

Mexico, a country of great promise and innovation, is set for fundamental change in the next six years. The United States should look for ways to partner with the president-elect. Confrontation will only push the new team to look south and east rather than north.


Jason Marczak is director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council, and was in Mexico City for Election Day as part of an Atlantic Council electoral observation & disinformation monitoring team. He is on Twitter at @JMarczak.