US, Trump remain AMLO's biggest bugaboos

US, Trump remain AMLO's biggest bugaboos
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On Sunday, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his party, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), faced their first test at the polls since López Obrador was elected a year ago. Two governorships, dozens of state legislative seats and mayorships in six states were at stake in these odd-year elections. 

The elections were mostly fair and peaceful. Despite low turnout — about 30 percent, compared with 63.42 percent in 2018 — Mexicans showed that they are a sophisticated electorate and are still choosing institutional venues to effect change and demand government performance.

The aftermath of the contests is an opportune time for López Obrador to focus on the increasing tension with the government of the country's northern neighbor, the United States.

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No sweep for López Obrador's party

The election results were predictable. MORENA won more support for López Obrador, adding two more governorships to the five it already held while faring well in many local posts.

But it did not sweep the election. After six months in power, the wear and tear of holding office may be starting to take a toll on López Obrador’s popularity; his approval rating has lost around 10 points in the last three months.

The only party that did better than MORENA, however, was the National Action Party (PAN), which consolidated its position as the only challenger to MORENA’s hold.

The legendary Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for 70 years, and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which was once the strongest opposition party in the country, performed poorly.

However, some signs of the old system and political culture made their presence felt, warning of remaining perils for democracy in Mexico. The two gubernatorial races are examples.

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Elections in Puebla and Baja California

During the 2018 elections, Puebla was the only state with evidence of electoral fraud.

Martha Erika Alonso of the PAN and wife of the former governor, Rafael Moreno Valle, was elected governor for the 2018-24 term and her victory was upheld following a court challenge by the MORENA candidate, Miguel Barbosa.

Surprisingly, the electoral tribunal’s president, Janine Otálora, resigned days after she gave the decisive vote to confirm Alonso’s victory.

On Dec. 24, Gov. Alonso and Moreno Valle died in a helicopter crash, of which the causes are still unknown, and a replacement election was called for this year.

Barbosa, who ran again, faced a strong challenge within MORENA but prevailed in the primary and became the candidate. He went on to win the governorship this week, but MORENA’s internal clashes show that the party is not necessarily united and that for now much political contestation in Mexico will occur within that party.

López Obrador's political momentum may have helped Barbosa, given that despite the many doubts about his suitability to govern the state, he prevailed by 11 points over his nearest rival, Enrique Cárdenas from the PAN.

In Baja California, Jaime Bonilla, MORENA’s candidate, won by more than 25 points over his closest rival and ended 30 years of PAN-led government in the state. The businessman, who owns radio stations in both Baja California and California, has accumulated an exorbitant amount of power through his close relationship with López Obrador.

Bonilla was elected senator before being named López Obrador's personal representative in Baja California, giving him control of all federal funds received by the state. Finally, he was hand-picked to be MORENA’s gubernatorial candidate.

He also challenged the state legislature’s decision to make the governorship a two-year term to synchronize state elections with federal election in 2021. The Federal Electoral Tribunal finally ruled against him, so he will serve for only two years.

López Obrador may have nudged the results in MORENA’s favor as well. Conveniently, four days before the election, Mexico’s attorney general announced the first high-profile prosecution against the former CEO of Mexican state-owned oil company PEMEX, Emilio Lozoya — a worthy goal and a step to tackle corruption, but a suspicious move in its timing. Regardless, in Baja California, MORENA’s candidates won every post.

U.S.-Mexico relationship

These elections showed López Obrador still has political momentum. His party has taken control of both chambers of Congress, holds seven governorships and controls 22 out of 32 state legislatures — all in less than two years.

Despite some anger regarding López Obrador's extreme spending cuts, reducing or shutting down social programs, the president looks very comfortable dealing with domestic issues. His real problem is dealing with foreign affairs, especially the U.S.-Mexico relationship.

Last week, President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpEsper sidesteps question on whether he aligns more with Mattis or Trump Warren embraces Thiel label: 'Good' As tensions escalate, US must intensify pressure on Iran and the IAEA MORE threatened to impose tariffs on all imports from Mexico if the Mexican government does not stop the flow of people and drugs at the border by Monday.

In response, López Obrador sent a letter to Trump seeking to avoid a confrontation. He also sent a delegation headed by Mexico’s foreign minister to negotiate with Washington. As of this writing, the sides are working to reach a deal to delay the tariffs and bolster Mexico's immigration enforcement.

The outcome is critical to the well-being of one of López Obrador’s most important goals: getting the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement passed quickly and getting Mexico’s economic growth back on track.

As of now, there is no strategy in Mexico to deal with Trump, and López Obrador refuses — or does not know how — to deal more forcefully with Washington.

The combination of these factors could mean this new chapter in the U.S.-Mexico relationship will not have a successful conclusion.

Rodrigo Montes de Oca is a research scholar at Rice University's Baker Institute Mexico Center. His research primarily focuses on the rule of law and corruption in Mexico.