Andrés Manuel López Obrador, popularly known as AMLO, has won a landslide victory in Mexico’s presidential elections. He now stands poised to form the country’s first left-wing government for generations, and his triumph has stirred great hope – but it comes with enormous challenges.
While AMLO won’t take office until December 1, he has already established a transition team to start addressing corruption, violence and inequality – the scourges of Mexico’s long and unfinished journey to full democracy. This includes the grave human rights crisis of the past 10 years, which has seen more than 200,000 killed and 35,000 disappeared. It’s a tall order. Then again, he and his party have already achieved something remarkable by Mexico’s standards: trouncing the political establishment in a vote that seems to have been essentially clean.
There were understandable concerns that the vote – in which an electorate of 90m voted for thousands of federal, state and municipal candidates – would be manipulated to keep AMLO and his relatively new party, MORENA, out of office. In the run-up to the vote, more than 130 political candidates were murdered across the country in regions affected by high levels of violence, and many journalists were attacked.
Mexico’s fraudulent elections, administered by weak electoral authorities, have frequently seen the country’s dominant economic interests and political parties freely bribe, coerce and manipulate voters. Many political parties have resorted to such tactics, particularly in poorer neighbourhoods highly dependent on the authorities. And the mainstream media, closely allied to dominant political interests, has also frequently played a key role in shaping the political narrative in favour of the status quo.
These practices have frequently subverted the political process, denying authentic popular democratic sovereignty and undermining any remaining trust in the political system. Before the vote, it seemed they would be deployed once again to stop a popular left-wing candidate who clearly threatened the status quo. That prospect demanded an intensive monitoring effort – and plenty of people rose to the task.
Determination wins the day
A range of academics and citizen activists in Mexico and abroad duly formed a network to scrutinise the electoral process. The Red Universitaria y Ciudadana por la Democracia (RUCD) brought together 200 Mexicans and 100 international delegates to monitor the voting, and other civic networks also formed to carry out election monitoring on an unprecedented scale. I myself joined a 25-strong UK delegation of academics, trade unionists and activists from the London-based NGO Mexico Justice Now. The delegates formed 11 small groups with Mexico-based monitors travelling around the states surrounding Mexico City to monitor the elections as officially recognised observers.
This act of civil society scrutiny and international solidarity added an important preventive dimension to the election process and also focused attention on the risks of fraudulent practices undermining the result.
Over the course of polling day, observers witnessed a range of troubling irregularities that demonstrated just how fragile the electoral process is – particularly in the poorest neighborhoods, many of which are susceptible to the power of political parties and criminal networks. Yet as the day progressed, it became clear that people were determined to vote.
In the end, turnout was the highest of the democratic era. The patience of citizens determined to exercise their political rights and demand change from their political authorities was palpable and inspiring.
As the ballots closed, the observation groups monitored the initial count at diverse polling stations, watching votes pile up for AMLO and MORENA even in some of the wealthier neighborhoods of Mexico City. By early evening, the PRI and PAN candidates had little choice but to concede. Late in the night, AMLO held his victory celebrations in Mexico’s central square to a huge crowd, euphoric at the possibility of a new dawn and an end to the old political system.
AMLO’s task now is to do better than previous transition governments, which have struggled to move beyond their empty rhetorical commitments. The problems are obvious: Trump next door, trade policy in chaos, a sluggish domestic economy, and multiple violent actors determined to pursue their interests at any costs. But the hunger for change manifested at the polls provides a vital impetus for the government as it begins to overcome Mexico’s vested interests and democratic deficits – and tries to set an example for the rest of the Americas.