Mexicans to vote in test for Lopez Obrador

·3-min read

Mexico holds elections Sunday in a key test of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's popularity after more than two years in office marked by the devastating pandemic and cartel-related violence.

Around 95 million Mexicans are eligible to vote in the polls, which will elect 500 members of the lower house of Congress, 15 of 32 state governors and thousands of local politicians.

The prospect of a major backlash against the ruling party over its handling of the pandemic appears to have been diminished by a steady decline in coronavirus fatalities and increased vaccinations in recent months.

Although Mexico's pandemic death toll of more than a quarter of a million is the world's fourth highest, surveys suggest that the economy and crime are now bigger concerns for many voters.

The elections have been marred by a wave of political bloodshed that has seen dozens of politicians murdered since the electoral process began in September.

The government has blamed the killings -- part of a broader wave of violence -- on drug cartels seeking to expand their political influence.

"While the contenders wrangle for voters' support, criminal groups have been busy seeking out potential allies among future elected officials," the International Crisis Group think tank said in a report.

- Reforms at stake -

Any erosion of the ruling coalition's two-thirds majority in the lower house of Congress would complicate Lopez Obrador's promised "transformation" of the country.

His Morena party and its allies are projected to see their dominance of the Chamber of Deputies decline from 333 seats to 322, according to a poll of polls by the Oraculus firm.

"Even if they keep a simple majority, it will be seen as a defeat for Lopezobradorism," said Carlos Bravo Regidor, an analyst at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching think tank.

Lopez Obrador, a left-wing populist, was elected in 2018 for a term of six years, vowing to overhaul Mexico's "neoliberal" economic model.

The self-styled anti-corruption, pro-austerity crusader continues to enjoy public approval ratings above 60 percent, surveys show.

"The president continues to be the main actor in the entire Mexican political ecosystem," said analyst Paula Sofia Vazquez.

A key question is to what extent the 67-year-old's popularity will translate into votes for Morena in midterm elections that typically see the ruling party lose seats.

- Economic malaise -

A two-thirds majority in the lower house has enabled Lopez Obrador to amend the constitution without negotiating with his opponents.

The future of his reform agenda -- such as seeking to make Mexico more energy independent -- depends on whether voters punish him for issues including the pandemic and its economic fallout.

Mexico's economy, the second-largest in Latin America, plunged by 8.5 percent in 2020 in the worst slump in decades, although the government predicts a rebound this year.

Lopez Obrador has kept a tight grip on the public purse strings during the pandemic, saying it would be imprudent to increase the national debt.

Mexico remains plagued by violence, with more than 83,000 murders since Lopez Obrador took office.

His supporters say he is their first president to put the interests of the Mexican majority before those of the privileged elite.

Lopez Obrador owes much of his popularity to his social welfare programs aimed at helping the poor.

"We've never run out of food. We have been given the support to be able to get through this pandemic," said Edgar Alonso, a small business owner in Mexico City.

Lopez Obrador's critics say he is undermining democratic checks and balances with his attacks on the judiciary and the National Electoral Institute.

But more than two years after he swept to power, the opposition has yet to propose a credible alternative, experts say.

"The disappointed Lopez Obrador supporters really have nowhere else to turn," said Bravo Regidor.

jla-dr/bfm