Mexico’s Noisy, Colorful, Unserious Election

We’re About to Elect Our First Woman President, But Most of Us Know Real Change Isn’t Coming

María Guillén, an editor living in Mexico City, sees political posters plastered all around her—but she isn’t convinced elections will bring real change to the country. Former Mexico City mayor and current frontrunner for president Claudia Sheinbaum greets supporters during a 2023 campaign rally. Courtesy of AP Photo/Ginnette Riquelme.

The biggest elections in Mexican history will take place on June 2. Citizens will vote to fill more than 20,000 offices: electing a new president and governors from eight of our 32 states, filling the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies (the equivalent of the U.S. House of Representatives), and installing a new head of government for Mexico City and thousands of other communities.

If that sounds hectic, it’s because it is. In Mexico City, braving a month-long heatwave, literal tons of political propaganda litter the streets. Every free wall, pedestrian bridge, and lamp post has been overtaken by multicolor plastic signs and candidates’ smiling faces. Plastered one on top of the other, most end up crumbled, half ripped, or destroyed. Clara Brugada and Santiago Taboada, political rivals running for head of government in Mexico City, have denounced each other’s teams for taking down the propaganda. It gets put back up within days.

Despite the posters’ bright colors, these contests can only be described as gray—the opposite of exciting. Rather than being about the future, they’re stuck in the past.

In México, people often see the president as a villain. Things seemed different when the leftist Morena party leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador ran for the office in 2018. As Mexico City’s mayor from 2000 to 2005, López Obrador expanded the Periférico, the city’s biggest urban highway; renovated the city center; provided government pensions for citizens 70 and over; inaugurated the Metrobús system; and stood up to President Vicente Fox.

Despite a prominent bribery scandal, López Obrador positioned himself as an outsider, speaking often about fighting the Mexican power mafia, politicians and businessmen who acted against the true interests of Mexico. López Obrador lost in 2006—by a mere 0.56%—and again in 2012. During these years he traveled the country calling himself the “legitimate president” who had won the 2006 election. In 2018, he won a decisive victory, defeating his runner up by 31 percentage points, and becoming Mexico’s first “president of the people,” as he would put it. He launched a daily, two-to-three-hour 7:00 a.m. press conference called the “Mañanera,” in order to speak to his people. He opened the Mexican White House to the public as a museum.

Many Mexicans believed that perhaps this man would be the change the country needed, after enduring decades of corruption and scandal. On Sunday July 1, when López Obrador’s victory was announced, hundreds of thousands gathered in Mexico City’s Zócalo, or main square, in a moment of joy, hope, and catharsis. I went there with my mother; she was truly happy, because she had supported him for years and thought it would never be possible for him to win. That day, in front of the roaring crowd, López Obrador hugged himself as if he were hugging all of us and said, “I love you.”

López Obrador named his movement “La Cuarta Transformación,” or the Fourth Transformation, suggesting his presidency would mark a historic shift comparable to the Mexican Revolution of 1910—an era of “Primero los pobres,” where the poor come first.

It feels as if today’s Mexican political system is run by the idea, rather than the reality, of electoral change.

Reality has failed to meet expectations. The president promised to combat elite private sector interests, but promoted a model of austerity and reduced public spending that erased dozens of government programs in favor of a model of direct monthly payments for some disadvantaged groups. These payments, made by bank transfer, have been denounced for irregularities, and for being used as a way to condition voting, and have only increased private sector power. Some 30 million Mexicans lost access to health care.

López Obrador leaned into divisive, authoritarian, populist rhetoric. He also instituted changes to the police and military that made Mexicans less safe. In many states today, including Michoacán, Zacatecas, and Guanajuato, organized crime factions force residents in mining, transport, or agriculture to pay a fee just to do their work. In the country there is a crisis of over 300,000 internally displaced persons that have relocated due to violence.

Almost six years have gone by, and López Obrador is facing the end of his term. Many people are pleased with the monthly payments; salaries have increased, too. For many Mexican voters, the president still represents a moral alternative over politicians from traditional parties. He was, they say, chosen by the people.

But for the rest of us, the mood is no longer joyful—just skeptical. These elections have involved a huge outpouring of resources. They have been loud. Cars drive through the streets with boomboxes announcing the names of the candidates. Politicians dress in the colors of their parties (phosphorescent orange from head to toe for the Movimiento Ciudadano party). It’s like being at a carnival—noisy, colorful, unserious—and on social media the frenzy is even more intense: You can see videos of candidates dancing and giving away Cheetos with their faces stamped on the packages.

The flashiness is not accidental. Money is the driving force behind these elections. It is the criterion for selecting local candidates, who pay a fee to run for office. It pours out to thousands of consultants to feed the endless publicity and influence votes. Organized crime money finances campaigns and buys candidates. The whole exercise feels like a marketplace, not a forum for ideas.

The day of the election may be a chaotic one. Already, electoral violence is at an all-time high, with more than 30 candidates murdered. Mexicans expect to see the same kinds of disruptions that occurred in the midterm elections of 2021, as well as confrontations between candidates when results are close.

There’s one change that’s certain: Mexico will have its first female president. Physicist Claudia Sheinbaum, the candidate for Morena, has spent the past six years as mayor of Mexico City, and all polls suggest she’ll win. She is running against another woman, former Senator Xóchitl Gálvez, from the opposition PAN-PRI-PRD party, a conglomeration of former opponents whose uncomfortable marriage has the sole purpose of forming a unified front against Morena. Sheinbaum, López Obrador’s designated successor, has promised continuity: to defend the poor and represent the people, fight corruption, and uphold the principles of La Cuarta Transformación. But her promises are hard to believe. Sheinbaum’s government in Mexico City failed to show accountability for incidents of negligence like the collapse of a subway line in 2021 that resulted in the death of 27 passengers, reduced investment in public transportation, and failed to uphold promises to make a greener, less polluted city. She is also working within a divided, fractious party—and a movement so identified with one charismatic politician that many wonder if it can outlast its creator.

Xóchitl Gálvez, meanwhile, is inexperienced and little-known. Her candidacy reflects the traditional parties’ inability to produce strong opponents. It is as if none of the big names wanted to contend against Morena.

Idealists might say that these elections are a decision between two visions for Mexico’s future. In my mind, they are something less profound: a reaffirmation of a movement that prophesizes extraordinary morality while sadly copying previous governments’ vices. It feels as if today’s Mexican political system is run by the idea, rather than the reality, of electoral change. Through elections we can put a woman in power, an outsider in power, a different party in power; we can punish the ruling party, or the traditional parties.

Change alone is not hard. What is hard—extremely hard—is change that makes things better.

The elections are all people talk about here, but they feel like background noise to me. More competition does not necessarily translate into more democracy, or better democracy. It’s the scramble for power that truly drives Mexican politicians. Little can be said for the exercise of power itself, or if leaders care at all about what happens the day that follows the election.


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