MEXICO CITY — Heading into Mexico’s election season, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) remains one of the world’s most popular leaders, with one polling aggregator putting his approval at 67%. Although he cannot run for reelection, several recent moves suggest the president believes his popularity will allow him to continue to dictate policy well after he leaves office. He may well be right.
AMLO’s ruling party, Morena, is the clear frontrunner for the July 2024 vote, with support from 48% of respondents, compared to 18% for PAN and 14% for the PRI, the two main opposition parties, in an April poll by El Financiero. The two frontrunners to be Morena’s candidate are former Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum and Marcelo Ebrard, until recently AMLO’s foreign minister. Both candidates are experienced politicians who could appeal to a broad swathe of Mexican voters. But it’s dubious either would be able to replicate AMLO’s popularity, which gives the current president considerable leverage over his would-be successors—leverage he seems to already be using.
Indeed, AMLO has announced that prior to leaving office in 2024, he will introduce at least three major constitutional reform bills to be considered by the next legislature under the next president. These bills are monumental in their ambition: They would seek to have Supreme Court justices elected by popular vote, transfer control of the National Guard to the Army, and lower the pension eligibility age from 68 to 65.
Under the current dynamic, AMLO’s potential successors have little choice but to commit to this agenda as they campaign. Each is touring the country to try to convince voters—and AMLO himself—that he or she is the best option to carry the current president’s vision forward. No matter who is announced as the winner of Morena’s nominating contest on September 6, the candidate will be saddled with a platform designed in large part by the current president.
AMLO has also said he supports consolation prizes for primary runners-up. This way, AMLO aims to ensure that the second- and third-place candidates would get to lead Morena’s blocs in the Senate and the lower house, respectively, and that the fourth-place finisher would land a prominent position in the next president’s cabinet, according to media reports. Such a plan would at once expand AMLO’s reach in the next government and disincentivize any of the runners-up from jumping ship to another party.
AMLO is acting now to shape the next administration in part because, once he is out of office as of October 1, 2024, his influence will—eventually—begin to wane. He will no longer be able to use his daily morning mañanera press conferences, for example, to shine the public spotlight upon himself and his chosen narratives, which has been vital. He uses the conferences to burnish his image as a common man who is close to the people, and to create narratives that blame old practices and perceived antagonists—from previous administrations to economic elites or whoever else proves convenient at a given moment—for the country’s challenges, including corruption, violence and inequality.
Yet his influence will not diminish entirely, largely because his popularity is likely to outshine whomever succeeds him. AMLO has honed his public image over decades, traveling the country time and again throughout his political career—not just when seeking votes. He is from a small town in Tabasco, and has been to every single municipality in Mexico, and talks like it. Sheinbaum and Ebrard are both from Mexico City, and cannot affect the same kind of persona.
He has also managed to avoid being personally implicated in any major corruption scandal. There’s evidence suggesting graft by AMLO’s family members and high-profile officials in his administration, but he personally has managed to remain to many a symbol of relatively clean and honest politics. Ebrard and Sheinbaum both have baggage from their time as mayors of Mexico City, including allegations of wrongdoing and negligence in the construction and maintenance of the Metro’s ill-fated Line 12. This makes it unlikely either could achieve the same status.
In short, AMLO has a reputation for honesty that others simply cannot match. His focus on cash transfer programs, his combative rhetoric and a weak opposition all play a role in his popularity. But polling shows that the public’s support of the president is based on the perception that he is honest—not his capacity to deliver results. In a May poll, El Financiero found that 58% of respondents rated AMLO’s honesty positively, compared to 52% for his leadership and 40% for his capacity to deliver results. This is nothing new; the public has consistently rated AMLO lowest on this last metric since he took office.
This basis of his popularity explains why criticizing AMLO’s lack of effectiveness on issues like crime and the economy is not a winning strategy for the opposition, and why Mexicans continue to support him despite a litany of controversies and apparent policy failures. It also shows that it will be far more difficult for a politician without AMLO’s credibility—hard-won over decades—to shift blame and remain popular when the going gets tough.
Still, during the campaign, whoever wins the Morena nomination, whether Sheinbaum, Ebrard or someone else, will enjoy a honeymoon with the public blessed by AMLO’s popularity. But it will be a honeymoon with conditions, namely that AMLO will continue to shape the years to come, and try to guarantee his legacy.
Soto is an associate director at Control Risks and a research affiliate at the Center for the Study of Security, Intelligence and Governance (CESIG) of the Autonomous Institute of Technology of Mexico (ITAM).
Tags: AMLO, Elections, Mexico