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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Luis Gómez Romero, Senior Lecturer in Human Rights, Constitutional Law and Legal Theory, University of Wollongong

On October 17, 1953, constitutional reform granted women the right to vote in Mexico, and two years later, women cast ballots for the first time in a federal election.

Now, nearly 70 years later, Mexico has elected a woman president for the first time, according to an official quick count.

Claudia Sheinbaum, the former mayor of Mexico City with a PhD in energy engineering, is also the first Jewish person to lead Mexico, where 70% of the population is Catholic.

The election was mainly contested between two candidates, both of whom were women. Sheinbaum, the front-runner, represented the left-wing coalition “Let’s Keep Making History”. This was formed by the ruling party, Morena, and its minor partners, the Green Party (PVEM) and the Labor Party (PT).

Her main rival, Xóchitl Gálvez, who was trailing by nearly 30% in the official quick count, represented the coalition “Strength and Heart for Mexico”. This is composed of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), National Action Party (PAN) and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Jorge Álvarez of the Citizen Movement party trailed in third place.

This was the largest election in Mexico’s history, with more than 98 million citizens registered to vote. Nearly 20,000 elected positions were being contested, including the presidency, both chambers of Congress and thousands of local seats.

It was also the most violent election, with more than 30 politicians killed.

The new president will now face two major challenges: confronting the rampant violence in Mexican society and increasing militarisation of public life, and the deterioration of checks and balances on executive power.

Sheinbaum’s mentor, current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has not solved the first issue, and has significantly worsened the second.

A populist leader

Part of Gálvez’s defeat is attributed to the tarnished reputation of the PRI, PAN, and, to a lesser extent, the PRD. These parties are associated with a period known as Mexico’s democratic transition from 1988-2018.

The democratic transition resulted in new laws reinforcing independent decision-making in electoral practices in the 1990s.

The transition governments, however, were marked by the mediocre performance of political leaders, as well as a growing inequality in society. The military also became more involved in law enforcement in response to the worsening Mexican drug war, leading to unprecedented violence.

López Obrador was elected in 2018 after two failed campaigns. He has never accepted his 2006 defeat, alleging the opposition parties stole the election. When he lost the 2012 vote by seven points, he again claimed there was electoral fraud.

López Obrador has seen himself as the continuation of Mexico’s three great periods of emancipation: independence from Spain (1810-1821), the Reform War that marked the separation between church and state (1857-1861), and the Revolution (1910-1920) that ended a 30-year dictatorship and ushered in the current Constitution. López Obrador labelled his regime as the “Fourth Transformation” of Mexico.

He deeply despises the imperfect and fragmented achievements of Mexico’s democratic transition, a period he considers a betrayal of Mexican history, tainted by neo-liberal policies and corruption. He has frequently denounced the opposition — even during the electoral period, despite laws against this.

López Obrador still maintains a 65% approval rating. Many Mexicans considered his economic and social programs a success, such as scholarships and pensions for lower-income residents.

So while his popularity benefited Sheinbaum’s campaign, his shadow will now loom over her government.

More militarised society

By 2018, around 227,000 Mexicans had lost their lives due to the drug war initiated by former President Felipe Calderón. López Obrador began his term promising to withdraw the army from policing duties. “Hugs, not bullets,” he has said on numerous occasions.

That changed quickly. López Obrador dismantled the federal police and replaced it with a new force called the National Guard, primarily composed of military personnel. He also pushed for this new force to be attached to the National Defense Secretariat (Sedena), without civilian oversight. Sedena is under the direct control of the president.

López Obrador has argued the military guarantees loyalty and honesty, which is highly questionable given allegations of corruption and summary executions against the military.

And in the past six years, violence has reached unprecedented levels in the country. Official data shows between 2018 and 2023, there were more than 171,000 homicides, of which nearly 5,000 were femicides (the killings of women by men in acts of gendered violence).

In addition, more than 50,000 Mexicans went missing since López Obrador took office — this is roughly one person per hour.

Sheinbaum denies Mexico is becoming more militarised. She has also promised to pursue López Obrador’s plan to attach the National Guard to the Sedena.

Consolidating power

López Obrador has gradually concentrated power in the office of the president.

In the second half of his term, the opposition said it would no longer support his government’s legislative initiatives. The ruling bloc decided to ignore the opposition and pass reforms with the support of minor parties that were later invalidated by the Supreme Court.

This included a legislative overhaul of the national electoral authority, which critics said would give more power to officials affiliated with Morena.

Then, on February 5, the anniversary of the signing of the Mexican Constitution, the president presented a series of constitutional reforms to Congress aimed at fundamentally changing the judiciary’s structure.

López Obrador did not have the necessary congressional majority to achieve the reforms, but Sheinbaum has promised to carry out the amendments.

Restoring hope

One Mexican woman, Leticia Hidalgo, voted for her son for president in last weekend’s election. He was not a candidate. Rather, police took the 18-year-old from his home in Monterrey in 2011 and he never returned.

His mother, along with several other activists, launched a protest during the election to encourage people to cast their ballot for a disappeared person. The goal: to make visible those who have disappeared in Mexico.

Sheinbaum must now govern a country that has become polarised by López Obrador’s policies and governing style. She must govern not only for those who voted for her opponents, but also those, like Hidalgo, who demand the government finally provides Mexicans with the means to live in freedom, equality and peace, without fear of losing their lives or disappearing.

The Conversation

Luis Gómez Romero does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. Mexico has elected its first female president. Claudia Sheinbaum inherits a polarised, violent country looking for hope –