Mexican Midterms 2021: A Survey of the Opposition

In June 2021 AMLO’s political movement, the Fourth Transformation, will face off with its opposition in the largest Mexican elections yet, competing to dictate the political conditions for the latter half of AMLO’s presidency — that is, if he survives the recall referendum in 2022 and other attempts to destabilize his government.

“Central strategy: promote a Broad Opposition Front to advance in two moments. ONE, win the lower house in 2021 and TWO, remove AMLO from the presidency through the recall referendum of 2022”, quoted the President’s Press Secretary from a leaked document on national television.

“This is a confidential document. It is called Rescuing Mexico and the project is Broad Opposition Front [BOA]”, he had stumbled through his words seconds before.

Press Secretary Jesús Ramírez reads from a leaked document. The slide focuses on the proposal for an opposition lobbying strategy in Washington.

The document, presented on June 9, 2020, allegedly outlined an opposition strategy of hybrid war for the next two years to dislodge the Fourth Transformation (4T) from power, employing mechanisms of multidimensional conflict like manipulating social media; inducing foreign intervention; deploying psychological warfare; and weaponizing judicial instruments. The blueprint identified key allies and presented a plan of action to achieve its objectives: the ruling leftist party, Morena, would lose its majority in the lower house in 2021 and the President would be ousted by 2022.

Page 3 of “Rescuing Mexico: Project BOA”.

Opposition figures questioned the document’s veracity, while other opposition commentators scoffed at the thought of any scandal, since the document did not describe any explicit lawbreaking, a notion even the government knew to be true. Neither President López Obrador, nor his Press Secretary, Jesús Ramírez, explained how the government acquired the document or who wrote it, but they presented the hybrid war blueprint as damning evidence of a conniving opposition plotting the President’s ouster.

Truthfully, the document could have been elaborated in the smoky war rooms of the business elite, or in the polished offices of a trendy Mexico City political consulting firm. It is also plausible it could be written by operatives at the Secretariat of the Interior (Gobernación), tasked unofficially with producing political intelligence, in this case to anticipate the terms of discussion for the 2021 midterms, forcing the opposition into a defensive position operating in the open.

Regardless of its authorship, its content is categorically relevant, as it provides a tentative map of the occasionally overlapping, sometimes coordinated and intermittently competing opposition political projects. The opposition landscape ahead of the historical midterms in June is populated by the interlocking trajectories of these projects. All of them culminate with the removal from power of the first leftist president of Mexico in 80 years.

Economic Elites

Capitalists and Coca Cola

Central among the players in the Broad Opposition Front is the Business Coordinating Council, or Consejo Coordinador Empresarial (CCE). This behemoth is the ultimate chamber of commerce, a confederation of 7 large business associations and a primary organizing arm of the Mexican capitalist elite. It is part of the historical record that the CCE bankrolled and developed the anti-AMLO “dirty war” in 2006. Coparmex, also mentioned in the leaked paper, is the Mexican employers association; its membership represents approximately 30% of Mexico’s GDP and it is a central node in a complex network of civil society fronts.

Page 6 of the document listing possible allies.

The Monterrey Group receives a special mention, specifically FEMSA, better known as Coca Cola in Latin America. Grupo Monterrey is a powerful economic group with a significant margin of maneuver economically and politically. Oddly enough, the document mentions only FEMSA by name, even though several other companies make up this economic consortium; chief among them, international giants like Cemex (construction) and Gruma (agrobusiness).

Notably, FEMSA has pragmatically avoided outright confrontation with the López Obrador administration. They denied participation in the Opposition Front and days later disavowed alleged comments by an executive alluding to financing the President’s ouster: “We’ll pay our taxes, but I’ll pay twice as much to get rid of AMLO in 2022”, José Antonio Fernández Carbajal, president of FEMSA’s board of directors is quoted as saying in response to a government crackdown on tax evasion in June of 2020.

In August, FEMSA went to court to challenge the federal government’s new health and labeling regulations that required warning labels on food products with high contents of fat, sugar, sodium and calories. FEMSA issued parallel legal challenges to more stringent legislation from Morena in the states of Oaxaca and Tabasco which prohibited the sale of “junk food” to minors. In a surprising turn of events, President Lopez Obrador met with Coca Cola global CEO James Quincy on September 21. A week later, FEMSA announced it would abide by the new regulations, though the legal challenges are still being processed in the courts.

Mexican president and Coca Cola CEO, center. Alfonso Romo, Chief of Staff, far right. Photo: Industria Mexicana de Coca Cola.

The September meeting with high level Coca Cola executives was attended by the President’s then Chief of Staff, Alfonso Romo (far right in the photo), an agroindustiralist magnate and financier with close ties to Grupo Monterrey. Despite the businessman’s resignation from the cabinet on December 2, President López Obrador clarified Romo would remain as his principal liaison with the business community, a position he’s entrusted the Monterrey industrialist since 2011. He has done a remarkable job, not necessarily converting the capitalist class into AMLOvers, but convincing them AMLO’s project does not threaten their fundamental interests: “far from Chávez and closer to Lula”, is one of Romo’s key sales pitch to “sell” AMLO to business elites.

Playing by the Rules… For Now

The apparent truce between sectors of the economic elite and the current administration suggests the continuation of a pragmatic approach to AMLO’s victory in 2018. These sectors recognized the inevitability of change and thus sought to guarantee advantages in renegotiated arrangements with the newly governing coalition forged by AMLO. This pragmatic coexistence between factions of the economic elite and the Lopez Obrador administration can be observed in the cases of Grupo Monterrey, Grupo Salinas and even Carlos Slim’s Grupo Carso — despite the frequent, bad-faith speculation regarding the President’s relationship with the billionaire.

The President and Mexico’s richest man supervising construction of Mitla-Tehuantepec highway in the isthmus. Photo: Presidencia de la República.

On the contrary, the Fourth Transformation’s development programs and infrastructure “megaprojects” accommodate opportunities for capital to expand into new markets and consolidate existing ones. While activists and Morena’s own constituencies criticize these massive infrastructural investments, they generate expectation and palm-rubbing among powerful economic players. BlackRock, for example, the largest asset manager in the world, wants to invest in the geostrategic Isthmus of Tehuantepec project, a transoceanic corridor that will exponentially multiply North American connectivity.

Both AMLO and foreign capital are committed to pushing forward the Isthmus Project.

Considering AMLO’s high popularity and political capital; Morena’s legislative majorities; and the opportunities for win-win cooperation, significant sectors of the business elite continue to express a willingness, on one hand, to sit at the table, and secondly, to play by the rules of the game — at least until it is no longer convenient.

Currently, the configuration of risks and opportunities complicates the possibility that a critical assemblage of business interests will operate openly and in concert with the opposition during these midterms. This is with the exception of Coparmex and CCE, which are already committed to the opposition electoral project this cycle.

A more plausible scenario — one reproduced at the subnational level, like the state of Chihuahua is that the business elite will focus on backing candidates in races for governors, mayors and state legislators, while selectively supporting federal legislative candidacies across party lines but with immediate returns at the local level.

Given that the alignment of risks and opportunities will likely be different going into the recall referendum of 2022, key economic players might recalculate their strategy after the June midterms, especially if the opposition acquires and consolidates gains. This will be an exceptionally attractive opportunity to regroup for some elite sectors that will not commit to opposition projects before the elections. Besides the timing, this also opens the possibility to end AMLO’s presidency prematurely and without the necessity of dragging the country through a risky parlimentary coup or controversially deploying lawfare strategies against a popular president.

Electoral Opposition

Complicities and Class Restoration

On December 22, 2020 the three main opposition parties announced an electoral alliance for the midterms. This brought to fruition the first two points in BOA’s plan of action, inaugurating a new space in the hybrid war targeting the López Obrador administration. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the National Action Party (PAN) and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) coalesced around Va por México for 11 of 15 governorships and 166 of 300 federal legislative districts, as well as numerous local candidacies from over 21 thousand races.

Millionaire Claudio X. González meets with PAN party president Marko Cortés. Photo: Partido Acción Nacional.

The coalition is backed by the millionaire-funded Sí x Mexico, a network of more than 400 opposition civil society groups and far-right outfits involved in issues of checks and balances, religious activism, transparency, and anti-corruption. The network is led in part by Claudio X. González Guajardo, influential businessman and capitalist philanthropist with sway inside various elite business associations, like the CCE and the Mexican Business Council (Consejo Mexicano de Negocios). His father, Claudio X. González Laporte, is an old guard oligarch of Kimberly-Clark fame. Both father and son finance multiple civil society groups, though their most important proxy is Mexicans Against Impunity and Corruption (Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad).

Sí x Mexico is co-sponsored by Gustavo de Hoyos, influential former president of the aforementioned employers’ union, Coparmex. Both Claudio X. González and Gustavo de Hoyos’ pursuit of a presidential candidacy in 2024 has come to be defined largely in terms of class restoration, as documented by veteran journalist Álvaro Delgado, expert on the Mexican right wing.

The far right ecologies of the Mexican political space also host a number of civil society groups, nominally non-partisan but choleric in their hatred of the President. The National Anti-AMLO Front, or FRENAA, embodies this type of group. It is led by far right archconservative Gilberto Lozano, who notoriously threatened the President by declaring he had established a testamentary trust and hired a team of mercenaries to posthumously “eliminate anyone who needs to be eliminated” if anything happened to Lozano or his family. The organization serves mainly as an astroturfing front that mobilizes the conservative upper middle class, and it lends its structure to opposition media ops. For instance, FRENAA’s occupation of the Zócalo (main square) and Avenida Juárez in Mexico City famously consisted of empty tents and few people. As one of the most far-right voices with a mainstream platform, FRENAA traffics in perceptions and narratives, making it a key player in the hybrid war against the 4T.

Empty tents for FRENAA’s media ops in September 2020.

The Eternal Question of the Dubious Referee

Unsurprisingly for observers of Mexican politics, the impartiality of the electoral authorities has been called into question ahead of the elections… and it will likely be questioned afterwards, like in every electoral cycle. For its part, the National Electoral Institute (INE) has done little to generate trust, particularly the president of the electoral authority, Lorenzo Córdova.

Lorenzo Córdova, president of the electoral authority, contrasts significantly with his father, renowned Marxist academic Arnaldo Córdova. Photo: INE

On January 12, 2021 the president of the INE announced the suspension of the President’s daily morning press conference to safeguard the elections from meddling by the federal executive. Morena sympathizers saw it as a political move by a discredited electoral authority; the President called it censorship and the federal government filed a legal challenge in court.

The morning press conference is a critical part of the President’s communicational strategy. Effectively commanding the news cycle, López Obrador uses the morning conference to set the agenda and speak directly to the Mexican people. By limiting this space the electoral authority incapacitated a strategic informational tool at the president’s disposal.

Agenda setting and communication strategy drive AMLO’s daily briefing.

Córdova explained the decision was based on the electoral tribunal’s ruling on what constitutes government propaganda, which is limited during electoral times by law. On January 15, with 9 votes in favor and 3 against the INE ratified the President must avoid speaking about political parties, candidacies, campaigns and polls during his morning conferences between April and June.

Despite his position as head of the electoral authority, Lorenzo Córdova’s behavior is consistent. He secured his 9-year term as INE president in 2014 through the congressional machinations of the Pact for Mexico, a legislative coalition secured by the Peña Nieto administration with kickbacks and payoffs in the form of suitcases full of cash. Córdova’s election was a negotiation of dividends between the PRI, PRD and PAN, all of them part of the opposition electoral bloc in 2021.

A year into his presidency, a leaked audio surfaced of Lorenzo Córdova candidly expressing his racism and classism: “Not even kidding, from the dramatic meetings with the parents from Ayotzinapa to this dude — I won’t lie — I’ll show you how this dude talked”, snickered Córdova in the recording before doubling down on a racist impression of an indigenous man he had just met at an official function.

This electoral cycle, the INE suspended multiple Morena ads, ruling they violated electoral rules. The electoral tribunal overturned at least 4 of these suspensions. One ad in particular, criticizing the PRI-PAN-PRD alliance remains “banned" by the INE, making it a viral sensation on social media, especially since it appealed to a shared “common sense" conception of political society as irredeemably corrupt irrespective of party differences.

“Banned” Morena ad criticizing opposition collusion.

Additionally, this past December, outspoken INE councilor Ciro Murayama presented a book with an unspoken but discernible dedication; it was titled: “I, the People. How Populism Transforms Democracy”. Councilor Murayama pontificated on the dangers of populism in a clear indictment frequently and disingenuously leveled against the left in Latin America. Days later, President Lorenzo Córdova went further, warning that “populism dismantles democratic guarantees.”

While academic discussions of populism can be expected from electoral authorities, both the timing, the bad-faith arguments and the media coverage fit into a wider pattern to discredit leftist movements and parties with liberal mischaracterizations of populism.

Similarly, the Federal Electoral Tribunal (TEPJF) does not come out unscathed from allegations of bias. The tribunal played a suspiciously zealous role in Morena’s internal elections to choose its state and national chairs. First, in October 2019, it revoked the guidelines the party set for itself in its leadership renewal process. In early 2020, it determined the internal selection process for national chair would be through opinion polls conducted by phone, an easily manipulated method that is not contemplated in Morena’s party charter. Having postponed the election twice, the TEPJF then forced an electoral timeline for party leadership at the state level, over any logistical or statutory consideration.

The tribunal’s interference into Morena’s selection process for its party leadership ahead of an election year generated resentment and stoked factionalism within the governing party. It was widely speculated both by party members and outside observers that the agitation whipped up by the tribunal inside Morena was an act of sabotage. Towards the end of the selection process in October of 2020, the TEPJF’s apparent favoritism for one of the party factions, led by veteran politician Mario Delgado, finally sealed any doubts regarding the electoral court’s pragmatic partisanship.

The people are now in charge of making decisions, they are the principal protagonists. The people have never been dumb. Those on top thought the people were dumb, but they’re the stupid ones", remarked President López Obrador on June 9, 2020, minutes before displaying the BOA document on national airwaves.

This is how we win. This is how we triumph. This is how we are carrying out this transformation, from the bottom up, and in benefit of everyone. But without exploiting, without stealing,” he continued.

“Sharing. Guaranteeing equality. Not leaving anyone behind. No humiliation, without racism and classism,” underscored the President.

But his infallible faith in the “Mexican people" as a reified mass, together with his sincere sense of service, are not enough to save the Fourth Transformation from its enemies — or from itself. The President knows this from years of experience weaving together the tattered social fabric of communities into a plural patchwork of social movements and political linkages across a war-torn country.

The midterms will demonstrate if this synergy can be solidly articulated as a long-term governing program, or of it will give way under the multidimensional assault by opposition networks.

This is part of a series on the Mexican midterm elections, mapping competing political projects at the national and subnational level, and tracing the interaction of geopolitical and electoral processes as they unfold in the local and international dimensions.

Some specific topics covered will include: political opposition; US-Mexican relations; gender quotas; independent candidates; media tactics; social movements; political violence; and federalism.

Reporter and political consultant based in Northern Mexico and the US Southwest