Mexican Midterms 2021 Scenarios: Party, Policy & President

Mexico and MORENA at a historical crossroads. Photo: Antonio Huizar.

Mexico will hold its largest elections in history this June 6, with 92 million registered voters eligible to define the balance of power for the latter half of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s presidency. AMLO’s political party, MORENA, and its allies, will face off with the opposition in over 21 thousand local races, competing for a majority of the 500 seats of the lower legislative house; 15 of 32 governorships are also up for grabs. The electoral outcome will determine the political conditions and policy options heading into the recall referendum of 2022 and the presidential elections of 2024.

While the governing coalition seeks to retain its majority in the Chamber of Deputies, the opposition alliance aims to deny MORENA and its allies this objective, while making advances toward a competitive front in 2024. AMLO’s ability to push his agenda largely hinges on control of the legislature. Losing this legislative majority will constrain the president’s policy choices on crucial issues like energy reform, fiscal rules, social spending and security policy.

MORENA leads with comfortable margins in eight governors’ races, while the opposition leads in three states; four other states remain competitive and could go either way. Similarly, polling indicates the governing coalition will likely retain its majority in the Chamber of Deputies. Political conditions remain dynamic, however, and slight changes in voting intention could jeopardize this outlook.

Post-electoral outcomes can be divided into two possible scenarios, each with different implications:

  • MORENA retains majority in the lower house, advances at the subnational level, especially the North
  • MORENA loses majority in the lower house, underperforms at the subnational level

This essay will discuss the possible implications for each of these scenarios focusing on three categories: party, policy and president.

Scenario 1: MORENA Retains Majority

The majority of polls indicate MORENA will maintain its majority in the Chamber of Deputies, though voting intention for the governing party has been on decline throughout the first trimester of 2021.

Oraculus poll aggregator. June 2 update.

For MORENA, control of the lower house is crucial to push the president’s and the party’s legislative agenda. Keeping its parliamentary majority secures a mandate to further the Fourth Transformation’s program, while also guaranteeing favorable governing conditions and predictability in the legislature. Under this scenario, the opposition will remain relegated to other mechanisms of political influence, like civil society groups, media and subnational levels of government.

Policy

The election will function as a political thermometer for MORENA party elites and the president to decide on what type and pace of change they will pursue in the latter half of AMLO’s sexenio. A comfortable majority could encourage both the president and influential party figures to forge ahead with policies characterized as having high political risk, meaning those policies disapproved by public opinion or energetically opposed by organized interest groups (social, economic or others).

Maintaining a majority in the Chamber of Deputies will not only determine the ruling party’s policy menu, but also the extent of change that accompanies reform. For instance, the recent hydrocarbons law gives the government a range of tools to wrestle back control of the downstream and midstream sectors. An electoral mandate for the governing party will increase the willingness of the current administration to utilize existing tools and other mechanisms to pursue policy goals and political objectives, like energy sovereignty. Likewise, maintaining a majority in the lower house opens the possibility for constitutional reforms.

The electoral outcome will define policy menu and rate of change. Photo: Presidencia de la República.

In this first scenario, a MORENA majority could embolden the president to replicate Enrique Peña Nieto’s fast-track constitutional changes for structural reforms, albeit pursuing a markedly different agenda. AMLO has declared his intention to repeal the 2013 Energy Reform, beyond the changes already implemented under his administration, and going further in a left-nationalist vision of energy policy. Other policies similarly conditioned by the outcome of the midterms are new fiscal rules, judicial reform, security strategy, as well as natural resource policy (particularly mining and hydrocarbons).

Currently, MORENA and its allies narrowly meet the two-thirds threshold in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate required for constitutional amendments. Additionally, MORENA has parliamentary majorities in 21 state legislatures and it governs five states, plus Mexico City; constitutional changes need approval by 17 of 32 state legislatures.

MORENA is poised to win at least eight “safe states:”

  • Baja California — the only state in competition where MORENA is the incumbent party and where the PRI abandoned the opposition coalition
  • Colima — MORENA’s candidate leads by a wide margin in most polls
  • Guerrero — where the daughter of the original candidate maintained a substantial lead throughout the campaign
  • Nayarit — MORENA’s candidate holds a significant advantage in public opinion polls
  • Sinaloa — where MORENA turned a competitive race into a comfortable advantage
  • Sonora — former public security minister, Alfonso Durazo, a formidable candidate leads a winning campaign
  • Tlaxcala — all opinion polls point to an advantage for MORENA comfortably above the margin of error
  • Zacatecas — an important race with an advantage for David Monreal, brother of MORENA’s senate coordinator and presidential hopeful, Ricardo Monreal

There are four competitive gubernatorial races within the margin of error:

  • Campeche — a state where veteran leftist firebrand Layda Sansores has seen her lead shrink into a flip-of-a-coin scenario
  • Chihuahua — historical bastion of the PAN that went from safe state to competitive due to a corrupt candidate and adroit electoral alliances by MORENA; a historical race for the Mexican left
  • Michoacán — where an easy win for MORENA turned competitive once the original candidate was barred from running
  • San Luis Potosi — in which a peculiar three-way race remains highly competitive

And three safe wins for the opposition:

  • Baja California Sur — a state where the opposition maintained a strong lead that turned out to be irreversible
  • Queretaro — a blue state where the PAN candidate has held a comfortable lead and MORENA had no real chance
  • Nuevo León — where the MORENA candidate sunk to third place within weeks of campaigning and insurgent MC candidate-influencer, Samuel Garcia, might make headlines on election day

Party & President

Aside from control of the Chamber of Deputies, governors’ races are crucial for MORENA if it hopes to lay the groundwork for longevity beyond 2024. This is because at the subnational level, MORENA remains institutionally underdeveloped. It lacks the professionalized organization and decision-making mechanisms of other established parties, instead relying on informal leadership structures and ad hoc operations.

Campaigning in a right-wing bastion, relying on “ad hoc” popular organization. Photo: Diego Contreras.

Winning governorships means access to resources and control of the state apparatus, which in turn fortifies party organization and electoral infrastructure, both vital for party survival, especially after 2024 when MORENA will compete without Lopez Obrador. So far, the party has relied heavily on AMLO for symbolic leadership and group cohesion; winning state governments in 2021 will bolster the institutionalization of MORENA subnationally, thus guaranteeing party survival and competitiveness going into the recall referendum of 2022 and the presidential election of 2024.

Scenario 2: MORENA Loses Majority

Though less likely than the first scenario, there is a possibility that MORENA loses its majority in the lower house by a small margin. Several conditions must align for this to occur, chief among them, an increase in voting intention for the opposition in competitive federal districts. In most polls, effective voting intention registers national tendencies for the configuration of the Chamber of Deputies, but it does not capture local dynamics of electoral competition.

While upwards of 40% of those surveyed plan to vote for MORENA congressional candidates, these races are decided across 300 federal districts where the opposition remains competitive. According to pollster Buendia & Marquez, a 5% decrease in voting intention for MORENA makes its race for a majority in the lower house a “toss-up,” equally likely to go either way. The same polling company observes voting intention for newer, smaller parties increases as campaigns come to a close, making them eligible for proportional representation and thus subtracting from MORENA’s reservoir of PR seats.

President & Policy

The policy outcomes of this electoral scenario are more predictable: legislative gridlock and presidential caution. In these conditions, AMLO can be expected to turn attention away from constitutional reform or sweeping changes to government policy, focusing instead on his flagship social programs and infrastructure megaprojects. Similarly, electoral underperformance will temper the party and the president’s willingness to push forward more substantive changes like energy reform.

Refinería Salina Cruz, intersection of energy sovereignty and geopolitics. Photo: Presidencia de la República

In fact, it might push AMLO to reverse course on energy policy and seek rapprochement with the private sector to reach production goals in the upstream sector, as IHS analysts note. The recent hydrocarbons law granted Pemex a competitive edge by freezing downstream and midstream permits and suspending auction rounds, thus achieving AMLO’s main objective in the fuel market. However, for oil production, AMLO’s ambitious goals remain just out of reach. Under these conditions, upstream operations become an opportunity for cooperation between the president and the private sector, as Pemex is unlikely to achieve the president’s benchmarks on its own.

It remains unclear how loss of a majority in the lower house might impact the recall referendum in 2022, but it will require more political investment from AMLO to defend his mandate. It will also redirect the president’s energy from legislative initiatives to executive measures, like regulatory statutes and foreign policy.

Party

The controversial project for judicial reform rushed through the Senate on April 15 signaled that party elites consider loss of a majority a real possibility. The reform demonstrated intent to extend formal control over the judiciary before such legislative maneuver could be made impossible after the June midterms.

On top of this, the visit of U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris’ visit to Mexico and Senate president Ricardo Monreal’s protagonical role in this state visit points to his ambitious and aggressive strategy to position himself ahead of 2024, at whatever cost. His stance foreshadows friction within MORENA once the dust settles and party factions move to consolidate new arrangements after the elections.

Electoral reconfigurations will make the Mexican political map unrecognizeable. Photo: Genesis Marquez.

Conclusion

These historical midterm elections will define the rest of the Lopez Obrador administration, setting the ground rules for political and economic actors in the latter half of the sexenio. It all hinges on the makeup of the lower house and the extent of MORENA’s electoral performance at the subnational level.

The two most likely outcomes include significant wins for the ruling party, still riding on the coattails of the “AMLO effect,” but the losing scenario for MORENA entails the loss of a majority in the Chamber of Deputies and underperformance in gubernatorial races. Political conditions are highly dynamic and small quantitative changes in electoral races could accrue to significant qualitative transformations in the broader political spectrum.

Last minute surprises and eleventh-hour bombshells remain a possibility, particularly in gubernatorial races where a diverse array of interest groups are competing for survival in all-or-nothing conditions. In particular, the Mexican North is in dispute, symbolically and politically.

If the North falls into the hands of MORENA, this country has no remedy,” warned PRI candidate in Chihuahua, Graciela Ortiz, as she resigned her candidacy in favor of right-wing favorite, Maru Campos (PAN-PRD). Similar realignments occurred in the border states of Baja California and Sonora days before election day. On the other hand, MORENA operatives scattered to save a sinking ship in the northern state of Nuevo Leon.

As the MORENA party slogan says, history is being made, especially in Northern Mexico, a bastion of the PAN, where for the first time, the Mexican left has a real chance to capture state power.

“En Chihuahua el pueblo manda.” Photo: Genesis Marquez.

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

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