MEXICO CITY – Mexico’s ruling Morena party looks poised to win at least four of the six races for state governorships Sunday on the back of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, its folksy, charismatic leader, and the absence of a credible opposition, analysts say.
Ironically, at its point of greatest power, Morena may also be about to enter its phase of greatest vulnerability: the young party must take control of an intractably cartel-dominated border state like Tamaulipas, and launch a divisive internal contest to see who will replace López Obrador when he leaves office in 2024.
With Morena’s dominance a seemingly foregone conclusion — the opposition will probably be left with only a half-dozen of Mexico’s 32 states — there has been a stampede by politicians of all stripes to join or ally themselves with the party for political survival, a rush that threatens to erode its already weak internal cohesion and ideology.
Analysts say Morena could be on track to become an omnipresent “government party,” like the old Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, that dominated Mexican politics for 70 years from 1929 to 2000 — but without the PRI’s former reputation for iron internal discipline.
Basically, Morena is now a broad tent made of anyone who López Obrador — a political pragmatist who sometimes woos opposition politicians with ambassadorships — allows in.
It marks a new stage in Mexican politics.
“The fight is not going to be with the opposition, it’s going to be within Morena,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an associate professor at George Mason University. “The movement is going to be muddied by people joining who have little to do with the (political) project.”
Those contradictions are on display in Tamaulipas, which borders Texas, where most ex-governors in the last 20 years have gone to prison for corruption or associating with the drug cartels that dominate the state.
Morena’s candidate for governor in Tamaulipas is a mild-mannered cardiologist, Américo Villarreal, who is a former PRI member and the son of a well-liked former PRI governor who was also a friend of López Obrador. The younger Villarreal has offered little new in the way of policies to take on gangs like the Northeast Cartel, which has grown so bold it attacked the U.S. consulate in the border city of Nuevo Laredo earlier this year.
While López Obrador has disappointed the U.S. government by avoiding confrontation with drug cartels or trying to arrest their leaders, he has cooperated closely with the Americans by detaining migrants seeking to reach the U.S. border.
Correa-Cabrera expects Villarreal to continue those trends, in what she says could be seen as a “narco peace” policy. Still, she noted that drug violence tends to spike after local elections, in part because deals made with outgoing politicians end, and new terms must be negotiated.
“It is going to get a little out of control for him,” Correa-Cabrera said. “The violence is going to get worse, it’s going to be a difficult start for him, how difficult I don’t know.”
Ivonne Acuña Murillo, political science professor at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, says López Obrador’s policies — like doubling the minimum wage in border areas like Tamaulipas and constantly visiting provincial towns and cities — rather than the stature of local candidates, are key to understanding Morena’s potential gubernatorial sweep.
“His work of being constantly there, not ignoring any place, constantly visiting these places every weekend to be close to the people, that is what nourishes him and gives him power,” said Acuña Murillo.
“It is a movement built by him and that follows him, and what we know of as López Obrador doesn’t necessarily coincide with what Morena is, its support base and structure, and so that is a big challenge,” she noted. “I think that it is a party that without this big leader, could be somewhat fragile.”
Morena was founded by López Obrador in 2012 and when he retires the party is likely to become a free-for-all of political division. By law, López Obrador is limited to one term..
Several top figures in his administration have already begun a sharp-elbowed dispute to win Morena’s presidential nomination in the 2024 race.
Morena also appears to be on track to win elections in Quintana Roo, home to resorts like Cancun, Tulum and Playa del Carmen. While the state’s mainstay tourism industry has recovered relatively quickly from the coronavirus pandemic, it faces huge challenges from drug violence and the arrival of foul-smelling sargassum seaweed on its beaches.
López Obrador has spent heavily in Quintana Roo to build his Maya Train tourism project, which will link colonial cities, beach resorts and Mayan archaeological sites, though it has raised hackles among environmentalists as workers cut a swath through the jungle with no environmental impact statement.
“I think Morena will certainly win, and I hope that means we will have more federal government support for tourism as a national priority and resolve the problems we face,” said Sergio Leon, the former head of the state employers’ federation.
Rafael Barajas, a civic activist in Tulum, countered that “obviously Morena is going to win, because the political group of (Tulum Mayor) Marciano Dzul has made an agreement to allow the federal government to do what it wants, so the Maya Train can go ahead without protests.”
Opposition parties still exist, but they have been forced into uncomfortable anti-López Obrador alliances.
In the two states where Morena is trailing — Aguascalientes and Durango — the candidates are running jointly for the PRI and the conservative National Action Party.
Morena is also likely to take the states of Oaxaca and Hidalgo, whose current PRI governors have been oddly close to López Obrador. Again, the challenge to Morena comes less from without, than within.
“In some states like Hidalgo, there are governors who, though they are PRI members, they are more on Morena’s side,” said Acuña Murillo. “It seems that this political culture of a strong president is alive, and the PRI logic is to be on the side that’s winning,”
“If Morena falls, it is going to be for internal reasons,” she said, “because there is no opposition that can compete with it.”