More than 56 million voters turned out for Mexico’s 2018 election. Never had so many people gone to the polls. Young people voted, with fifteen million youth added to the voter rolls for the first time. Women, the majority of the electorate, voted. In cities and villages, the population went out to vote, the wide majority of them for what they hope will be a change in direction for the country.
Thousands of citizens lined up before the polls opened. Many of the polling places, like mine, opened late. The citizen volunteers on our quiet Mexico City street passed us from one line to the next like confused cattle, trying frantically to get the paperwork and the procedures in order in what was Mexico’s largest election ever—more than 18,000 posts were decided in one day. At voting centers across the country, thousands waited for hours hoping to cast their vote, and at many “special polls” people went home frustrated after the allotted number of ballots failed to account for the hundreds who waited to cast their vote.
At a special polling place in Ecatepec, I talked to a woman who had been standing in line for more than two hours. She held a now-sleeping baby in her arms while a friend sought to shelter the three from the midday sun with a purple umbrella. She said that at 1:00 the elections officials came out to tell some two hundred people in line that they should go home because there weren’t going to be enough ballots. Many left. She stayed, she says, because “I want to vote and I believe it’s an obligation”.
It isn’t just a sudden civic awakening that explains the numbers and the perseverance of the people who came out July 1. Mexico is a country that has developed little electoral culture until now because the free exercise of the vote never was a part of the “perfect dictatorship”. Under one-party rule, elections were a ritualized form of maintaining powers rather than a participatory choice to constitute them.
In this watershed year, the mobilizing factor was clearly the leading candidate. Andrés Manuel López Obrador carried out an old-fashioned, village-by-village, neighborhood-by-neighborhood campaign that managed to ignite a flame of hope in millions. His 2018 candidacy purposely sought, and achieved, a base of support that went beyond the poor sectors and embraced the middle class and part of the national elites, especially those displaced by globalization. In addition to hope, which is usually an individual feeling, the mission he presented of saving the nation from an avaricious ruling class forged a sense of belonging. In a nation where the rich and powerful have always micromanaged the electoral system for their own benefit and the poor have paid the price, to believe in the ballot box as a source of change represented a major departure from traditional political culture.
Just months before the elections, levels of trust in the political and party system were still extremely low. According to a survey by Latinobarómetro at the end of 2017, only 9 percent trusted political parties. Ninety percent believed that the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto works for the benefit of just a few powerful groups. Citizens have routinely sold their vote because a food package that allows you to feed the family for a week is better than nothing and many figured the vote was about nothing in terms of doing anything to improve their lives. Most Mexicans did not conceive that their interests could end up represented in the National Palace, and on the historic occasions when the excluded made a bid for real representation and democracy, government-sponsored fraud sent a clear message that this democracy was designed precisely to keep them outof power.
The people won. The decision of the vast majority was expressed and respected. Now, ironically a large part of the population has entrusted its future to a political system it basically doesn’t trust, with the expectation that the new president will change it. That kind of transformation, burdened or buoyed by popular expectations, is a huge responsibility. It’s a task that will face countless obstacles and limitations, both internal and external.
No one expects a 100% transformation, or paradise to begin on Dec. 1– the day the new president is inaugurated. But politics isn’t ever a game of winner-takes-all. The fundamental hope expressed at the urns on July 1 is simply that the lives of the millions of Mexicans who have suffered the ravages of neoliberalism and repression these past three decades will improve.
The people won. While it’s true that the system resisted much less vigorously or violently than in the past (at least so far), the people won because they organized to exercise and defend the vote. Record numbers of observers, poll-watchers and voters deployed across the country. The margin that AMLO had going into the election spurred a process of resignation and accommodation among elites that normally happens after an election. The wave of support he rode in on had the political force of a tsunami. It crashed through the barriers of a reticent system. The Mexican political scene has been transformed and reinvigorated.
If this election signified the empowerment of the people in the electoral process, what comes next? The key to achieving even relative success lies in conserving the mobilization and pressure from below. From above, everything will depend on the willingness to include the sectors that brought candidate Lopez Obrador to power in the redistribution of power under President Lopez Obrador.
First, the inclusion of women and a platform of equality. In these elections, according to preliminary information from the PREP, gender parity in congress has almost been achieved. The Chamber of Deputies will be composed of 243 women (48.6%) and 256 men (51.2%) and the Senate of 63 women (49.22%) and 65 men (50.78%). The incoming Lopez Obrador administration prides itself on being half women. Much of this is the achievement of many feminist organizations that have had to fight hard, first to gain laws that promote parity and then to close the loopholes that the parties used to get around those laws.
However, it is not enough to promote political positions for individuals who identify as women. On a deeper level, it’s necessary to understand that any project of transformation must include a proactive agenda to promote women’s equality and the eradication of violence against women. Patriarchy is the foundation of the many forms of oppression and inequality in society, and generation after generation, it transmits a message that physical and economic control dominate over rights and relationships. It is the worst enemy of peace and democracy.
There are concrete measures that must be taken. Scholarships for young people should be oriented to the education and employment of women in conditions of equality and justice. Social programs should promote a fairer distribution of domestic tasks and no longer subject women to the clientelistic control that was clearly seen in the manipulation of the public programs Prospera and Salario Rosa for electoral purposes. Impunity and indifference toward violence against women must end, not with the proliferation of specialized prosecutor’s offices and task forces, which has been the simulation of a real response, but through prosecution of the guilty whoever they are and a policy of zero tolerance for violence against women wherever it exists.
Second, the inclusion of the countryside, abandoned by neoliberalism over the past decades. Independent small farmer organizations formally supported MORENA in the 2018 elections, despite some contradictions including the naming of Víctor Villalobos, a defender of Monsanto and genetically modified organisms, as the new secretary of agriculture. In the campaign, Lopez Obrador signed on to the organizations’ development plan for rural society that includes incentives for production and employment, food sovereignty, promotion of agroecology and removing basic food production and consumption from the Free Trade Agreement as a strategic sector for national security and development. Now they’re preparing for their next convention where they will make decisions to further define and defend their program under the new government.
Third, indigenous rights and autonomy. Mexico’s indigenous peoples will continue to build democracy from below and resist the megaprojects that displace them from their lands. The task of the new government here is to defend their rights and autonomy, to combat discrimination and now, with a new Congress, to finally provide them with the minimum constitutional framework they deserve as original peoples: the San Andrés Accords.
On July 1, the people won. But empowerment at the polls is often ephemeral and campaign promises even more so. For July 1 to be the start and not the end of Mexico’s democratic awakening, grassroots organizations have to keep pushing and find ways to use the new cracks in the system to grow in size and strength and vision.