A voter casts a ballot in Mexico. (AP)

A voter casts a ballot in Mexico. (AP)

Explainer: Making Sense of Mexico's Massive Midterms

By Chase Harrison and Carin Zissis

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s political party is vying to cement its legacy on June 6. AS/COA Online explore coalitions and voter concerns.

There are 21,000 seats up for grabs in Mexico’s June 6 midterms, but the man looming largest over the election won’t be on the ballot: President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Instead, Mexicans will decide whether to give his party, Morena, the votes it needs to cement his statist vision and political movement known as the Fourth Transformation, or Cuarta Transformación. They will do so in the biggest elections in the country’s history, given the number of posts and that all of Mexico’s 32 states will hold local elections alongside the federal ones. Fifteen states choose new governors, and the entire lower house of Congress is up for renewal.

With a quick glance at the polls, Morena appears formidable ahead of election day. As López Obrador, or AMLO, nears the halfway point of his one-term, six-year mandate, he continues to command enviable approval numbers. Polling gives Morena 41 percent of voter intention—more than two times that of any other party—in the competition for seats in the Chamber of Deputies. As of March, more than half of Mexicans viewed Morena in a positive light. In the case of the two main opposition forces, approval stood at 12 percent for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and 14 percent for the National Action Party (PAN).

But Morena is far from assured of retaining the two-thirds majority its coalition now holds in the lower house,which has allowed it to reshape policy on everything from education to energy since the current legislature took office almost three years ago. Even if the political opposition has remained relatively weak since Morena’s tsunami of a victory washed over the country in July 2018, parties have formed alliances to capitalize on voter dissatisfaction with the AMLO government’s handling of the economy, corruption, insecurity, and health issues. And while AMLO has the public’s backing, most Mexicans say they want a legislature that serves as a counterbalance to the executive’s power.

AS/COA Online lays out the electoral context, outlines parties and coalitions, and explores what’s at stake in legislative elections.

Note: This article was initially published on May 18, 2021 and has since been updated with new polling figures.

The elections at a glance

Up for election:

  • 500 members of the Chamber of Deputies. Three hundred legislators will be selected from single-member districts, while another 200 legislators—known as plurinominales—will be allocated proportionally from party lists in five electoral districts, each of which comprises several states. These will be the first elections where legislators can run for reelection. Per pollster Integralia, 448 of the 500 legislators registered their intention to run for reelection, though only 187 secured party nominations.
  • 15 governors. Voters will elect governors in the states of Baja California, Baja California Sur, Campeche, Chihuahua, Colima, Guerrero, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Zacatecas.
  • 30 out of 32 state legislatures. These elections will take place in all states except Coahuila and Quintana Roo.
  • 21,000 local positions, including mayoral and city council posts. These elections take place across all states but Durango and Hidalgo.

Who can vote:

What’s worrying voters

It may come as a surprise that the pandemic isn’t a top voter issue, particularly given that Mexico has suffered one of the highest pandemic death tolls worldwide. But, after a crushing January, Covid-19 contagion has tapered off and, despite being behind with its immunization schedule, Mexico currently comes in fifth in Latin America in terms of the portion of population fully vaccinated. As a result, the coronavirus receded from being a top problem in the eyes of Mexicans to just 9 percent as of May, per El Financiero.

On the other hand, a related issue is set to play a deciding role in how voters will cast ballots: the economy. Mexico saw GDP contract by 8.5 percent in 2020—the worst hit since the 1930s. From the start of the pandemic in March 2020 through the end of the year, the workforce shrank by 2.3 percent (626,000 jobs) in the formal sector and 4.5 percent in the informal sector. Per a May Reforma poll, 39 percent say the economy is the issue that will most influence their vote in the midterms.

Still, the largest portion—44 percent—say insecurity is the deciding factor for them. This tracks with El Financiero polling, showing violence and corruption are  on voters’ minds. Some 58 percent say the government is managing security matters poorly and most consider it the country's top problem. Even with pandemic quarantining and the government dispatching a roughly 100,000-strong National Guard force, Mexico experienced similar murder rates in 2020 as it did in the record-breaking year of 2019. Insecurity has hit the election itself, with Integralia counting 169 incidents of political violence through April that claimed the lives of 143 people, making it the second-most violent election in Mexico’s history after the 2018 vote. In the case of corruption, only 24 percent of Mexicans say the government is doing a good job of handling the issue, which AMLO pledged to tackle while running for president.

A battle with Mexico’s top electoral body

As campaign momentum grows in the lead up to election day, so does the debate over the role of independent institutions in the country’s governance. Both Morena and the president have been at odds with the National Electoral Institute (INE), raising doubts about the future autonomy of that and other agencies.

At the beginning of the year, the INE declared that, during campaigns running from April 4 through June 2, AMLO would not be permitted to comment during his daily morning press conferences, known as the mañaneras, about campaign financing, coalitions, candidates, or any other topic that could influence the midterms’ outcomes. The president argued that the move amounted to censorship. On more than one occasion, the electoral court (TEPJF) ruled to revoke the INE’s limits AMLO’s electoral messaging during the mañaneras, though the INE has warned the president could face fines or even arrest for making statements that could be construed as electoral propaganda.

INE-Morena tensions escalated after the body disqualified 49 of the party’s candidates in March for failing to submit campaign finance documentation. The most notable of those disqualifications was that of Félix Salgado Macedonio, a gubernatorial candidate in Guerrerro who faced a number of accusations of sexual assault. AMLO’s decision to support Salgado Macedonio’s candidacy despite the allegations deepened national protests over Mexico’s growing problems with femicide and violence against women. In April, having been eliminated over a technicality, Salgado Macedonio, accompanied by Morena’s party president, staged a protest in front of a fake coffin with the INE director’s name painted on it and called for the agency’s disappearance. But his protests didn’t push the electoral bodies to reverse their decisions and, with his candidacy blocked, Morena replaced him on the ballot with his daughter, Evelyn.

For his part, AMLO described the INE’s cancellation of Morena candidacies, backed by the TEPJF, as a “threat against democracy.” At the end of April, he announced plans to submit an administrative reform to Congress in which other government ministries or branches would absorb autonomous agencies like the INE, allegedly as a cost saving measure, with the judiciary taking over electoral matters.

Shuttering the INE, which has foundations going back to 1990 and evolved along with Mexico’s transition from seven decades of one-party rule, isn’t likely to win points with the public: 62 percent of Mexicans have confidence in the INE, a rate that runs even higher than the 53 percent trust they have in the president, per Reforma. Some experts caution doing so would require a constitutional reform, while others warn the move fits a pattern in which the president has sought to curtail independent institutions and civil society groups. The opposition is raising concerns too with the PAN and another party known as the Citizens’ Movement (MC) lodging complaints with the Organization of American States in May that AMLO was seeking to circumvent INE rules after the Attorney General’s office charged the Nuevo León gubernatorial candidates with electoral crimes.

It’s not clear how much ground the opposition can gain, but, amid polarization surrounding the election process and voter dissatisfaction on top issues, Morena isn’t taking chances. The president and his party have introduced a flurry of far-reaching reforms to Congress while they can still be assured of having a solid mandate. Among them is one that would let the government suspend private-sector energy contracts to state oil firm Pemex’s benefit. Another allows for the collection of biometric data from all mobile phones in the country. A third, and one that again raises concerns about institutional independence, seeks to stem nepotism in the judicial system while at the same time extend the term of the Supreme Court’s president—seen as an AMLO ally—at a point when potential legal challenges to legislative changes lie ahead.

Chart: What the polls predict
Morena’s Together We Make History coalition

Morena and its allies will attempt to become the first ruling coalition to maintain over 50 percent control of Congress in midterm elections in almost three decades.

AMLO co-founded Morena, now Mexico’s dominant political force, in 2011. It became a party as recently as 2014, meaning this will be just its third time fielding candidates for the Chamber of Deputies. In 2018, Morena won 189 of the 500 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, and currently controls 334 seats through its coalition and alliances. (Morena’s coalition also controls 60 percent of the Senate.) In that last election, candidates rode AMLO’s electoral wave to victory, as the three-time presidential candidate became a symbol of voters’ frustration with the status quo. Now, Morena is running as the incumbent party, defending its own record without AMLO’s name on the ballot.

Morena won’t go it alone, though. It will compete within the Together We Make History, or Juntos Hacemos Historia, coalition with its two allied parties that have federal registration: the Labor Party (PT) and the Green Party (PVEM). The PT is a leftist party that was part of Morena’s 2018 electoral coalition. The PVEM, once closely aligned with the PRI, began to partner with Morena in Congress over the past three years.

The coalition will nominate a single candidate in 183 of the 300 single-member districts in this election, with Morena candidates in 88 districts, PT ones in 45, and PVEM ones in 50. Per the Mexican publication Nexos, the PT has the most favorable distribution of seats in this arrangement: 33 of 45 districts where its candidates will run saw Morena’s 2018 coalition win by more than 10 points in 2018. Meanwhile, the PVEM will compete in more than half of the 25 districts where the Morena coalition lost by more than 10 points. Candidates in Mexico are identified on the ballot just by their coalition, not by their party.

The Together We Make History coalition is also allied with two parties that lack federal registration: the teachers union-dominated New Alliance (Panal) and the evangelical Solidarity Encounter Party (PES), which was once known as the Social Encounter Party. Both parties lost their registration in 2018 after receiving an insufficient portion of the national vote. Without federal registration, they can’t participate in national electoral coalitions, but they are both involved in state-level coalitions with Together We Make History, and the PES is fielding their own candidates for federal positions apart from the coalition. If it wins chamber seats and receives 3 percent of votes nationwide, it could provide legislative votes to Morena. Currently, the PES is polling at 1 percent.

Morena and its allies will be attempting to recreate the conditions that enabled their landslide victory in 2018. Then, their candidate, AMLO, won 31 out of Mexico’s 32 states, including states that are traditionally more conservative. Polls show the party still leads in each of Mexico’s five electoral regions, however, in two—the center-west and the north-east—its nearest rival is within 10 points. Three years ago, Morena was also buoyed by strong support from young Mexicans, who turned out for the party in unprecedented numbers. But recent polling shows the party is losing ground among this demographic, down 13 percent among Mexicans aged 18–24, per April polling by El Financiero.

Morena will also have to contend with different electoral rules than in 2018. Over the past three years, the party has been able to grow its congressional representation in the Chamber of Deputies when politicians from its coalition partners switched parties to join its ranks. There were 112 instances of deputies switching into Morena, mostly from the PES and PT, over the past three years. Many of these politicians were Morena members already but ran on the tickets of coalition partners.

This switching put Morena in violation of a constitutional rule that says no party can have a total number of seats in the Chamber of Deputy members that exceeds eight percentage points of its share of the national vote for proportional and multi-member seats. Morena’s representation is 15.7 percent higher than its share of the 2018 vote. While no action was taken against Morena and the problem of overrepresentation is a longstanding one in Mexico’s Congress, the INE passed new rules in March, subsequently approved by the TEPJF, to more accurately allocate the 200 proportional seats based on national vote totals.

The opposition coalition: Forward for Mexico

In this election, three of Mexico’s traditional political parties—the PRI, PAN, and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD)—will compete in a coalition known as Forward for Mexico (Va por México), which will nominate one candidate in 219 of the 300 single-member districts. The candidate split between the partners of the coalition is fairly even: 77 candidates for the PRI, 72 for the PAN, and 70 for the PRD.

The PAN and the PRI, the two parties that both previously held the presidency, are polling within the margin of error with about 20 percent of voter intention each. Historically, the PAN, which tends to promote socially conservative and business-friendly policies, has been in political opposition to AMLO. In 2006, he famously contested the legitimacy of the tight victory of PAN candidate Felipe Calderón over him in the presidential election. But in 2018, the PAN’s Ricardo Anaya took a distant second place to AMLO and the party lost 23 seats in the Chamber. This time, the PAN is defending four governorships and 77 seats in the Chamber of Deputies.

Meanwhile, both the PRI and the PRD are battling for relevance. AMLO got his start in the PRI and co-founded the PRD in 1989, but his victory in 2018 came at both parties’ expense and many politicians jumped ship to join Morena. After the 2018 election, the PRI plummeted from holding 207 to 45 seats and the PRD from 60 to 21 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. The PRD has since lost even more slots, dropping to its current bloc of 12, as nine of its elected legislators moved to parties in the ruling coalition.

The PRI once had near-hegemonic political control over Mexico and is still the party that holds the largest number of governorships. In this election, it will defend six governorships while attempting to win back seats in Congress. The PRI was once known for its robust local organization, which allowed it to mobilize voters and execute clientelistic practices, but it is unclear whether any party can leverage the same type of ground game in this election, particularly given lingering pandemic conditions.

Other parties

The only federally registered party running outside of a coalition is the MC. A former ally of the PRD, the party seeks to portray itself in opposition to both coalitions and tends to be strong in economically important states like Chihuahua, Jalisco, and Nuevo León.

Two parties will make their federal debut in this election: the Progressive Social Networks (RSP) and the Force for Mexico (FXM). The RSP, which seeks to position itself as being against extremism in politics, is known for its many celebrity candidates, including luchador Blue Demon Jr, singer Paquita la del Barrio, and former Los Ángeles Azules vocalist Héctor Hernández. FXM is running as a progressive party supportive of AMLO’s agenda. Both parties, like the PES, will need to get 3 percent of the national vote to secure federal party status, which provides increased access to state resources.