The governing party called it a ceremonial passing of the baton. But the opposition lambasted it as a “passing of the scepter.”
Constitutionally barred from running for reelection, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador sought to show last month, in a very public way, that presidential candidate Claudia Sheinbaum has his blessing. So he handed his hoped-for successor an actual baton, in a ceremony outside a Mexico City restaurant not far from the National Palace – the seat of the country’s executive power.
Sheinbaum, a 61-year-old former Mexico City mayor and longtime political ally of Lopez Obrador, hit all the right notes in thanking him. Accepting the baton along with the leftist Morena party’s presidential nomination, Sheinbaum said she would assume “the full responsibility of continuing the course marked by our people, that of the transformation initiated by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.”
When Mexicans go to the polls next June, they will choose between two women for president – a first in the country’s history. Only four days before Morena nominated Sheinbaum, Mexico’s opposition coalition Broad Front chose another formidable female candidate, former senator Xochitl Gálvez from the conservative PAN party.
It’s not the first time Mexico sees women running for the presidency; before Sheinbaum and Gálvez, were six other female presidential candidates. But with the two major political sides nominating women, this is the first time that it’s practically a given that starting in December 2024, Mexico, a country previously known for machismo, will be run by a woman.
Still, some critics say the outgoing Lopez Obrador’s shadow looms over the contest.
Meet the candidates: Sheinbaum and Galvez
Gálvez’s rise in Mexican politics has been meteoric; this spring, she said she wasn’t even the favorite of the PRI, PAN and PRD, the parties that now form the Broad Front coalition. It was a public spat with Lopez Obrador himself – who regularly attacked her as a “wimp,” “puppet,” and “employee of the oligarchy” in news conferences – that ultimately rocketed her into the spotlight.
In June, Gálvez went viral when she attempted to enter the National Palace with a judicial order that granted her the right to reply to the president, after successfully suing López Obrador. “This is not a show,” she told reporters at the doors of the National Palace. “The law is the law, period.”
The daughter of an indigenous father and a mixed-race mother, Gálvez served as the top official for indigenous affairs under former President Vicente Fox before becoming a senator. Unfiltered and irreverent, she described herself in an interview with CNN en Español as “an all-terrain, 4-by-4, kind of woman.”
In some respects, she appears progressive. Gálvez has advocated in the Mexican Congress for the rights and welfare of indigenous groups and Afro-Mexicans, and in a regional forum earlier this year in Monterrey, said that oil-rich Mexico should shift to renewable energy. “We haven’t done it because we are dumbasses,” Gálvez unapologetically said.
She has also said leftist Lopez Obrador’s pension for all senior citizens should continue, and proposes what she calls a “universal social protection system” of welfare programs for a large portion of the middle and lower classes.
But when it comes to security and the fight against organized crime, Gálvez’s three-pronged plan is muscular, based on what she describes as “intelligence, heart and a firm-hand”: strengthening local and state police and giving them access to intelligence, advocating for and protecting victims, and respecting the rule of law.
Macario Schettino, a political analyst and Social Science professor at ITESM, a renowned Mexican university, describes Gálvez’s political momentum as impressive, considering that only a few months ago, she wasn’t even considered a candidate with a national profile. “She barely begun to register in political terms, and she’s already had great growth. Many people in Mexico still don’t know her. She is going to grow [..] in popularity,” Schettino said, “While Claudia Sheinbaum can no longer move from where she is because she is already known by most Mexicans.”
Sheinbaum, a physicist with a doctorate in environmental engineering, would also be the first president with Jewish heritage if she wins, although she rarely speaks publicly about her personal background and has governed as a secular leftist.
She is currently ahead in most polls, and will be a formidable opponent to beat. Not only does Sheinbaum have the full support of the governing party, she has also long enjoyed the spotlight as mayor of Mexico’s most important city for the last five years until her resignation in June to run for the presidency.
On policy, Sheinbaum has vowed to continue many of Lopez Obrador’s policies and programs, including a pension for all senior citizens, scholarships for more than 12 million students and free fertilizers for small farm owners. But the high-profile ex-mayor rejects criticism of her close political alignment with the president. “Of course we’re not a copy (of the president),” she said in July.
Still, she does not shy away from touting the principles they share: “For everybody’s good, let’s put the poor first. There cannot be a rich government if the people are poor. Power is only a virtue when it’s used to serve the people,” Sheinbaum said, repeating the same campaign slogans Lopez Obrador has used for years.
Schettino believes the immensely popularly Lopez Obrador views Sheinbaum as his extension in power. He points to their party Morena’s roots in the authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party that governed Mexico for more than seven decades until 2000, which came to be known as “The Dinosaur,” and the Party of Democratic Revolution that branched off from it.
In 2012, Lopez Obrador created Morena as a political party. Schettino describes the party today as a “tyrannosaurus” under Lopez Obrador’s influence – representing what he says is the current leader’s desire for a successor to hew closely to his own agenda. “President López Obrador, a dinosaur who not only is a dinosaur, but also has the vocation of a tyrant. He doesn’t want to go. He wants to stay in power,” Schettino said.
“I believe that he built Claudia’s candidacy,” Schettino said.
López Obrador however has repeatedly dismissed accusations of authoritarian leanings or that he favors a candidate he will be able to control. Earlier this year, Lopez Obrador denied he had any favorites among his party’s hopefuls or that he was pushing for one candidate or another behind the scenes.
He has also said that he is going “retire completely” after his six-year term in office comes to an end. “I am retiring, I will not participate in any public event again, of course. I am not going to accept any position, I do not want to be anyone’s advisor, much less am I going to act as a chief. I am not going to have relations with politicians. I am not going to talk about politics,” the president told press in February.