Claudia Sheinbaum makes history

This year’s presidential contest in Mexico was all but decided.

The historic victory of Dr Claudia Sheinbaum with a 32 points margin over the combined opposition candidate Xochitl Galvez signifies that Mexico, the world’s largest Spanish-speaking country, will be led by a leftist leader for the second time since its democratization in 2000. She will be not only the first female president of Mexico but also the first person from a Jewish background to be holding this position.

This year’s presidential contest in Mexico was all but decided. So convinced was the Morena Party of her victory that its most visible poster on the walls and fences across the country read “Claudia es presidenta” (Claudia is President). However, her overwhelming victory doesn’t prove she is as popular as her party. That credit goes to President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), Dr Sheinbaum’s mentor. Equally visible was another poster “Claudia es verde” (Claudia is green). This is where her challenges lie.

Sheinbaum’s right-wing critics dismissed her as AMLO’s “protégé” and “spoiled girl”. Such labelling is uncharitable and misogynic. The president-elect’s list of accolades is long. She has formidable academic credentials and her performance as mayor of Mexico City was laudable.

 A quarter century ago, Brazil elected philosopher-king Fernando Henrique Cardoso as president. A renowned sociologist of “dependency theory’ fame, Cardoso combined his theoretical-empirical research with the practice of politics. He was hugely successful as he kept faith in his empiricist training and social justice agenda.

Like Cardoso, Sheinbaum too should be seen as ‘philosopher-queen”. A Ph D in energy engineering, she was part of the UN panel of climate scientists that received the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. She has done her scientific research and written books and papers on energy efficiency, sustainability and environment.

While Cardoso was an accidental president, Sheinbaum was groomed by President AMLO. She served as mayor of the Tlalpan borough from 2015 to 2017 and became head of the government of Mexico City in 2018. As a mayor, her work was quite impressive. Her efforts led to visible improvements in the air quality in Mexico City, once considered the worst polluted city in the world.

Mexicans remember her programme, Ciudad Solar (Solar City). Mexico City has a solar power plant which is the largest in the world within a city with its solar panels on the roof of its busiest market, the Central de Abastos.

Sheinbaum’s  cable car, the Cablebús has reduced the use of the subway and the Metrobús.

She has benefited from President AMLO’s development work across the country including Tren Maya, inter-oceanic train in Oaxaca, to name a few. AMLO’s popularity and his many schemes benefited the most needy people. His administration has doubled the minimum wage, dismantled the ghost unions and his social benefit transfer programme has increased the coverage from 27 percent to 39 percent. For the poorest 10 percent of the working population, wages have increased 100 percent in the last six years. AMLO’s social programmes have been as transformatory as Lula’s “Bolsa Familia”, now a global exemplar in poverty reduction.

Sheinbaum’s 100-point campaign programme was strategic. She talked mostly of social programmes, annual minimum wage increases, national health care and affordable homes.

 “La Doctora” Sheinbaum’s campaign remained dignified. On the contrary. the campaign by the combined opposition consisting of Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), National Action Party (PAN), and Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) was outright negative bordering on vulgarity and personal attacks. Sheinbaum’s Jewish heritage was an obvious target, 

 Galvez not only resorted to personal attacks, her cheap and somewhat vulgar slogans describing her detractors as “huevones” (lazy) , “ pendejos,” (stupid) and people over 60 as “guey” (dumb) for not achieving wealth crossed limits of political decency. Sheinbaum successfully countered the opposition’s vilification by placing special emphasis on her Mexicanness and identification with the Mexican nation.

Sheinbaum is neither a charismatic nor a populist leader like her mentor. More than once, she has indicated that she has her own priorities. She will be more a technocratic president than a populist. She will certainly be less ideological. How she engages with other world leaders on global issues and build solidarity with other leftist leaders in Latin America remain to be seen.

 The president-elect who assumes office on October 1 will find it difficult to continue with AMPO’s controversial push to undermine the judiciary and the election commission. Even as Mayor, she diverged from AMLO’s approach to security, energy transition and handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

 One of the most challenging tasks before the new president will be to come out of AMLO’s shadow. There are many unfinished projects and promises made by President AMLO. Not all will be easy to carry forward. Dr Sheinbaum is aware of what happened to President Miguel de la Madrid.

 Only three months before President Lopez Portillo left the presidency in the 1980s, he expropriated the entire banking industry amid a currency devaluation and debt crisis. His successor, Miguel de la Madrid struggled throughout his term dealing with the fallout and paying the huge debt to bank owners. Some of AMLO’s promised projects and unfinished work are nearly impossible to carry out without incurring huge debts.

How Sheinbaum handles the surging violence and the immigrants issue remains to be seen. A major problem confronting Mexico is its poor criminal investigation system with 98 percent of crimes going unpunished. Sheinbaum has promised to create a new national criminal investigations program to tackle this problem.

She will face formidable challenge in implementing her green agenda. While travelling across the country by road for a month, I saw vast tracks of agricultural fields on fire. Even while flying over the world -famous Cancun resort, smoke was billowing from every corner nearly engulfing the airport.

 The economy is not in the pink of its health either. This year the economists predict a deficit of 4.9% of GDP, which will be the highest since 1988. How much can the new president borrow to service the mounting debt? The president-elect will have to raise taxes and slash expenditure on populist programmes to pay the government debt.

Sheinbaum is unlikely to go ahead with AMLO’s controversial and highly divisive move to tame the judiciary and the election agency. She may at best go slow on legal reforms. She can’t afford a confrontation with the Supreme Court. AMLO wants judges to be elected which poses a serious threat to judicial independence, violates international legal standards and undermine democracy.

President AMLO made intellectuals a favourite punching bag. And yet, he chose an intellectual to replace him. Dr Sheinbaum will blaze her own trail and may bring new thoughts and a coherent perspective to the administration.

All said, will her intellectual work shape her administration’s thinking or will she become Mexico’s Angela Merkel, trained as a physicist, who sought to turn politics a discussion about policy, not politics?

Ash Narain Roy
Ash Narain Roy
Ash Narain Roy did his Ph.D. in Latin American Studies , Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. He was a Visiting Scholar at El Colegio de Mexico, Mexico City for over four years in the 1980s. He later worked as Assistant Editor, Hindustan Times, Delhi. He is author of several books including The Third World in the Age of Globalisation which analyses Latin America's peculiar traits which distinguishes it from Asia and Africa. He is currently Director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi