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What to know about Mexico's historic elections Sunday that will likely put a woman in power

Electing a female president would be a huge step in a country with soaring levels of gender-based violence and deep gender disparities.
Mexico Election Protest
Posted at 8:05 AM, May 28, 2024

Mexicans will vote Sunday in historic elections weighing gender, democracy and populism, as they chart the country's path forward in voting shadowed by cartel violence.

With two women leading the contest, Mexico will likely elect its first female president – a major step in a country long marked by its “macho” culture. The election will also be the biggest in the country's history. More than 20,000 congressional and local positions are up for grabs, according to the National Electoral Institute.

The number of contested posts has fed bloodshed during the campaigns, as criminal groups have used local elections as an opportunity to exert power. A toxic slate of cartels and gangs have battled for turf and more than 20 people seeking political office have been killed just this year.

Also at play is the political legacy of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Mexico's often tumultuous relationship with the United States.

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Who are the candidates in Mexico's presidential election?

Candidate Claudia Sheinbaum, the former mayor of Mexico City, has maintained a comfortable double-digit lead in polls for months. She promises to be a continuation of populist leader López Obrador and is backed by his ruling Morena party. Trained as a scientist, Sheinbaum has had to walk a fine line to carve out her own image while highlighting her connection to López Obrador, though she lacks the charisma that attracted many to her political ally.

Candidate Xóchitl Gálvez, an opposition senator and tech entrepreneur, represents a coalition of parties that have had little historically to unite them other than their recent opposition to López Obrador. Gálvez is a fierce critic of the outgoing president who doesn't shy away from verbal sparring, but who hasn't appeared to ignite much fervor for her Strength and Heart for Mexico coalition.

The third candidate is little-known Jorge Álvarez Máynez, a former federal congressman from the Citizen Movement party. He has focused on trying to scoop up the young vote, but has not gotten much traction.

What has President López Obrador meant for this election?

Elected in 2018, López Obrador tapped into large swathes of the population like the working-class and poor, rural voters who had long felt forgotten by the political system. He made combatting corruption his top priority. Despite not being on the ballot, much of Sunday's election has revolved around him.

Though he remains highly popular, López Obrador has shown himself to be intolerant of criticism and oversight. And his critics say his moves to attack the judiciary, slash funding to Mexico's electoral agency and expand the military's responsibilities in civilian life have eroded Mexican democracy. The opposition has responded with large protests.

López Obrador is considered Sheinbaum's mentor and if she is elected, it would cement his legacy and show that his Morena party can survive beyond his presidency.

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When are Mexico's election sand how does voting work?

Parties selected their candidates well before the official start of campaigning for the presidential, congressional and municipal elections. On June 2, millions of voters will cast for their new leaders in a single round of voting. The winner of the highly anticipated presidential election will serve a six-year term.

While most eyes are on the presidential race, Mexicans will also vote for 128 senators, 500 congressional representatives and for nearly 20,000 local government positions.

Why has the campaign cycle been so violent?

Under López Obrador's “hugs not bullets” policy, which emphasizes addressing the societal root causes of violence, analysts say cartels and other criminal groups have expanded their control. Homicide rates have remained stubbornly high despite promises by López Obrador to ease the violence. López Obrador has in many cases refused to confront criminal groups, and activists say his government has tried to reduce the official count of Mexico's forcibly disappeared in the lead up to the election.

Cartels and other criminal groups see elections – particularly local elections – as an opportunity to make power grabs. They've warred for turf and at least 145 people tied to politics have been slain by organized crime this year, according to tracking by the human rights organization Data Civica.

Violence has been particularly severe in states where criminal groups are fighting for territory like Chiapas and Guerrero in the south, and Michoacan in central Mexico.

Mexico's first woman president

Electing a female president would be a huge step in a country with soaring levels of gender-based violence and deep gender disparities.

Mexico still has a famously intense “machismo,” or culture of male chauvinism, that has created large economic and social disparities in society. In its most extreme form, the misogyny is expressed in high rates of femicides, and things like acid attacks against women.

Yet a historic number of women in the socially conservative country are taking up leadership and political roles.

That’s in part due to a decades-long push by authorities for greater representation in politics, including laws that require political parties to have half of their congressional candidates be women. Since 2018, Mexico’s Congress has had a 50-50 gender split, and the number of female governors has shot up.

Both front-runner Sheinbaum and Gálvez have promised to address high rates of gender-based violence and gender disparities if they win.