Mexico: Tough Congressional-Executive Relations Ahead

By Daniela Stevens*

Piñata with the Mexican flag in the background

Bandera mexicana en el Zócalo de la Ciudad de México / Wikimedia/ Creative Commons

Whoever wins Mexico’s presidential election on July 1 probably will face a divided and cantankerous Congress – especially if, as appears likely, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Morena Party is the victor.  López Obrador has been ridiculed by the Mexican political class, some of whose leaders have called him the next Hugo Chávez, but most polls give the polemical candidate at least a 10-point lead over Ricardo Anaya of the coalition Por México al Frente.  In Congressional races, polls also give the advantage to López Obrador’s party and its coalition partners, including Partido del Trabajo (PT) and Partido Encuentro Social (PES), under the joint banner of Juntos Haremos Historia.  According to the Parametría poll, 32 percent of respondents intend to vote for Morena, five percent for PT, and two percent for PES.  Other polls give them higher numbers.

  • The formerly hegemonic Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) appears likely to fall to third place due to President Peña Nieto’s poor performance and the party’s association with corruption, while the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD), traditionally the largest leftist party, would be the fourth.
  • Under the most likely post-election scenarios, López Obrador’s coalition would constitute the largest minority in the Chamber but still fall short of the 51 percent absolute majority, except perhaps by the thinnest of margins. Under Mexico’s mixed electoral system – with both majority and “proportional representation” determining the allocation of Congressional seats – the larger parties lure the smaller ones into coalitions, but unity is often seriously challenged during legislative and other battles.

The traditional categories of left and right are growing obsolete in Mexico, as parties and candidates increasingly resort to opportunism rather than act based on loyalty to any particular ideology or party.  Personal and political grudges also often trump political agendas.

  • As a result, an alternative scenario may emerge in which alliances shift after election day in a way that enhances López Obrador’s power. Tensions between the left-leaning PRD and López Obrador, who was its leader for many years, were so deep that the candidate split with it and created Morena as a party in 2014, but opportunists in the party could well jump ship and join him if he wins by a comfortable margin.  In the PRI also, frustration with party leadership could also prompt defections, and López Obrador – a prominent Priista in the 1970s and 1980s – could also harness their backing.
  • Party switching from one election to another has long been a common practice of politicians in Mexico, but only recently have representatives switched parties in the midst of legislative periods. In particular the PRD’s ranks significantly dwindled as legislators elected under its rubric defected to join Morena. Were this to be replicated later this year or next, López Obrador’s congressional majority could be larger than polls suggest.
  • Party discipline in Mexico has been comparatively higher than in other multi-partisan presidential systems such as Brazil, because of the constitutional prohibition of consecutive reelection. In the past, incumbents did not have incentives to serve their constituencies because their careers depended strictly on party leaders, who centralized nominations to elective positions.  From 2018 on, representatives in both Chambers may run for reelection.  The promise of a Morena candidacy can fuel even more defections into its ranks if the party keeps growing its electoral base.
  • If Morena achieves such dominance, the Congress’s commissions, the equivalent of U.S. Congressional committees, could be important partners of López Obrador because the executive delivers proposals directly to them, and they, in turn, issue the final dictamen that the plenary votes on. Juntos’ influence in the commissions would translate into a fairly unexamined prioritization of the presidential agenda.

Even a comfortable victory on July 1 will not assure López Obrador a readily compliant Congress.  Most legislators in the Por México al Frente coalition, which includes PAN, PRD, and Movimiento Ciudadano stalwarts, will certainly constitute an obstructionist opposition.  How successfully they can sabotage the president’s agenda will obviously depend on their numbers, but unity in opposition to Constitutional amendments required by some of his campaign promises appears certain.  Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority in both chambers of Congress and in a majority of state legislatures – unachievable in any likely political configuration during a López Obrador administration.  His proposals for revocation of presidential tenure, lowering high-ranking officials’ salaries, and reversing education reforms– which would require Constitutional amendments – thus appear dead on arrival.  Absent reliable Congressional support, López Obrador would also have difficulty passing essential budget and revenue bills and gaining confirmation of important appointees such as the attorney general and key prosecutors.  No candidate would have an easy Congress, but the Mexican parties’ willingness to set aside petty divisions and coalesce behind pressing issues, at least early in the presidential term, appears lower than ever before.  Thus, López Obrador would have a lot riding on the willingness of some sectors of the opposition to defect.

May 24, 2018

* Daniela Stevens is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science in the School of Public Affairs at American University.