Professor Cornejo: Sheinbaum’s Democratic Background Contrasts with Her Actions That Erode Mexican Democracy

Dr. Rodrigo Castro Cornejo, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and Associate Director of the UMass-Lowell Center for Public Opinion.

Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo says Claudia Sheinbaum’s government in Mexico is set to begin in October, and it will be a period of significant interest as both the current president and the president-elect navigate this transition. He noted that Sheinbaum has a democratic trajectory, having worked as a scholar and scientist before joining López Obrador’s movement and stated that “Given her background, one might expect her government not to pose a threat to democracy. However, recent signs indicate she supports measures that could further erode Mexican democracy. We will need to wait until her government starts to see if these policies are implemented.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

General elections were held in Mexico on June 2, 2024, marking a significant moment in the nation’s political landscape. Voters elected a new president to serve a six-year term, alongside all 500 members of the Chamber of Deputies and all 128 members of the Senate. The election saw Claudia Sheinbaum, a member of the left-wing National Regeneration Movement (Morena), secure the presidency. This result underscores a continuity in the political direction established by the outgoing president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO).

In an insightful interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Dr. Rodrigo Castro Cornejo, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and Associate Director of the UMass-Lowell Center for Public Opinion, discussed Sheinbaum’s political trajectory and the implications of her victory. Professor Cornejo highlighted that Sheinbaum actively supported López Obrador’s transformation agenda throughout her campaign, aligning herself closely with his policies. This raised questions about whether she would carve out her own positions once in office or continue on the path set by her predecessor.

Professor Cornejo pointed out that Sheinbaum recently reiterated her support for controversial reforms, such as electing judges by popular vote, which suggests a continuation of policies that may weaken checks and balances. This stance has raised concerns about potential democratic erosion under her administration.

Sheinbaum’s government is set to begin in October, and it will be a period of significant interest as both the current president and the president-elect navigate this transition. Professor Cornejo noted that Sheinbaum has a democratic trajectory, having worked as a scholar and scientist before joining López Obrador’s movement and stated that “Given her background, one might expect her government not to pose a threat to democracy. However, recent signs indicate she supports measures that could further erode Mexican democracy. We will need to wait until her government starts to see if these policies are implemented.”

As we delve into this interview, Professor Cornejo sheds light on the historical development of populist movements in Mexico, the impact of populist rhetoric on voter behavior, and the potential long-term implications for Mexican society and governance. Join us as we explore these critical issues and gain a deeper understanding of the current political dynamics in Mexico.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo with some edits.

Populism in Mexico Is Essentially Embodied by AMLO

Thank you very much, Professor Cornejo, for joining our interview series. Let me start with the first question. Can you provide an overview of the historical development of populist movements in Mexico? How have these movements evolved over the past few decades? Especially, how do left-wing and right-wing populism manifest differently in Mexico, and what are the unique characteristics and strategies of each within the Mexican political context?

Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo: It’s an interesting moment in Mexican politics because there was a presidential election just a few days ago. Populism in Mexico is essentially embodied by Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), the current president. He first ran for the presidency in 2006, then in 2012, and finally won in 2018. Throughout his campaigns, he has consistently divided Mexican society in a populist manner, framing the former mainstream political parties as a corrupt elite and his movement, The National Regeneration Movement (Morena), as the representative of the "good" people.

Mexico experienced a non-democratic hegemonic regime from the 1930s until 2000, eventually transitioning to democracy in 2000. López Obrador was always critical of this transition, not because he opposed democracy, but because he believed it wasn’t a true democracy—it was a neoliberal democracy that served only a few people and political parties. He was especially critical of the neoliberal reforms approved between 2012 and 2015 and the massive corruption scandals during the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) government of that period. These events significantly boosted his political career, allowing him to tap into the public’s anger and ultimately win the presidency in 2018 with more than 50% of the vote, a historic achievement in Mexico.

In 2024, López Obrador couldn’t campaign for re-election as it is constitutionally banned in Mexico. However, his loyal ally, Claudia Sheinbaum, the former mayor of Mexico City, won the presidential election with almost 60% of the vote. She campaigned on continuing the policies and direction set by López Obrador over the past six years.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexican President and Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico City Governor, in an event in judiciary city in Mexico on September 4, 2019. Photo: Octavio Hoyos.

What has been the impact of populist rhetoric and strategies on recent Mexican elections? How have populist leaders and their discourses influenced voter behavior? What are the long-term implications of these policies and discourses on Mexican society and governance?

Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo: I think populism, especially in the last decade and most notably in the past six years, has played a significant role in Mexican politics. It has influenced day-to-day politics and voter behavior. In some of my studies, I found that affective polarization, particularly negative partisanship against the PRI, is a main driver of voting behavior. People are making decisions at election time not necessarily based on the future but on their independent judgment, particularly against the PRI, which is perceived as a highly corrupt government. Even though the PRI has not governed in the past six years, they are still being punished for their previous performance.

López Obrador has been very strategic about this. He holds daily press conferences, sometimes for up to two hours every morning, where he frequently criticizes the PRI government of six, twelve, or even eighteen years ago. He rarely discusses the current policies of his own government, focusing instead on the past. This strategy has been very useful for him, allowing him to divert attention from current issues such as public insecurity, drug cartel-related violence, and his government’s poor handling of the pandemic. Mexico had one of the worst excess death rates during the pandemic, but López Obrador kept talking about the past rather than addressing current problems.

People are not evaluating his actual performance; instead, they are looking at the past and his rhetoric. This populist rhetoric has been very important for his government.

Affective Polarization and Negative Partisanship Are Significant Factors Driving Voter Behavior

In your article titled “The AMLO Voter: Affective Polarization and the Rise of the Left in Mexico,” you suggest that affective polarization played a crucial role in López Obrador’s victory in the 2018 presidential election. Can you elaborate on how the use of populist rhetoric contributed to this affective polarization in Mexican politics and influenced voter behavior in recent elections and contributed to the electoral success of Claudia Sheinbaum?

Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo: Yeah, it’s interesting. Normally, you would expect a lot of retrospective voting, especially given the huge corruption scandals, the struggling economy before 2018, and the ongoing public insecurity in Mexico. You’d think these issues would dominate voters’ decisions. But when I analyzed the data, I found that while people do consider retrospective assessments, the influence of party identification and, more importantly, affective polarization, is much stronger.

When you control for these factors, you see that traditional variables influencing voting behavior are less significant. People assess the economy, corruption, and public insecurity through the lens of their party loyalties and biases. My research shows that negative partisanship against the established political parties, particularly the PRI, was a main driver of López Obrador’s victory in 2018. Another significant factor was the perception that the National Action Party (PAN) and PRI were essentially the same, especially after they approved several neoliberal legislative reforms before his victory. This convergence in their policies helped López Obrador by making them seem indistinguishable to voters.

These elements—economic struggles, political scandals, and the perceived similarity between the PAN and PRI—were very advantageous for López Obrador in 2018. Although I don’t have data for the most recent election, it’s likely that affective polarization and negative partisanship against the PAN and PRI continue to be significant factors driving voter behavior, potentially contributing to Claudia Sheinbaum’s success as well.

Your article titled “Who Believes in Fraud in the 2006 Mexican Presidential Election? Election Denialism, Partisan Motivated Reasoning, and Affective Polarization,” emphasizes the role of affective polarization in sustaining the belief in electoral fraud during the 2006 Mexican presidential election. Could you elaborate on how affective polarization interacts with partisan identification to reinforce these misperceptions over time and in recent elections?

Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo: It’s an interesting moment in Mexican politics, particularly since the 2006 presidential election when López Obrador first ran for the presidency. Despite a lack of substantial evidence, he claimed he lost due to electoral fraud. This allegation became a political myth that fueled his movement. At that time, he was part of the PRD, Mexico’s traditional leftist party. Eventually, he founded his own party, Morena.

López Obrador’s narrative has been particularly effective during these years, framing the PAN and PRI as not only neoliberal and corrupt but also responsible for creating widespread poverty in Mexico. He has also perpetuated the myth that the presidency was stolen from him in 2006, which has been a powerful tool for mobilizing support.

In his second presidential campaign in 2012, his claims of fraud were less successful since he lost by a wider margin (more than 5% of the vote) compared to the less than 1% margin in 2006. However, this narrative continued to shape his populist rhetoric, activating grievances among the electorate not just about the economy and corruption but also about the perceived injustice of the stolen presidency.

This strategy of targeting and activating grievances has been central to his success, particularly in the 2018 presidential election and in the most recent elections. By constructing an in-group against the PAN and PRI, López Obrador has effectively used populist rhetoric to galvanize support for himself and his party, Morena.

People Fail to Hold Their Own Party Leaders Accountable

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador during an Indigenous ceremony as part of ceremony of the takeover as the new President of Mexico on December 1, 2018 in Mexico City. Photo: Carlos Tischler.

Your 2023 study finds that emotions, particularly anger, significantly influence how voters perceive corruption involving their co-partisan candidates. How can political campaigns either mitigate or exploit these emotional responses to influence voter behavior, and what are the broader implications for political accountability in Mexico?

Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo: It’s interesting because anger is a main driver of political behavior. When people feel aggravated by issues like corruption, which was rampant during the years before López Obrador, they become angry. López Obrador capitalized on this anger, blaming mainstream political parties for the country’s structural problems, particularly corruption. This strategy led people to react against these scandals and support López Obrador as a way to punish corruption.

However, my research shows a problem with accountability. While people may be angry and willing to punish opposition parties for corruption, they are less likely to do the same when it comes to corruption within López Obrador’s Morena party. In experiments where I manipulated the source of a corruption scandal, participants were less likely to punish the scandal if it involved their own party’s politicians. This has been evident over the last six years in Mexico. Despite numerous corruption scandals within his government, including those involving his own family, López Obrador’s approval ratings have remained remarkably stable around 60%, which is very high for a Latin American democracy.

This stability persists despite ongoing violence, economic struggles, and a poor pandemic response. The issue is that in a world of affective polarization combined with populist rhetoric, people are likely to overlook the flaws within their own party. They use partisan bias as a shield, becoming immune to scandals, and fail to hold their co-partisan leaders accountable.

Your article titled “How Do Campaigns Matter? Independents, Political Information, and the Enlightening Role of Campaigns in Mexico," discusses how campaigns help voters align with candidates that match their underlying political predispositions. How do populist candidates in Mexico leverage campaign strategies to appeal to independents and low-information voters, and what role does populist rhetoric play in shaping these voters’ political alignments?

Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo: It’s interesting because in Mexico, over the last 20 years, around 50% to 60% of people have shown strong party identification, which is quite high for Latin America. Typically, about a third to 40% of the electorate is independent, varying by election. This independent group is what politicians aim to target. For instance, in 2006 and 2012, when López Obrador lost the presidential elections, he did not win the independent vote. During those campaigns, the PAN and PRI successfully portrayed him as a threat to Mexican democracy and the economy, suggesting that if he won, both would collapse.

However, by 2018, due to the poor performance and numerous scandals of the mainstream parties, López Obrador was able to win the independent vote for the first time. Independents are generally more responsive to current political events than partisans, who view everything through their partisan biases. When independents see corruption scandals or poor economic performance, they react accordingly, which was beneficial for López Obrador in 2018.

The 2024 campaign has been one of the most stable in recent history regarding polling. Claudia Sheinbaum started with about 50% support, while the opposition candidate from PAN and PRI, Bertha Xóchitl Gálvez Ruiz, had around 30%. This remained largely unchanged over the three months of the campaign, reflecting the highly polarized and partisan nature of Mexican politics today. With a high level of party identification, people’s political orientations and voting intentions did not shift much during the campaign.

López Obrador’s influence remains strong, with Morena winning the independent vote once again. However, these so-called independents are less independent than in previous campaigns, likely due to the successful positioning of Morena under López Obrador’s leadership in Mexican politics.

The study suggests that political campaigns serve an enlightening role, particularly for independents. How does this enlightenment process impact the support for populist candidates who often rely on broad, anti-establishment messages? Do these campaigns reinforce or weaken the appeal of populist rhetoric as election day approaches?

Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo: Exactly. This last presidential campaign differed from previous ones because this time, Morena was the party in government, with Claudia Sheinbaum and López Obrador having completed six years of leadership. They couldn’t solely rely on stirring anger against the PAN and PRI, although they did so successfully. Instead, they also focused on promoting their achievements.

A significant part of Sheinbaum’s rhetoric was about the better economy under their administration. They emphasized that they represented the people, a theme that was very common in their political communication. They highlighted the creation of social programs, increases in the minimum wage, and other economic improvements as contrasts to the previous neoliberal policies of the PAN and PRI.

However, they also had to downplay the criticisms regarding democratic erosion. The opposition parties, particularly the PAN and PRI, accused them of trying to capture the Supreme Court, eroding democracy, and undermining electoral authorities. Despite these criticisms, Sheinbaum’s campaign focused on the positive changes over the last six years and continued to activate anger against the mainstream political parties.

Overall, the strategy was to highlight their accomplishments while maintaining the narrative that the PAN and PRI were responsible for past issues, ensuring voters remained focused on the supposed improvements and continued to distrust the previous governments.

Most People Endorsed “Reforms” That Ultimately Undermined Democracy in Mexico

Your study titled “Do (Perceptions of) Electoral Polling Affect the Vote? Campaign Effects, Partisan Bias, and Strategic Voting in Mexico" highlights the role of partisan bias in shaping voter perceptions of electoral polling information. From a populism perspective, how do populist leaders in Mexico exploit or reinforce these biases to galvanize their base, and what impact does this have on strategic voting behavior among their supporters?

Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo: In the last few years of López Obrador’s government, he has consistently emphasized his mandate. Almost weekly, if not daily, he has highlighted that he won over 50% of the vote, claiming a majority of the electorate’s support. He often cited high presidential approval ratings, with some surveys showing nearly 80% approval, though the average was closer to 60%. He used these numbers in his daily press conferences to argue that he represented the people and had a mandate to pursue his policies.

From a political perspective, high approval ratings can indeed help push through economic and political reforms by pressuring opposition parties. However, this rhetoric also extended to justifying actions that eroded democratic institutions. For example, he argued that the Supreme Court was obstructing his administration and therefore needed reform. Similarly, he claimed that the electoral authority was not fair to his government, justifying attempts to weaken its independence.

Over the past few years, López Obrador sought constitutional reforms to undermine the independence of electoral authorities and to exert control over the Supreme Court. He justified these actions by citing his electoral victory and high approval ratings, claiming democratic legitimacy. However, this has been problematic as it has actively eroded democratic norms and institutions in Mexico.

Due to the partisan bias we discussed earlier, many people supported these measures, believing that the Supreme Court and electoral authorities were indeed obstructing the government. This significant portion of public opinion endorsed reforms that ultimately undermined democracy in Mexico.

Your article titled “Anti-Democratic Attitudes, the Winner-Loser Gap, and the Rise of the Left in Mexico,” indicates that López Obrador’s supporters showed increased satisfaction with democracy after his victory, yet also exhibited a willingness to support anti-democratic interventions. How do populist leaders like López Obrador reconcile or exploit this apparent contradiction between promoting satisfaction with democracy while simultaneously undermining democratic norms and institutions?

Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo: It’s interesting because, normally, you would expect that voters whose party won the last presidential election would be more satisfied with democracy. This expectation was met in the 2018 presidential election, where López Obrador’s partisans were very happy about his victory and their satisfaction with democracy increased significantly.

However, these same voters were also the most likely to endorse measures that could actively erode democracy. The question is why. From López Obrador’s perspective, he would argue that these measures are not about undermining democracy but about creating a true democracy that represents the people. He portrays the judiciary and the Supreme Court as corrupt entities that do not represent the public.

One of the proposed reforms, likely to be discussed in Congress in September, involves having judges in Mexico, including those on the Supreme Court, elected by popular vote. The argument is that this will ensure judges represent the people. However, this could politicize the judiciary further, making judges more responsive to political interests rather than the public.

So, how do people reconcile these two views? Partisan bias plays a significant role. Supporters of López Obrador trust his discourses and narratives. Additionally, if democracy hasn’t brought tangible benefits, measures that claim to ensure representation, such as electing judges, can seem appealing to the public. Thus, these kinds of reforms might gain support among the public, even if they undermine democratic norms.

Sheinnbaum’s Government May Not Pose a Threat to Democracy

Claudia Sheinbaum, candidate for the presidency of Mexico, celebrates at Zocalo square the significant advantage that makes her the virtual winner in Mexico City, Mexico on June 2, 2024. Photo: Paola Garcia.

During the campaign, Claudia Sheinbaum backed many of Obrador’s most contentious policies, including a slate of constitutional changes that critics say would severely undermine democratic checks and balances. Do you think she would continue the populist streak Obrador started?

Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo: I think so. That was always one of the questions. During the campaign, Claudia Sheinbaum actively campaigned for the continuity of López Obrador’s transformation agenda, as he often refers to his government’s efforts to transform Mexican politics. She consistently supported continuing his policies.

The question was whether she was being strategic during the campaign, appearing to fully support López Obrador but planning to establish her own positions once in office. Recently, she reiterated her support for reforms like the one proposing that judges be elected by popular vote. This suggests a strong likelihood of continuing policies that weaken checks and balances and erode democratic norms.

Her government begins in October, and it will be an interesting period with both the current president and the president-elect in the spotlight. She may strategically maintain her successful political alliance with López Obrador initially, but there is a possibility she will develop her own positions over time.

Sheinbaum has a democratic trajectory, having worked as a scholar and scientist before joining López Obrador’s movement. Given her background, one might expect her government not to pose a threat to democracy. However, recent signs indicate she supports measures that could further erode Mexican democracy. We will need to wait until her government starts to see if these policies are implemented.

How do you think a possible win by Donald Trump in the US could affect populist movements in Mexico and in Latin America? 

Professor Rodrigo Castro Cornejo: It’s interesting because López Obrador and Donald Trump had a surprisingly good relationship, despite their differing ideologies—Trump from the right and López Obrador from the left. They found common ground in their populist approaches, albeit to different extents.

This relationship proved functional for both Mexico and the US in recent years. Under both the Trump and Biden administrations, the primary US expectation has been for Mexico to curb immigration from Central America. Mexico has done this, though often in ways that have raised significant human rights concerns. This arrangement has been somewhat successful for the Biden administration, with Mexico acting as a de facto wall between the two countries.

In exchange, it seems that the US has largely overlooked issues of democratic erosion in Mexico. The primary concern for the US has historically been stability over democracy. This was evident even during the 70 years of the hegemonic party regime in Mexico last century. While there has been some interest in promoting democracy, political stability has always been the main priority.

Even if López Obrador didn’t fully respect some NAFTA agreements, these disagreements were eventually negotiated. Ultimately, the most critical issue for both the Trump and Biden administrations has been immigration control. López Obrador’s administration has been astute in not criticizing the US on its democratic standards, focusing instead on maintaining a stable relationship that aligns with their interests.

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