Mexico Elects Claudia Sheinbaum Its First Woman President — But Some Have Mixed Feelings

On June 2, 2024, Claudia Sheinbaum, the candidate of the governing Morena party and a former Head of Government of Mexico City, made history becoming Mexico's first woman president after winning a landslide election. After the electoral authorities released the first preliminary results, Sheinbaum took the stage to thank voters and emphasized the significance of the moment for gender equality in a country known for its machismo:  “For the first time in 200 years of the Republic, there will be a woman president and she will be transformative.”
But as her supporters celebrate the groundbreaking achievement, the question remains what does transformative mean to Sheinbaum, who will take office in October: will her presidency bring change or will it just be a continuation of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) policies?
For months, polls predicted that Sheinbaum would win the presidential election. Her very likely victory captivated observers from abroad: here was a feminist, a leftist, the daughter of Jewish parents, a former student activist, and a climate scientist on the verge of leading a nation of more than 130 million people and one of the world’s 15 largest economies. 
In the United States, where few national commentators pay close attention to Mexican politics, the reaction has been one of genuine buzz. “The next president of Mexico is likely to be its first woman president, a Jewish woman named Claudia Sheinbaum, whose grandparents fled Hitler's armies and who has a PhD in energy engineering and worked for the IPCC. Pretty incredible story,” cheered MSNBC host Chris Hayes in a viral tweet last week.  
In Mexico, the view is much more nuanced. Sheinbaum’s victory is largely attributed to her alignment with President López Obrador, who has remained popular throughout his term. Sheinbaum is AMLO’s hand-picked successor. In her campaign, she stuck to a message of continuity, promising to uphold AMLO’s legacy and to continue all his policies, particularly his popular cash transfer programs, and to push for his preferred institutional reforms. At her rallies, Sheinbaum copied AMLO’s discourse and mannerisms, even imitating his distinctive accent at times. 
Barred by the Mexican Constitution from seeking reelection, AMLO has been the main character of the 2024 campaign, dictating the agenda from his daily mañanera conferences. Both Morena and the opposition saw the election as a referendum on AMLO’s political project, the Cuarta Transformación. The opposition's repeated claims about democracy being debilitated under AMLO did not sway Mexican voters. Or, more specifically, many more saw the argument for building a “second floor” of AMLO’s Cuarta Transformación as more compelling and relevant to their lives. A comprehensive ground campaign in the states and an aggressive social media strategy that, for the most part, managed to corner the opposition into playing defense were also important factors contributing to these election results. 
Feminists in Mexico have recognized the symbolism of a woman occupying the highest political office, but many are skeptical about Sheinbaum. Sheinbaum’s identification with AMLO, who has had a fraught relationship with a movement he considers "conservative" and hostile to his government, has raised concerns. Moreover, many remember how Sheinbaum distanced herself from young activists as Head of Government of Mexico City, calling their protests “provocations” that sought a violent answer from the government to get more attention. Others were disappointed to confirm her approach to victims of violence would be the same as AMLO's; that is, she would not meet with them and would chastise them for criticizing the government’s lack of response to the ongoing crisis of disappeared women in Mexico  instead of “making proposals.” 
The perception of a Sheinbaum government being an extension of AMLO’s has tempered the hopes feminists might have had about electing the country’s first woman president. Refusing to vote for opposition candidate Xóchitl Gálvez, whose coalition included the economic and religious right, many progressives chose to write in their election ballots the names of the disappeared to protest government inaction, something that was promoted by the families of the disappeared.
“I am considering voting for Mayela Álvarez, a woman who disappeared four years ago in the Monterrey metropolitan area and whose daughter I interviewed for a short documentary for social media. She has been looking for her mother since she was a minor. This is my way of protesting, of joining those who are clamoring for the more than 100 thousand people who have disappeared in Mexico,” Cecilia Vázquez, a feminist activist and documentary filmmaker, told Somos before Sunday’s election.  
Vázquez is not alone in expressing her disillusionment with the choices on the ballots. Those who had previously been sympathetic to Morena now cite Sheinbaum’s endorsement of AMLO’s policies, like militarization and protection of the military from being held accountable for human rights violations, as reasons why they can’t fully support her. “The Morena candidate (Sheinbaum) is basically the continuation of militarization,” Vázquez adds. 
During her campaign, Sheinbaum was directly asked if she would pledge to AMLO’s initial promise of returning the army to their barracks and untangle it from Cuarta Transformación megaprojects like the Mayan Train, the Interoceanic Corridor of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and airports. She avoided giving an answer that would signal her approach would be any different from AMLO’s: "For now it is like this; we have to keep it that way, evaluate how it is working, and, in any case, change the situation, but, as it is, for now we have to keep it," she said. 
Experts question whether Sheinbaum is capable of driving progressive change. While there are expectations for reforms, such as better budget distribution, expanded social protections, and a more firm stance supporting abortion rights, doubts remain about her ability to govern independently from AMLO. “Claudia Sheinbaum is above all loyal to López Obrador. She has followed the rules of the game that he decided, and she has promised to follow his agenda.” Elisa Servín, a historian and expert on the Mexican left, tells Somos. In terms of a progressive agenda, Servín questions whether the symbolism of a woman president can wear out quickly “if it is not accompanied by government actions that go beyond that.”
Servín highlights a common criticism of Sheinbaum: she campaigned in the shadow of López Obrador, and it is difficult to ascertain whether she will want to govern independently. The commitment to uphold AMLO’s legacy might hinder her ability to correct in instances where AMLO has failed. For example, Sheinbaum’s background as a climate scientist has suggested she might bring a renewed focus on environmental causes. She has the academic credentials and the experience to make evidence-based decisions and address climate change, but she will not be able to do so if she is constrained by the margins imposed by AMLO’s Cuarta Transformación project, which privileges PEMEX, the national oil company, as the great engine of Mexico’s economy. 
There is also the issue of how Sheinbaum’s election might impact Mexico’s relations with the U.S. International analyst and columnist Brenda Estefan tells Somos that any substantial changes are unlikely except for some potential cooperation on climate that “right now is nonexistent” and only if Joe Biden is reelected in the U.S. On immigration, Sheinbaum is expected to continue the current policies, says Stefan. Though she did speak at one of the presidential debates about the importance of reforming the National Immigration Institute (under scrutiny for its violations of human rights), there seems to be no awareness in her team about the fact that Mexico doesn’t have an immigration policy beyond acting as an enforcer of the U.S.'s anti-immigration policies. 
Sheinbaum has won the presidency with a margin that has not been seen in Mexico since the 1980s. Her win represents a tremendous step forward for gender equality, and her  presidency holds the potential for progress in social justice, the fight against climate change, sustainability, and an economy that works for all. Sheinbaum’s affiliation with AMLO allowed for a placid campaign where the outcome was known months before the election was held. Now it will be crucial for her to show she can establish her own political identity and a distinct agenda. 

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