What did Claudia Sheinbaum do to become the new president of Mexico?

Montage of an image of Claudia Sheinbaum with the colors of the Mexican flag. Photo from Wikipedia licensed under CC BY 2.0.

On Sunday, June 2, Mexico elected Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo as the first woman president of Mexico with a coalition of leftist parties following the political line of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO).

The Fourth Transformation (4T) project built AMLO's image — so his successor must shine on her own merits. What was it that Claudia Sheinbaum did to escape the shadow of the man who marked a before and after in Mexican politics?

A greener capital

In 2018, Claudia Sheinbaum became the first woman mayor of Mexico City (CDMX). She knew well the problems faced by this city of nine million inhabitants and planned a direct and visible strategy addressing pollution, public transport, and insecurity.

AMLO's sovereigntist position would bring him to defend the Mexican energy sector and Mexican oil. The general narrative was that AMLO did not agree with the energy transition even though there were large solar power plants in the states of Sonora and Baja California. Still, his position would generate friction with the Biden administration, as it did not fit US environmental goals.

Sheinbaum's legacy in the capital is Ciudad Solar (Solar City): the solar power plant that aims to become the largest in the world within a city, with solar panels on the roof of Mexico City's busiest marketplace, the Central de Abastos. The Planting Parks program renovated the city's parks and public spaces, generating clean air to combat climate change and, at the same time, promoted community life among the inhabitants of the capital. These measures strengthened the city's position as a defender of the environment.

And on the other hand, Sheinbaum's administration also increased police salaries and created plans of action and rapid response against femicides, which made Sheinbaum stand out as a feminist. She provided the police with greater autonomy to initiate investigations on their own, which streamlined the police response to criminal prosecution.

Mexico City also had a serious problem with transportation. In the subway and Metrobús systems, which were the most widely used public transport systems, the deterioration of the vehicles was highly visible despite the budget dedicated to their maintenance. Accidents in metro lines were a reality. Sheinbaum's solution was a cable car. The Cablebús now crosses the city, reducing the use of the subway and the Metrobús. At the same time, Line 3 of the Metrobús became the first public transport line with zero greenhouse gas emissions.

However, Sheinbaum's detractors labeled her AMLO's puppet. During her campaign closing in Yucatán, Claudia Sheinbaum acknowledged the continuation of the 4T project that stood out in 2018 and was endorsed during the elections of 2021, 2022, and 2023. It would be political suicide not to continue the project, but that did not mean she did not implement new proposals.

Assuring the loyalty of the party

Claudia Sheinbaum's relationship with the Morenista governors who came to power after the elections of 2021, 2022, and 2023 allowed her to further strengthen her position with the party's base. Thus, in MORENA's internal election in September 2023, Sheinbaum swept the polls and left in the dust former Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard. Until 2020, Ebrard was considered AMLO's successor due to obtaining vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic and saving former Bolivian President Evo Morales from the 2019 Bolivian political crisis.

Ebrard then declared that “We will not submit to that woman” and challenged the results of the party's internal polls. At the same time, he threatened to leave MORENA for the neoliberal party Movimiento Ciudadano (MC). In the end, he did not do so and remained in MORENA.

Securing the working class and winning over the middle class

Sheinbaum did not start her campaign from scratch. She inherited considerable political capital from the work AMLO carried out, and the strength of the Mexican peso did not hurt either. Public works such as the Tren Maya, the Felipe Ángeles International Airport (AIFA), and the Interoceanic Train in Oaxaca were visible infrastructure projects, and the salary increases concretized a solid base of support for the 4T project.

Then, Sheinbaum needed to attract the vote of all those who no longer felt represented by AMLO — criticism of middle-class attitudes was a regular part of the president's discourse. University students, professionals, and many in the middle class viewed the 4T with distrust.

AMLO's discourse was simple and colloquial, designed for the country's large social base: blue collar workers and day laborers. For the middle class, AMLO's discourse was… simplistic. Powerful at the grassroots, but without substance for a demographic that had been labeled “aspirationalist,” classist, and racist.

As a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Sheinbaum knew how to reach students. Her discourse was more complex and bureaucratic. Of course, she would not forget the social bases that brought AMLO victory. Once the social bases were consolidated, Sheinbaum sought to win over the middle classes.

The opposition candidate and right-wing senator for the National Action Party (PAN), Xóchitl Gálvez Ruíz, had not been able to seduce the Morenista base. She insulted the people of southern Mexico and described her detractors as “huevones” (lazy) and “pendejos,” (stupid) or being very “güey” (dumb) for not achieving wealth by age 60.

Ironically, Gálvez lost the opposition's vote by trying to adopt an image like AMLO's. The middle classes did not feel sympathy for a denigrating discourse full of prejudices and low arguments. The candidate's inability to respond to the plagiarism in her thesis or to deliver her speech without a teleprompter showed students, professionals, and businesspeople that Xóchitl was not the answer.

Sheinbaum took advantage of this division within the opposition by inviting different cadres who were disappointed with the internal opposition process to join her project.

Three debates were held during the campaign, and Sheinbaum only had to keep her composure. Most polls showed her as the winner, so she participated in the debates as if she were already the president in office. For her, the election was “a mere formality.” As long as she did not lower herself to fight with Xóchitl Gálvez, nor pay heed to the MC candidate, Jorge Álvarez Máynez, her victory would be assured.

Gálvez sought a confrontation with Sheinbaum in the debates. However, by that time there was nothing left to attack with. Since 2021, the opposition sought to discredit Metro Line 12, the lack of maintenance to the subway system, and the accounts that the Sheinbaum family had in tax havens. By 2024 there was nothing to disclose; the “go negative” strategy had failed.

Now with the news of a six percent drop in the Mexican stock market, Claudia Sheinbaum must ensure investor confidence while taking care to defend her victory from the challenge filed by Gálvez over the election results. For Sheinbaum, her presidency has begun, even before she sat in the presidential chair.

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