Mexico’s Presidential Front-runner Walks a Thin, Tense Line in Following Outgoing Populist

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(AP, 22.May.2024) — As she runs to replace outgoing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Claudia Sheinbaum is struggling to construct her own image, leaving many wondering whether she can escape the shadow of the larger-than-life incumbent.

The former Mexico City mayor and frontrunner in the June 2 presidential election has had to unquestioningly adopt the programs of the popular López Obrador as candidate of the Morena party he created and dominates. Parts of her background, however, suggest a different vision for the presidency.

Sheinbaum could turn out to be more of a “leftist” than López Obrador has been if she beats out opposition candidate Xóchitl Gálvez and Jorge Álvarez Máynez of the small Citizen Movement party on June 2.

She comes from an older, more solidly left tradition that pre-dates López Obrador’s nationalistic, populist movement. 

Her parents were leading activists in Mexico’s 1968 student democracy movement, which ended tragically in a government massacre of hundreds of student demonstrators in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco plaza just days before the Olympics opened there that year.

“She went to these schools where the ‘children of ‘68’ went, they were active-learning schools run by Spanish Republican exiles, they were free-thinking schools,” recalls Antonio Santos, who has known Sheinbaum since the mid-1980s, when both were leaders of a leftist university student movement.

One of the first scenes from the documentary film about Sheinbaum — produced by one of her two children — is footage of her as a pre-teen, playing a mandolin-style instrument in one of the “folk-style” musical groups popular on the left in the late 1960s and 70s. 

Sheinbaum is touchy about anyone who questions her credentials as a progressive.

Clara Jusidman, a longtime human rights activist, tried to give a presentation to her about eight years ago when Sheinbaum was serving as a borough president on Mexico City’s southside.

“She answered me along the lines of ‘what, do you think I haven’t read anything? Do you think I don’t come from a human rights background?’ something like that, a very, very ugly answer,” recalls Jusidman.

Analysts say such a “who do you think you’re talking to?” response reflects a “respected old left family” attitude common in López Obrador’s Morena party, where a few well-placed clans have captured top jobs based on how long they’ve backed the president, or their family history.

Sheinbaum’s challenge has been to construct her own image, while not stepping outside of the long shadow of López Obrador, a legendary campaigner known for his rousing speeches and chuckling, folksy charisma.

It’s been tough for the former academic with a graduate degree from Berkeley.

What her campaign has come up with so far is a single graphic image (her trademark straightened ponytail, in profile), and a couple of slogans: the straight-forward “Es Claudia (It’s Claudia)” and the somewhat catchier “Es Tiempo de Mujeres” (Now is the Time of Women). That’s a reference to the fact that whether she or opposition candidate Xóchitl Gálvez wins, Mexico will get its first female president in June.

But to what extent can she be her own woman? López Obrador built his powerful movement around himself and his nostalgia for government-run oil, railways, and subsidy programs.

Sheinbaum has had to completely adopted these programs. But she’s an energy-engineering specialist who would like to see more renewable power. As a former academic, she would probably like to see more focus on science-based solutions, rather than the outgoing president’s reliance on folk knowledge and tradition. 

She would like to see more police work, rather than López Obrador’s near-total reliance on the army. She would like to combat the still-high levels of violence against women. She says she wants to use digital technology on solving antiquated problems like Mexico’s low tax collection rate.

But Sheinbaum has to be very careful about how she presents any new proposals, to avoid appearing to contradict or criticize López Obrador, on whose supporters she totally depends. It’s a delicate balancing act.

It doesn’t help that Sheinbaum, 61, has a somewhat distant, dismissive demeanor. In interviews, she will often simply say she doesn’t want to talk about some topics.

“She is a woman who, because she has a solid background as an academic, data and information are what guide her,” said Santos, who worked with her in the Mexico City government and now works on her campaign.

“If you go to a (Cabinet) meeting to propose something and if you don’t have the data to back it up, she will just say, ‘Come back later when you have solid information,’” said Santos.

At a campaign rally on May 16, Sheinbaum pulled up in a Chevrolet Aveo economy car with very little security, and did a decent — if somewhat reserved — job of kissing babies, shaking hands and posing for selfies with supporters. 

Her smile — which was seldom on display during her tenure as Mexico City mayor — sometimes gets a little brittle as she campaigns. She mentions López Obrador more than a dozen times in most of her speeches, but she doesn’t whip crowds up the way the outgoing president did.

And, after López Obrador’s large expansion of government programs and building projects, he is leaving Sheinbaum with a budget deficit that doesn’t leave her room to promise much more. The only thing she can do is tinker around the edges, toying with the idea of lowering the age to qualify for the $175 per month supplemental pension from 65 to 64 or 63.

At the campaign rally, that was enough for Rosa Maria Estrella, 62, a homemaker who crowed “we want to get ours, too!”

Single mother Monica Olmo clutched her 1-year-old daughter and didn’t doubt for a moment when asked why she and others support Sheinbaum. 

“It’s the government support programs,” she said, listing scholarships for schoolchildren, supplemental pensions and training programs for youths.

To be fair, Sheinbaum has on rare occasions shown brief flashes of rebellion against López Obrador. When she was Mexico City mayor during the coronavirus pandemic in 2021, Sheinbaum clearly wanted to declare a tighter lockdown to bring down contagion rates, something López Obrador angrily opposed because he didn’t want to affect the economy. 

Sheinbaum made a point of wearing a face mask, when López Obrador almost never did, relying more on religious amulets to protect himself.

The city, like the country, operated on a red-orange-yellow-green stoplight system, and Sheinbaum wanted to go to “red” as case numbers rose. In a televised appearance, she bowed to her boss and kept the stoplight at “orange, with an alert,” but in announcing it, she wore a bright red dress.

Balancing her own ideas against López Obrador’s is often a torturous act. The outgoing president created a quasi-military National Guard, made it the lead law enforcement agency and cut a lot of federal funding for police. 

Now Sheinbaum wants the National Guard to “be closer to the public, act like a local police, really become the first responders.” 

As president, Sheinbaum might be more conciliatory and less insulting then López Obrador, who has spent much of his six-year term insulting his adversaries and nursing old grudges. The outgoing president rails almost daily against reporters, the middle class, businessmen, social climbers and individualists.

“Naturally, after the election, there is going to be a process of reconciliation,” Sheinbaum said in February.

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By Mark Stevenson

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