Things Fall Apart: Will Mexico’s Ruling Party Survive the Upcoming Change in Administration?

MORENA has developed fractures that may portend a coming schism. Indeed, the chances of a major rupture in the party during a Sheinbaum administration appear significant.


Image Source: AFP.

The party of Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, MORENA (short for Movimiento Regeneración Nacional), holds a strong grip on political power. Delivered to power in 2018 via a crushing victory at the ballot box, today, it holds significant pluralities in the federal lower and upper legislative houses and 21 of 32 governorships.

While López Obrador’s term will come to an end this November 30, MORENA appears poised to continue its political dominance in the June 2 election that will decide who succeeds him. The party’s candidate, Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo, holds a commanding lead in the polls that few believe she will lose at this stage.

Despite this outward show of strength, however, MORENA has developed fractures that may portend a coming schism. Indeed, given the current situation the chances of a major rupture in the party during a Sheinbaum administration appear significant.

Here’s why: First, MORENA is not a traditional political party even by Mexican standards, where politicians switch their party loyalties far more than their U.S. counterparts. López Obrador created it in 2012 as a non-profit organization to support the presidential ambitions of a single person: him. After his unsuccessful bid for the presidency that year, he transformed it into a formal political party in anticipation of the 2018 elections. In so doing, he defected from the leftist Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD), which had been his political home since 1988.

PRD politicians initially called the split “a divorce of convenience.” But it became definitive in the 2018 elections, which underscored that MORENA’s center of gravity was less a cohesive worldview, and more personal loyalty to López Obrador and his political power. As the scorned PRD and other leftist parties refused to ally with him, he created a chile, mole y pozole coalition called Juntos haremos historia, uniting MORENA with the left-wing Partido del Trabajo (PT) and the right-wing, evangelical Partido Encuentro Social (PES) (Many also joined from the PRD itself and the allied Movimiento Ciudadano.) MORENA also collected defectors from other major parties in the run-up to, and aftermath of, the 2018 elections, such as former priistas Manuel Bartlett and Esteban Moctezuma Barragán, and former panistas Gabriela Cuevas and Tatiana Clouthier. Such defectors are colloquially called “chapulines,” or grasshoppers.

While defections in pursuit of power are not uncommon in Mexico, a movement of this scale is unusual. Indeed, this “big-tent” approach in many ways mirrors how the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) did business during its uninterrupted rule of Mexico from 1929 to 2000, where loyalty and a commitment to perpetuating political power trumped most ideological considerations.

The dynamic has continued with Sheinbaum’s presidential campaign. Many important figures supporting Sheinbaum’s candidacy defected from other parties such as the PRI when it became clear she would likely become Mexico’s next president. But, like most political movements centered on a person rather than an idea, the question of succession — difficult in the best of circumstances — now looms particularly large.

The “big-tent” structure means that many current MORENA members may find temptations to defect particularly difficult to resist once the charismatic leader has left the stage — defection is particularly easy to justify in such a context, since any number of inconsistencies on policy matters can serve as a pretext. 

What is more, political satellites in AMLO’s orbit with significant gravity of their own — and political axes to grind — already threaten to destabilize the coalition. The most significant of these are Ricardo Monreal Ávila and Marcelo Ebrard Casaubón. Monreal is MORENA’s leader in the Mexican Senate. He has openly challenged the president’s power for years and still retains this key party leadership role. In fact, his brother (and governor of Zacatecas) David Monreal Ávila, went so far as to sign a separate security assistance agreement with the United States in 2022, provoking presidential outrage. There is no plausible scenario in Mexican politics in which David did this without Ricardo’s knowledge, and the latter’s continued political power within MORENA is likely to lead to further clashes as the new president asserts herself.

Ebrard, AMLO’s foreign minister from 2018 to 2023, may have an even greater motivation to upset the apple cart. He is well-known nationally and has spent his career supporting López Obrador but has long held his own presidential aspirations. This election was a natural moment for him to assume the mantle. Nonetheless, the party (read: López Obrador) passed over him to pick Sheinbaum. 

Aggravating matters, Ebrard and other MORENA members chasing the nomination accused the party of rigging its opaque selection process. In response, Ebrard set up his own political movement, “El Camino de México” in September 2022 and threatened to leave MORENA. Two months later, however, he reached a “political agreement” with Sheinbaum to remain in exchange for influence in the party and a Sheinbaum administration. Nevertheless, Ebrard emphasized that he would “always seek to compete for the presidency,” strongly suggesting that the pact represents more of a tenuous cease-fire instead of a negotiated peace. It seems likely that he will use the next six years to amass an independent power base—whether within MORENA or without—from which to launch a 2030 bid.

The typical response to talk of schism is that López Obrador will remain the power behind Sheinbaum’s throne after November. He will, say these commentators, control Sheinbaum and continue to enforce party unity. Others point to the president’s buildup of military influence in the country as a means of exerting his will after leaving office.

But one should not be so certain. Though Sheinbaum does not enjoy the same easy charisma as her political patron, she is quite intelligent and, once she has control of the government, she may force him from the stage if she is sufficiently astute and ruthless. History offers many examples of anointed successors who no longer feel inclined to stay beholden to their predecessor once they have firmly grasped the levers of power (Lenin Moreno’s presidency in Ecuador is one example.) AMLO’s ability to influence events through the party machinery will be limited, since that machinery is weak — Monreal being a living example of this. López Obrador will also turn 71 this fall and has suffered bouts of ill health, raising the question of if he will need to rest after years of relentless work. Even if he is unwilling to go quietly, there are plenty of skeletons in his political closet – especially allegations of corruption and the failed fight against cartel violence – that could be used against him if Sheinbaum wishes. 

This possibility of a post-election rupture within the ruling coalition will make effective, in-person diplomacy with Mexico more important than ever for U.S. officials. Even at its most predictable, Mexican politics is opaque. Executive decision-making often departs significantly from what is written in the official organizational chart, and often tracks who enjoys the favor of the president (or his/her close associates). Observing events from afar is not enough to make informed decisions – close contact with the daily back-and-forth of political gossip and palace intrigue is essential to understanding where power truly lies for any given decision.

Nothing can substitute for capable U.S. diplomats on the ground who can speak the language and understand the political system. Given the critical importance of the U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship, a strong presence of capable U.S. diplomats who can speak the language and understand the political system will be more important than ever.

Jeffrey Zinsmeister is a Global Americans Senior Fellow specializing in rule of law, cybersecurity, data privacy, and organized crime, with over 20 years’ experience in law and international affairs. A former U.S. diplomat and Organization of American States official, he has worked extensively throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, with particular experience in Mexico and Brazil. He is also currently Of Counsel at the law firm Holcomb & Ward LLP, and co-author of the book Lost (and Found) in Translation: How to Find, Hire, and Work with the Right Professional Translator for Your Business, published in 2022. All opinions expressed are solely those of the author in his personal capacity.

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