Why Mexico’s election is more important than ever for the United States

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With more than 98 million eligible voters, some 70,000 candidates and over 20,000 public offices being contested, Mexico’s general election on June 2 will be the largest in the country’s history.

But it’s not just the massive scale of the event that makes it so important in the eyes of observers across the border in the United States.

For the first time in history, the country looks set to elect its first female president. The two front-runners are both women – Claudia Sheinbaum, of the Morena party, who is backed by the governing coalition Sigamos Haciendo Historia, and Xóchitl Gálvez, who is backed by an coalition of opposition parties.

The vote is also important because it falls in the same year as the US presidential election – something that happens only once every 12 years – and comes at a time of transition in the relationship between the two countries.

“The years when all the US wanted was a safe and stable Mexico are over. Now it is also interested in a country with good public policy,” said Rafael Fernández de Castro Medina, director of the Center for US-Mexico Studies at the University of California, San Diego, pointing to the increasing number of Latinos in the US and the two countries’ growing ties.

Here are a look at some of the biggest issues affecting the US-Mexico relationship that will be influenced by Sunday’s vote:

It’s the economy, stupid

Mexico became the United States’ top trading partner last year, surpassing China and Canada.

Experts say this is largely because geopolitical issues such as the pandemic, the legacy of Trump’s trade war against China, and the war in Ukraine all encouraged near-shoring – the relocation of supply chains nearer to home – which boosted US imports from Mexico and its investment in the country.

Key to facilitating this shift was the creation of the USMCA trade agreement, which came into effect in 2020 between Mexico, the United States and Canada.

“The USMCA offered, in that favorable context, a legal regulatory framework that provided a lot of certainty to the three North American countries, and Mexico has seized the opportunities and strengthened its preferential tariffs to make this happen,” explained Lila Abed, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center.

However, it’s not all been plain sailing. Mexico’s compliance with the USMCA has been an issue of contention between the administration of Mexico’s current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and those of both US President Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump.

“The next president of Mexico will have to deal with a series of legal disputes that the United States, supported by Canada, has filed within the framework of the USMCA,” Abed points out.

“These range from [López Obrador’s] ban on the import of transgenic corn for human consumption; the shift towards a nationalist energy policy, which has affected US investments in electricity and hydrocarbons, as well as the little importance given to clean energies,” Abed said.

According to Abed, whoever wins the Mexican presidency on June 2 will have to deal with a lawsuit filed by the United States on these issues. They will also have to renegotiate the agreement when it comes up for renewal in 2026.

Many analysts believe the US is currently playing down disputes over the USMCA in the hope that this can ease differences in other areas, both in domestic Mexican issues – such as alleged human rights violations, the government’s treatment of journalists, and the increase in political assassinations – and bilateral concerns such as immigration and the drug trade.

“It’s very transactional. Mexico agreed to partially manage the immigration crisis in the US, keeping immigrants in Mexican territory and taking care of their deportation, in exchange for the United States not activating these lawsuits,” said Raquel López Portillo Maltos, executive secretary of the youth group of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (Comexi) think tank.

Jorge Alberto Schiavon Uriegas, vice president of the Center for Studies and Analysis on Mexico’s Foreign Policy, said López Obrador followed a quid pro quo policy towards both Trump and Biden, and this would possibly continue with Sheinbaum, if elected.

“Mexico committed to addressing the two main Mexican issues affecting the United States and that will determine the next election: migration and fentanyl. In exchange, the United States dramatically reduced its criticism of Mexico’s democratic and institutional weakness, and reduced its interventions, leaving more room for López Obrador’s domestic policy,” said Schiavon Uriegas.

Migration: Mexico, ‘part of Trump’s wall’

While migration across the countries’ 1,933 miles long border is a shared concern, the issue is much lower on Mexican politicians’ agenda than in the US — where it could be a decisive factor in the November vote, according to Carin Zissis, editor-in-chief of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas website.

“The speeches of Sheinbaum and Gálvez on migration are neither very strong nor very different from each other, nor do they address too much what to do with migrants in the country,” she said.

“Proof of this is that, during the last presidential debate, when migration was addressed, the main angle was Mexican migrants currently living in the US; they were talking to their potential voters north of the border and to the Latino community in general, which is large and powerful due to remittances.”

The rub for US politicians is that they need buy-in from their Mexican counterparts if their own immigration policies are to succeed.

Zissis gave the example of how Lopez Obrador had made Mexico “part of Trump’s wall” by sending “thousands of members of the National Guard and the Army to take care of migration control.”

¨Trump didn’t have to build the wall because Mexico is the wall,” said Zissis.

Abed, of the Mexico Institute, said Mexico’s next president would face a different conundrum to previous leaders, because the country had changed from being merely a transit country, which immigrants passed through on their way to the US, to being in many cases their final stop.

“The reaction of the López Obrador government has been to transport migrants who are waiting at the border between Mexico and the United States to the southeast of the country and leave them there. The migration authorities are overwhelmed, the Mexican Refugee Aid Commission (Comar) is also overwhelmed, the centers where migrants stay are very precarious, migrants — specifically unaccompanied minors and women, as well as young people — are at risk from organized crime and human traffickers, and their human rights could be violated,” Abed detailed.

She said the next Mexican government will need to assume responsibility for this large migrant population, “and decide whether to give them a temporary visa, whether to allow them to work, whether they will have access to medical services, etc.”

Fentanyl and the drug trade

Security is another pillar of the bilateral relationship, particularly in terms of the thriving cross-border drug trade that blights both countries.

While the United States has been grappling with a domestic health crisis due to the amount of fentanyl on its streets, Mexico faces increasing cartel-linked violence – including in the run-up to the election which has been marred by dozens of assassination attempts and other political violence.

“México has made progress in dismantling clandestine drug laboratories, but the next government must do more to stop the entry through maritime ports of precursor chemicals mostly coming from China, because after that is when they fall into the hands of organized crime to produce these synthetic opioids,” Abed said.

“But the United States also has to dismantle the network of traffickers within (its own borders). That is, once fentanyl arrives, its distribution throughout the territory is not magical. There is a significant network of organized crime in the United States that the administration must arrest, bring to trial, and whose activities it must restrict,” she added.

One issue the US may be keen to revisit with whoever wins on June 2 are the reforms to Mexico’s National Security Law that the López Obrador government implemented in 2018 as one of its first measures, which limited the activity of foreign agents operating on Mexican territory.

“It was a symbol, a sign that the Mexican government was not going to open the door so easily to security agencies such as the DEA, the CIA, and others. He removed the diplomatic immunity (and) they had to register all their activities with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, etc,” explained Abed.

“López Obrador often speaks to his Mexican base and then negotiates. He knows that the US needs him on migration and security matters,” said Zissis at the Americas Society website.

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