Mexico’s president has vowed to continue campaigning against the opposition front-runner for the 2024 presidential elections, breaking a longstanding tradition of Mexican presidents keeping out of the race to succeed them.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's target is Xóchitl Gálvez, a plain-talking senator and former indigenous affairs official. Gálvez hasn’t been nominated yet by opposition parties, but has been gaining momentum.
Parties are still in primary season and the official campaigns do not formally start until September, so López Obrador’s criticism of Gálvez’s potential candidacy may not be technically illegal. But López Obrador suggested last week that he may continue even after campaigns start in September.
“The electoral process doesn’t start until September, in September we’ll see what we can say,” the president said. “Clearly, if justice and democracy are at stake, we’ll have to continue speaking out.”
That could violate Article 134 of the Constitution, which says government media, advertising and public relations must only be used for informative or educational purposes, not for or against any politician.
Gálvez, for her part, has said it is “reprehensible” that the president is using government funds and social media accounts to criticize her.
“She is the candidate of the mafia of power,” López Obrador said last week. Although Gálvez serves in the Senate for the conservative National Action party, she comes from a small-town, partly indigenous background, and has often taken more progressive stances than her party.
On Monday, he went after her again, spending at least 20 minutes on the subject:
“They want to fool the people again with this,” he said of Gálvez’s candidacy. “They are promoting her, but she’s not gaining ground, no, no, no, she is not gaining ground.”
To put López Obrador's behavior in perspective, it would be similar to Barack Obama lashing Donald Trump regularly and at length at White House press briefings in 2016, or George W. Bush using such briefings to regularly attack Obama in 2008.
López Obrador has already run afoul of electoral courts on precisely this issue.
On Thursday, a federal electoral tribunal ruled that López Obrador had violated rules prohibiting the use of government resources in campaigns, related to comments he made during the run-up to two state elections held in Mexico in June.
The complaint in that case — filed in March — was similar to the president’s use of his morning press briefing Friday to criticize Gálvez. In March, López Obrador used his morning press briefing to urge Mexicans not to vote for opposition candidates in the two state races, saying “don’t vote for the conservative Alliance … not one vote for the conservatives.”
A panel of the Federal Electoral Tribunal ruled that constituted “the violation of the principles of impartiality, neutrality and equity, as well as the improper use of public funds,” given that the government pays to hold, record and distribute the president’s press briefings at the lavish National Palace, where he lives.
Gálvez has asked to be allowed to respond to the president’s comments at the daily press briefing, and even got a court injunction allowing her to do so, but López Obrador refused, saying she wanted to “play politics” at the briefing.
“From you I only want one thing, to treat me with respect,” Gálvez said in a taped message to López Obrador posted on social media, one of the only ways she has to rebut the president.
For example, on Friday, López Obrador claimed Gálvez had never been to the impoverished, largely indigenous highlands of Chiapas. Gálvez shot back “the president is lying,” and posted a photo of a road-building project in the area she had overseen as head of indigenous development in 2004.
“It is reprehensible that they are using government money and official (social media) accounts to insult me and whip up hate,” Gálvez wrote. “They’re desperate.”
For several decades, Mexican presidents have avoided — and in recent years, been legally prohibited from — making openly partisan campaign statements. That is in part because Mexico is a highly centralized country where the president wields enormous power, both political and financial.
Mexican presidents have strong reasons to care who succeeds them: They cannot seek re-election and serve only one six-year term, they always rely on their party’s candidate to secure their legacy, or in the worst case, get someone elected who won’t investigate any corruption during their administration.
That’s not to say that past presidents have not jockeyed behind the scenes to tilt elections. In 2006, ex-president Vicente Fox was widely seen to have encouraged the use of obscure legal technicalities to try to get López Obrador disqualified from the presidential race, which he eventually was allowed to enter. He lost by the narrowest of margins after the court case was dropped, and has complained he was robbed of the presidency ever since.
But while Fox never disguised his dislike for López Obrador, he never openly criticized him or mentioned him by name. The closest Fox came to any public campaign statement was in 2005, when he told a crowd “You don’t change horses in the middle of the river,” suggesting his party should stay in power.
Political analyst José Antonio Crespo said that Fox’s comments didn’t come close to López Obrador’s. “They were about 5% of what is going on now,” Crespo said. ”It is tiny in comparison.”
He noted that an electoral court ruled in 2006 that Fox’s intervention may have unduly influenced that election.
“If the tribunal said in 2006 that Fox’s tiny participation — he didn’t even mention López Obrador by name — put the election at risk, then by that standard, what are we going to say about López Obrador’s participation? Would Morena’s victory have to be overturned if they win? Because he’s done it a thousand times more,” Crespo said.
Some Mexicans think that trying to limit what López Obrador can say is overly restrictive.
“It’s just stupid. Let him talk. Who cares?” said Federico Estevez, a retired political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. “That’s not a serious accusation. Of course it’s true, and it’s illegal, on the face of it. But it’s a stupid law. And it’s a law that actually can’t be enforced.”
That is true enough: López Obrador himself openly plays with the legal restraints, saying “you-know-who” instead of mentioning individual politicians or parties.
Crespo, the analyst, said that situation almost ensures that López Obrador will continue the partisan comments after September.
“He is going to continue campaigning, even though the law prohibits it, he doesn’t care, because he knows that in the end, there will be no consequences,” he said.