What Sheinbaum’s election win might mean for US-Mexico ties

What Sheinbaum’s election win might mean for US-Mexico ties

What Sheinbaum’s election win might mean for US-Mexico ties
Mexican President-elect Claudia Sheinbaum holds a press conference in Mexico City, Mexico. June 10, 2024. (Reuters)
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Mexico made history last week. It elected its first woman president, beating both the US and Canada to this milestone. The president-elect, Claudia Sheinbaum, will also be the first president whose parents were Jewish refugees who fled to Mexico from Europe. She is a climate scientist who was a member of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. She is also a graduate from an American university and has family in the US. This should be good news for the US. Mexico matters a lot to America. It is its biggest trading partner, but it is also Washington’s biggest headache because of what crosses their shared border, from people to drugs.
President Joe Biden congratulated Sheinbaum on her win. She received more than 59 percent of the vote, which is considered to be the highest vote percentage in Mexico’s democratic history. Biden also congratulated outgoing Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and the “Mexican people on their free and fair electoral process.” The White House said that the two leaders pledged to “maintain their strong cooperation” to “ensure a stable, productive bilateral relationship during the transition to the administration of President-elect Sheinbaum.”
Why is it, then, that not everybody in Washington is happy about Sheinbaum’s election? Why are some cautious and curbing their enthusiasm regarding the win of “La Doctora,” as she is nicknamed?
Sheinbaum is considered the protege and even the hand-picked “chosen successor” of the popular and strong Lopez Obrador. Most people believe the election result was more a vote for the outgoing president than for her. Some worry the election “concentrates more power in Lopez Obrador’s Morena party than any other Mexican government has wielded since the days of one-party rule,” as David Frum wrote in a scathing The Atlantic article titled “The Failing State Next Door.”
Frum believes that what is coming next in Mexico will present a new foreign policy crisis for Biden. He concluded that Sheinbaum is not very different from Obrador, after interviewing her last year. He said she defended all the president’s “dogmas.” But others call on people to be “skeptical of pundits’ conclusions that she will simply follow in the shadow of her predecessor,” as former US Ambassador to Mexico Antonio Garza wrote.
The fear among Mexico watchers is that the president will keep control, even after he leaves office, thus allowing the perceived backsliding on democracy and weakening of democratic institutions, including the judiciary, to continue. For example, another former US ambassador to Mexico, Arturo Sarukhan, told Foreign Policy last month that the six years of Lopez Obrador’s rule saw a “slippery slope of democratic weakening of checks and balances, of autonomous bodies and regulators.”
A warning sign for Sarukhan was that the president gave the military a role beyond public security, meaning that, “for the first time since the Mexican Revolution, the armed forces are playing a role in public policies that have nothing to do with national defense.” He believes that this makes it “harder for whoever comes after him to change course.” 

The fear among Mexico watchers is that the outgoing president will keep control, even after he leaves office.

Dr. Amal Mudallali

Jose Carreno Figueras, foreign editor and columnist of El Heraldo de Mexico, also worries that Lopez Obrador is making it harder for Sheinbaum to blaze her own trail. He said the outgoing president has “set a number of small locks that will allow him to cast a shadow on Sheinbaum.”
The biggest fear is the one-month gap in the transition, with the newly elected Congress taking office on Sept. 1, while the new president will not be sworn in until Oct. 1. During this month, many worry that Lopez Obrador will use his powers, and the supermajority his party will then have, to push for constitutional amendments, currently blocked by Congress, that would undermine democracy and tie the hands of the new president.
The financial markets have reflected this fear with a decline in Mexico’s stock market and in the value of the peso against the US dollar since the result of the election became clear. One of the feared changes is for a constitutional reform that would call for a referendum to be held after three years, in which people will be asked to vote on whether the president remains in power or not, Figueras told Arab News.
Washington is watching what is happening next door and waiting to see how things play out with its $800 billion trading partner. The US has a vital relationship with Mexico because of the 37 million Americans of Mexican descent, who represent 60 percent of America’s Hispanic population and 11 percent of the total population. They are served by 50 Mexican consulates in the US. The Mexican-American relationship goes beyond trade and geography, it is historic and wide, socially and economically, and even surpasses Mexico’s relations with Latin America.
This tortured relationship inspired the saying by the 19th-century Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz: “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.” That is why, Figueras said, Mexico “cannot run from the US’ embrace even if it wanted to, and if it does, the cost will be very high. This might push Sheinbaum to try to be a bridge between the US and Latin America.” It also makes it more urgent for the president-elect to forge a close relationship with the US, not only because it is important to Mexico, but because the lives of millions of Mexicans depend on it.
She vowed a warm relationship and promised to cooperate with the US on migration, the border and especially on security. Lila Abed of the Wilson Center said Sheinbaum “signaled stark differences” in her platform compared to her mentor, Lopez Obrador, on the issue of security, in which “she wants to create a national intelligence agency that can better gather intelligence and information that coordinates” on all levels between the two countries. This is important because Mexico is experiencing a big wave of violence, with 37 candidates killed during this election campaign.
The other concern for Washington is the growing Chinese investments in Mexico. Sheinbaum knows how sensitive the issue of China is for the US. The challenge for the new president is, according to Abed, “to balance Mexico’s relationship with China,” while at the same time keeping Mexicans who want cheaper Chinese electric vehicles and other products happy. Mexico also hopes to attract American companies that have left China. But any concerns about the future of democracy in Mexico will lead US companies to put the brakes on any investments or nearshoring next door.
There is a consensus among experts in the US that there will not be any change in Mexican foreign policy under the new president, although Sheinbaum is expected to be more visible at the UN and in international forums than her predecessor was.
Two questions are on people’s minds. Domestically, will she step out of Lopez Obrador’s shadow and perhaps face a power struggle with the outgoing president? And in terms of foreign relations, how will the results of November’s American elections impact the bilateral relationship? With Biden, we would see continuity. With former President Donald Trump, it is not yet clear. If Trump fulfills his promise to deport undocumented migrants and use force to confront organized criminals operating in Mexico, both sides will have to buckle up for a bumpy ride.

Dr. Amal Mudallali is a consultant on global issues. She is a former Lebanese ambassador to the UN.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view