Mexico’s governing party chose Claudia Sheinbaum, a former mayor of Mexico City, as its candidate in next year’s presidential election on Wednesday, creating a watershed moment in the world’s largest Spanish-speaking country, with voters expected to choose for the first time between two leading candidates who are women.
Ms. Sheinbaum, 61, a physicist with a doctorate in environmental engineering and a protégé of Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, will face off against the opposition’s top contender, Xóchitl Gálvez, 60, an outspoken engineer with Indigenous roots who rose from poverty to become a tech entrepreneur.
“We can already say today: Mexico, by the end of next year, will be governed by a woman,” said Jesús Silva-Herzog Márquez, a political scientist at Mexico’s Monterrey Institute of Technology, adding that it was an “extraordinary change” for the country.
Ms. Sheinbaum has built her political career mostly in the shadow of Mr. López Obrador, and had emerged early on as the party’s favored pick to succeed the current president. That connection is thought to give her a crucial edge heading into next year’s election thanks to the high approval ratings enjoyed by Mr. López Obrador, who is limited by Mexico’s Constitution to one six-year term.
In recent months, Mr. López Obrador has insisted that he will hold no influence once he finishes his term. “I am going to retire completely,” he said in March. “I am not a chieftain, much less do I feel irreplaceable. I am not a strongman; I am not a messiah.”
But some analysts say his influence will endure regardless of which candidate wins in 2024. Should Ms. Sheinbaum win, “there may be changes to certain policies, though the broad strokes of his agenda will remain intact,” according to a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research institute in Washington.
If she is defeated, Mr. López Obrador “will not fade quietly into the background,” the report said, citing a large base of loyal supporters allowing him to command substantial influence. Some legacies of his administration — including austerity measures or the immersion of the military into social, security and infrastructure roles — could also be obstacles for Ms. Gálvez if she seeks to roll back his policies.
As the two female candidates target weaknesses in each other’s campaigns, they share some similarities. While neither are explicitly feminist, both are socially progressive, have engineering degrees and say they will maintain broadly popular antipoverty programs.
Both women also support decriminalizing abortion. In Ms. Gálvez’s case, that position stands in contrast to that of her conservative party. Mexico’s Supreme Court on Wednesday decriminalized abortion nationwide, building on an earlier ruling giving officials the authority to allow the procedure on a state-by-state basis.
Ms. Sheinbaum, who was born to Jewish parents in Mexico City, would become Mexico’s first Jewish president if she wins the race. She has faced a misinformation campaign on social media claiming falsely that she was born in Bulgaria, the country from which her mother emigrated; supporters of Ms. Sheinbaum have called this effort antisemitic.
She studied physics and energy engineering in Mexico before carrying out her doctoral research at California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. After entering politics, she became Mr. López Obrador’s top environmental official when he was mayor of Mexico City.
When Ms. Sheinbaum herself was elected mayor of the capital in 2018, she took on public transit and environmental issues as top priorities, but was also the target of criticism over fatal mishaps in the city’s transportation systems, including the collapse of a metro overpass in which 26 people were killed.
With polls positioning Ms. Sheinbaum as the front-runner, her ties to Mr. López Obrador required discipline to maintain his support even when she may not have agreed with his decisions. For instance, when Mr. López Obrador minimized the coronavirus pandemic and federal government officials tweaked data to avoid a lockdown in Mexico City, she remained silent.
“What has stood out is her loyalty, I think a blind loyalty, to the president,” said Mr. Silva-Herzog Márquez, the political scientist.
Still, while hewing to Mr. López Obrador’s policies, Ms. Sheinbaum has also signaled some potential changes, notably expressing support for renewable energy sources.
Drawing a contrast with her rival, Ms. Gálvez, a senator who often gets around Mexico City on an electric bicycle, has focused on her origins as the daughter of an Indigenous Otomí father and a mestizo mother.
Ms. Gálvez grew up in a small town about two hours from Mexico City without running water and speaking her father’s Hñähñu language. After receiving a scholarship to the National Autonomous University of Mexico, she became an engineer and founded a company that designs communications and energy networks for office buildings.
After Vicente Fox won the presidency in 2000, she was appointed as head of the presidential office for Indigenous peoples. In 2018, Ms. Gálvez was elected senator representing the conservative National Action Party.
Mr. López Obrador has repeatedly made her the focus of verbal attacks, which has had the effect of raising her profile around the country while highlighting the sway that the president and his party exert across Mexico.
A combative leader who has embraced austerity measures while doubling down on Mexico’s reliance on fossil fuels, Mr. López Obrador looms over the campaigning. He pledged to do away with a long-held political tradition whereby Mexican presidents handpicked their successors with their “big finger,” replacing the practice with nationwide voter surveys.
Historically, political parties in Mexico mostly selected their candidates in ways that were opaque and lacked much inclusion. Handpicking was more common than a “free and fair competition for a candidacy,” said Flavia Freidenberg, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
The new selection process has changed that tradition, but concerns persist over a lack of clarity and other irregularities that have been denounced by some analysts and other presidential hopefuls. Both the governing party, Morena, and the broad opposition coalition, called the Broad Front for Mexico, used public opinion polls “that have not been fully transparent,” Ms. Freidenberg added, “and are not necessarily considered democratic procedures.”
The new procedures also ignored federal campaign regulations, with those at the helm of the process in both the governing party and the opposition moving the selection forward by a few months and cryptically calling Ms. Sheinbaum and Ms. Gálvez “coordinators” of each coalition instead of “candidates.”
“These irregular activities have occurred under the gaze of public opinion, the political class and the electoral authorities,” Ms. Freidenberg said. “This is not a minor issue.”
Next year’s general election, in which voters will elect not only a president but members of Congress, might also determine whether Mexico may return to a dominant-party system — similar to what the country experienced under the once-hegemonic Institutional Revolutionary Party, which held uninterrupted power for 71 years until 2000.
Despite some setbacks, there are signs this is already happening. In June, Morena’s candidate won the governor’s race in the State of Mexico, the country’s most populous state, defeating the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s candidate.
That victory brought the number of states under Morena’s control to 23 out of 32 states, up from just seven at the start of the president’s term in 2018.
The question is “whether Morena reconfigures itself into a hegemonic party like the old PRI,” said Ana Laura Magaloni, a law professor who advised Ms. Sheinbaum’s mayoral campaign. “And that depends on how much of a fight the opposition can put up.”