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Mexico elects a new president. This is why the election is historic.

MEXICO CITY – Mexicans go to the polls on Sunday in presidential elections led by two women – a showdown that underlines the country’s progress on gender equality even as it grapples with concerns about a general weakening of democratic institutions.

Claudia Sheinbaum, 61, an engineering professor and former mayor of Mexico City, has a strong lead in the polls. She is a protege of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, one of Latin America’s most popular leaders. He has built a committed base by increasing aid to the poor, but has been criticized for concentrating power in the presidency and giving the military an increasing role in the economy and in the fight against organized crime.

Sheinbaum is confronted by Xóchitl Gálvez, 61, a technology entrepreneur of indigenous descent. She has pledged to boost economic growth and curb the growing power of organized crime groups, as evidenced by numerous attacks on candidates and their aides during the campaign. Gálvez represents a coalition of traditional parties that have struggled to overtake the great leader of López Obrador’s Morena movement.

The elections in the United States’ most populous neighbor have important consequences. Mexico is the US’s top trading partner, and key sectors of the countries’ economies – from car manufacturing to berry and avocado farming – are intertwined. Mexico is also a crucial funnel for migrants and drugs like fentanyl and cocaine on their way to the U.S. border.

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“This is a crucial election because the two main candidates represent two contrasting visions of government and radically different visions of the world,” said Luis Rubio, president of the policy think tank México Evalúa.

Gálvez has accused López Obrador of weakening institutions such as the Federal Electoral Office and eroding checks and balances. “We are going to bring freedom, while an authoritarian government wants to impose its decisions,” she said last week.

Sheinbaum has promised to expand the social programs of López Obrador, who is limited by the constitution to one term. She has pledged to uphold the North American Free Trade Agreement if it comes up for renegotiation in 2026, but says economic changes in recent decades have led to “starvation wages.”

“After 36 years, it is clear that a country cannot progress if it favors the most prosperous,” she said.

Voters will also elect 500 federal deputies and 128 senators, Mexico City’s mayor, eight governors and more than 20,000 state and local officials on Sunday.

Mexico will have a female president before the US

The elections will almost certainly give Mexico its first female president. The lone man in the race – Jorge Álvarez Máynez, 38, of the small, center-left Civic Movement party – is a distant third in the polls.

Women in this traditionally macho country did not gain the right to vote until 1953, thirty years after their American counterparts. But with the introduction of gender quotas and a gender equality law during Mexico’s transition from a one-party state to a democracy, women now hold half of the seats in Congress and nearly a third of governorships.

From October, one will take the presidency.

“This will have a huge impact,” predicted writer Sabina Berman, a leading feminist. “Boys and girls will now know that girls can become anything they want, depending on their talent and their efforts. And that’s a huge thing, in a country as violent and historically machista as Mexico.”

If Sheinbaum wins, she will also be Mexico’s first Jewish president.

The elections raise concerns about Mexican democracy

Although two women have taken center stage in the presidential race, the most pressing issue concerns a man: López Obrador. The folksy, silver-haired president shook up Mexico with what he called the Fourth Transformation, a program aimed at helping the lower classes and protecting symbols of national pride, such as oil and corn, from foreign competition.

López Obrador has doubled the minimum wage, increased benefits for the elderly and vulnerable, and poured money into Mexico’s heavily indebted state oil company. In a country with high income inequality, he won over ordinary Mexicans with visits to villages and tough neighborhoods, pushing meat and promising public works. At daily press conferences he criticized his perceived enemies: old-fashioned politicians, journalists and critics.

The percentage of Mexicans who express confidence in the national government has doubled in five years, reaching 61 percent last year, according to Gallup. That is twice as high as in the United States.

The opposition accuses López Obrador of recreating the kind of imperial presidency that ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century and demonizing the middle class and the wealthy. Of particular importance are his efforts to reduce the power of institutions that have opposed him, including the judiciary. He has proposed replacing the Supreme Court with justices elected by popular vote, an idea Sheinbaum has embraced.

“What is at risk if Morena wins is our democracy,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a political analyst.

Sheinbaum has dismissed such concerns. “Our project is to defend democracy, freedom and dignity of the people,” she said at a closing meeting on Wednesday.

How Mexico’s next president will work with the US

Mexico’s next president will play a key role in issues of critical importance to Washington, such as migration and drug trafficking.

López Obrador became a key ally of Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden in their efforts to reduce the flow of migrants into the US. Bilateral efforts on drugs have intensified; López Obrador scaled back cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, accusing it of violating Mexico’s sovereignty, and failed to curb the trade of deadly fentanyl into the United States.

Sheinbaum and Gálvez have both pledged to maintain good relations with the United States and to prioritize the fight against violent cartels and gangs. Sheinbaum’s platform includes strengthening the intelligence capabilities of security forces and increasing cooperation between police and prosecutors. Gálvez says she would work more closely with U.S. authorities and increase resources for local police.

Both candidates talk about promoting near-shoring, the trend in which companies move production from China and other countries to Mexico to get closer to the U.S. market. But the power grid here is already overwhelmed, and international companies have accused López Obrador of discriminating against them in energy generation, especially renewables.

The cartels’ struggle for territory threatens Mexico’s stability

Voters’ biggest criticism of López Obrador is his failure to halt the expansion of organized crime. Although the number of murders has fallen since he took office, crime groups are taking de facto control of more and more land and economic activities, according to official statistics. They have gone beyond the drug trade and into a host of other illegal enterprises, including the racketeering of businesses ranging from sprawling cattle ranches to small tortilla shops.

More than 230 candidates, their family members and aides have been killed during the current election cycle, the consultancy Integralia reports, as cartels have fought to install allies in mayoral offices.

The next president will face another challenge: maintaining political stability. López Obrador, a shrewd political player, has kept Morena’s competing factions in check. Sheinbaum does not have the same influence in the party, which was created as a vehicle for López Obrador’s ambitions.

“Claudia will have this problem” if she wins, said Alejandro Rojas Díaz Durán, a senator who recently parted ways with Morena. ‘She’s not Andrés. She is an efficient administrator, but not a political administrator like Andrés.”

Lorena Ríos in Monterrey, Mexico, and Isabel Maney in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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