What to know about Mexico's massive elections on Sunday

People cheer while listening to former Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum at a rally in Mexico City, Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023.
People cheer while listening to former Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum at a rally in Mexico City. Sheinbaum, who worked on her PhD in California, is the front-runner in the presidential election. She would be Mexico's first woman elected president. (Ginnette Riquelme / Associated Press)

Tens of millions of Mexican citizens go to the polls Sunday in a historic election in which they will most certainly elect the country's first woman president.

Voters in Mexico's largest-ever election will also choose a new Congress, eight state governors, the Mexico City mayor and some 20,000 local office-holders nationwide.

At stake is the political legacy of populist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who is limited to a single term under Mexican law but who seeks the continued domination of his National Regeneration Movement, known by the acronym Morena — the leftist political bloc that he founded and turned into Mexico's reigning political colossus.

López Obrador has managed to be both an extremely polarizing figure — denying repeated accusations of authoritarian tendencies — and a popular president, enjoying 60% or greater approval ratings through much of his six-year term, thanks largely to robust support from poor and working-class Mexicans.

But he frequently condemns those who disagree with him as snobs, racists or corrupt. Both main presidential candidates, including his ruling-party protégé, have vowed to unite a deeply divided population and try to solve the country's myriad crises they would face upon succeeding López Obrador.

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Who are the main presidential candidates?

Claudia Sheinbaum waves onstage at a campaign event.
Mexican presidential candidate Claudia Sheinbaum greets supporters at a campaign rally in Mexico City this month. (Marco Ugarte / Associated Press)


Frontrunner Claudia Sheinbaum, 61, a scientist, academic and former mayor of Mexico City, is widely viewed as López Obrador's handpicked successor. She's ahead in polls by double digits.

Sheinbaum is seen as lacking the charisma, oratory skills and political acumen of her mentor. But she touts a lifetime of political activism, a doctorate in environmental engineering — with four years of study at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California — and what she calls a successful run as mayor of Mexico's capital, one of the world's most populous cities.

Read more: This woman is the front-runner to be Mexico's next president

López Obrador, who highly values loyalty, clearly viewed Sheinbaum as most likely to continue what he labels as his "transformation" of Mexican society away from corruption and a wealthy "mafia of power" — assertions his critics dismiss.

Sheinbaum, the granddaughter of emigrants from Bulgaria and Lithuania, would be Mexico's first president of Jewish ancestry, in addition to its first female president.

“Mexico is no longer written with the M of machismo," she said before she was chosen as Morena's candidate, "... but M of mujer.”

Xóchitl Gálvez waves in front of a banner with her face and name.
Presidential candidate Xóchitl Gálvez waves to supporters at a campaign event in Huixquilucán, México, just outside Mexico City, last month. (Marco Ugarte / Associated Press)


Xóchitl Gálvez Ruiz, 61, a high-tech entrepreneur and senator with Indigenous roots, heads a center-right bloc of parties united only in their opposition to López Obrador.

Read more: ‘I have enough ovaries to apply the law.’ The language of gender enters the Mexican presidential race

Gálvez, who has promised to strengthen checks and balances in the government, has run a feisty campaign. In the initial presidential debate, she attacked Sheinbaum as an "ice queen" and has called the president a "machista." Early in the campaign, Gálvez told reporters: “You need many ovaries like the ones I have to confront such a powerful man."

But the prevalence of traditional, corruption-tainted parties in her "Strength and Heart for Mexico" coalition has dogged Gálvez. Her campaign has struggled to make headway against Morena's well-oiled political machine.


Jorge Álvarez Máynez smiles and pumps his fist against a red background.
Former Rep. Jorge Álvarez Máynez of the Citizen's Movement party is running a far-distant third in the presidential election. (Fernando Llano / Associated Press)

The congressman from the north-central state of Zacatecas — a historic hub of emigration to the United States — rose from virtual anonymity to make a name for himself as the presidential aspirant of the center-left Citizens' Movement. Álvarez, 38, has been an animated presence at presidential debates and on the campaign trail, appealing especially to the youth vote.

Though polls show him a distant third in the race, he seems to have already come out a winner — a likely future player in national politics.

What about López Obrador?

Plush dolls of Claudia Sheinbaum and Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Dolls representing presidential candidate Claudia Sheinbaum and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador are for sale at a campaign rally in Mexico City. (Aurea Del Rosario / Associated Press)

The dominant figure in Sunday's elections is probably the outgoing president, widely known by his initials, AMLO. Many view the vote as a referendum on his leadership.

López Obrador, 70, calls himself a political "Lazarus," having come back from losses in two consecutive presidential contests to score a landslide victory in 2018 as an anti-corruption, pro-change advocate.

A key question: Once he leaves office in October, will López Obrador retire to his ranch in southern Mexico and bow out of politics, as he has promised? Or will he remain heavily involved — and possibly interfere — in the national conversation?

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What does the election mean for the United States?

López Obrador regularly assails Washington's policies and even U.S. culture — denouncing "abusive meddling" and what he regards as U.S. moral decay — but he has mostly cooperated on key issues, though his decision to limit U.S. anti-drug agents' access to Mexico has left hard feelings.

But the countries are deeply linked, sharing a 2,000-mile border, growing economic interdependence, deep social and cultural ties — and a sometimes-rocky partnership on security concerns such as immigration and drug trafficking.

Read more: Migrants from around the world have made this stretch of California the top place to enter the U.S. illegally

The White House has relied increasingly on its neighbor's capabilities to deter U.S.-bound migrants traversing Mexico. That dependence, which gives Mexico considerable political leverage with Washington, seems likely to continue, especially as immigration and the border are key political issues in the United States.

The candidates vying to succeed López Obrador have all stressed Mexico's close ties to the United States and their intentions to further friendly relations.

All have reached out to Mexican immigrant communities in the United States, but have said little about how they would handle the increasing numbers of migrants arriving in Mexico en route to the United States.

A big question for the incoming Mexican president will be who wins the U.S. presidential race in November. Former President Trump, who has railed against migrants and free trade, once threatened to slap tariffs on Mexican imports if the country didn't move forcefully to halt U.S.-bound migrants, sending shock waves through the Mexican economy.

What challenges will the new president face?

Mexico's economy is buzzing, bolstered by so-called near-shoring, as many foreign firms relocate operations from Asia and elsewhere to Mexico, with its proximity to U.S. markets. The Mexican peso has been among the world's strongest currencies.

Read more: Soldiers and civilians are dying as Mexican cartels embrace a terrifying new weapon: Land mines

But López Obrador will leave his predecessor with a number of crises, including dire water shortages, a struggling healthcare system, stubborn inequality and violence from criminal gangs and cartels so severe that the U.S. State Department warns its citizens not to travel to many Mexican states.

López Obrador's controversial "hugs not bullets" strategy — prioritizing social programs for the young over confrontations with cartels — has failed to stem the country's violence, although homicides have fallen some during the last six years. Security is by far Mexicans' main concern, polls show.

Has the violence affected the election?

More than 30 candidates — mostly mayoral hopefuls — have been assassinated in this election cycle, according to human rights advocates and Mexican media counts. And far more have been threatened or intimidated as cartels seek to insure their preferred candidates take — and then cede — power.

The president has vowed that citizens will be able to vote "calmly, safely and without fear," and officials plan to deploy some 27,000 troops on election day to reinforce security.

How do candidates say they'll reduce violence?

All have vowed to fight crime and cartel violence, but have offered few specifics.

Gálvez, of the opposition coalition, has signaled her intention to scale back the Mexican military's contentious and growing role. As a candidate, López Obrador once vowed to send the military back to the barracks — but he ended up increasing military dominance in public security, infrastructure projects and many other aspects of Mexican life, drawing intense criticism.

Read more: Mexico’s military gains power as president turns from critic to partner

Gálvez has said she would increase police at local and state levels and bolster police salaries, declaring: "Enough with hugs for criminals."

Sheinbaum has said her experience battling crime in Mexico City makes her qualified to tackle cartel violence, though she hasn't distanced herself from López Obrador's disputed policies. But experts question whether her strategies — expanding community policing and professionalizing cops — would transfer to a national level.

When will results be known?

The count will begin after the polls close at 6 p.m. Mexico time on Sunday. Whether definitive results will be available Sunday evening for key contests depends on various factors, including how close the vote is and if any major irregularities emerge.

Unlike in many Latin American nations, there is no second round in Mexican elections: Whoever receives a plurality of votes is declared the winner, whether or not he or she garners an absolute majority.

When will the new president be inaugurated?

Mexico's new president will begin a single, six-year term on Oct. 1.

Times special correspondent Cecilia Sánchez Vidal contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.