Mexico president upbeat despite election setback

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Monday his ruling coalition was on course to retain its control of the lower house, despite a setback in legislative elections he called “free and fair.”

Initial results indicated that Lopez Obrador’s Morena party lost the absolute majority it held in the lower house of Congress, complicating his promised “transformation” of the country.

But he struck an upbeat tone, noting that together with its political partners, Morena was still projected to hold more than half the seats.

“I’m very grateful because as a result of this election, the parties that are sympathetic to the transformation project that is under way will have a majority in the Chamber of Deputies,” he told reporters.

The vote was seen as a referendum on Lopez Obrador’s more than two years in office overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic and cartel-related violence.

A quick initial vote count suggested Lopez Obrador’s Morena party alone was set to take between 190 and 203 of the 500 seats in the lower house, the National Electoral Institute said.

Dozens of politicians were murdered in the months leading up to the polls for the lower house, 15 of 32 state governors and thousands of local politicians.

On the eve of the elections, gunmen killed five people helping to organize voting in the southern state of Chiapas, while two human heads were left at polling stations in the border city of Tijuana on election day.

After the vote finished, four more people were shot dead in Chiapas in an apparent dispute between rival political camps competing for the position of local mayor, the authorities said.

– ‘Defeat for Lopez Obrador’ –

Lopez Obrador was elected in 2018 for a term of six years, vowing to overhaul Mexico’s “neoliberal” economic model, root out corruption and end profligacy by a privileged elite.

Mexican presidents are limited to a single term and Lopez Obrador has said that he will retire from politics when his ends.

So far his presidency has been largely dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has left more than a quarter of a million people dead in Mexico and devastated the economy.

Up to now the ruling coalition has had a two-thirds supermajority that enabled Lopez Obrador to amend the constitution without negotiating with his opponents.

Without it, he faces a tougher time pushing through his planned reforms, including greater state control of the energy sector.

“It’s a defeat for Lopez Obrador — not overwhelming — but it does weaken him and his project because it requires constitutional reforms,” said political analyst Jose Antonio Crespo.

“It’s an important victory for the opposition because it was able to capitalize on the discontent, although the reality is that people voted against Lopez Obrador, not for his opponents,” he told AFP.

A coalition of three opposition parties was set to increase its number of lower house seats to between 181 and 213, the National Electoral Institute said.

That would still be behind Morena and its allies, which were projected to control 265-298 seats.

Even so, Lopez Obrador “is not going to be able to make the constitutional changes that someone would want with a view to concentrating power,” said Pablo Majluf, analyst and critic of the president’s so-called “Fourth Transformation” plan.

– Popular with poor –

While the 67-year-old president himself continues to enjoy public approval ratings above 60 percent, Mexican voters often use midterm elections to cast protest votes against the ruling party.

“They never had a plan and they still don’t,” said Claudia Cervantes, a hospital worker in the capital, where experts said middle class voters in particular appeared to have punished Morena.

But some other voters such as Tania Calderon were willing to give the president’s party more time.

“Without the pandemic, the government would have done better,” the 37-year-old said.

Lopez Obrador owes much of his popularity to his social welfare programs aimed at helping the elderly and disadvantaged Mexicans.

He said that the ruling coalition would still have enough seats to ensure a sufficient budget “for the most needy, for the poor.”

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