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.

“People voted not only for a party, for a candidate, but for a project, in one sense or another,” he added.

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.

Dozens of politicians were murdered in the months leading up to the polls for the lower house of Congress, 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 southern Mexico, while two human heads were left at polling stations in the border city of Tijuana on election day.

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.

– ‘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.

But 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 seeking greater energy independence for Mexico.

“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.

– 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 punish the ruling party.

“They never had a plan and they still don’t,” said Claudia Cervantes, a hospital worker, said of the government’s handling of the crisis.

But some other voters such as Tania Calderon were willing to give Morena more time.

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

Lopez Obrador’s critics accuse him of a dangerous tilt towards authoritarianism with attacks on the judiciary and the National Electoral Institute.

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

Lopez Obrador 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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