Could scientist Claudia Sheinbaum be Mexico’s next leader?

Mexico is a year away from electing its next president, and polls show Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum nearly 20 points ahead of her closest rival in their party

Claudia Sheinbaum speaks during an interview at La Carbonera Library, in Mexico City, Thursday, March 2, 2023
Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum speaks during an interview at La Carbonera Library, in Mexico City, Thursday, on March 2, 2023.Marco Ugarte (AP)

Mexico is a year away from electing its next head of state and the potential candidate getting the most attention is an environmental scientist who might become the first female leader of Latin America’s second-largest economy. One poll shows Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum nearly 20 points ahead of her closest rival in their ruling party.

A globally recognized scientist, Sheinbaum, 60, shares the leftist ideals of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. In an interview with The Associated Press Sheinbaum, like López Obrador, blamed the neoliberal economic policies of past presidents for exacerbating inequities.

But the leaders would diverge on their approach.

López Obrador has sought to create jobs regardless of their environmental consequences, dedicating resources to propping up Mexico’s state-owned oil company before supporting a few projects by American renewable-energy companies. In contrast, Sheinbaum holds a PhD in engineering, served on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that won a shared Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, and pledges to commit Mexico to sustainability.

She emphasizes her belief in all scientific findings, in fields from the environment to medicine.

“I believe in science,” she said. “I believe in technology to have a better life.”

López Obrador last year inaugurated a massive new oil refinery in his home state of Tabasco, saying that his government had decided to ignore “the siren calls... that the oil era was over.”

Despite the refinery’s inauguration, it has not started operation.

At the same time, López Obrador has passed laws putting private gas and renewable energy facilities last in line for power purchasing, behind government-owned plants that often burn dirty fuel oil. He has more recently applauded a new government-run solar facility in northern Mexico and celebrated Tesla’s decision to build a car manufacturing plant near Monterrey, moves seen as feeding his interests in fueling job growth and satisfying US complaints about a lack of free trade.

Sheinbaum has said her belief in renewable energy is fundamental.

“I think we have to start growing more in renewable energy and to go ahead with the electrification of cars,” Sheinbaum said. “From now to the future, most of the energy has to be related to renewable energy.”

Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, Sheinbaum took up wearing a protective mask, shut down bars and nightclubs, later reducing their hours, and pushed for more Covid-19 testing. While López Obrador downplayed the threat and spoke of being protected by amulets, Sheinbaum made no direct criticism of the president.

Now Sheinbaum is locked in what appears to be a three-way battle for the nomination of their party, Morena, which has an unrivaled political machine. If successful, she would be expected to easily overcome the legacy opposition parties struggling to present a credible alternative. Morena and its allies govern 22 of the 32 states and the state apparatus is already working in the non-official pre-electoral campaign.

The other contenders for the Morena party’s nomination are Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard and Interior Secretary Adán Augusto López. Ebrard was seen as the most likely successor at the start of López Obrador’s term in late 2018 but in a survey conducted by pollster Enkoll between Feb. 4-7, Sheinbaum held an 18-point lead over Ebrard among 1,223 people asked who they preferred for the Morena party nominee. The poll had a margin of error of +/-2.83%.

Sheinbaum has received relatively high marks for her management of one of the world’s largest cities. Mexico City has more than 9 million residents and the surrounding metro area brings the total near 25 million. The capital has been governed by a leftist since residents began electing their mayors in 1997, and it has the country’s most progressive policies.

Sheinbaum faced criticism for her handling of the capital’s sprawling subways. In May 2021, an elevated section collapsed, causing 26 deaths and injuring nearly 100 people

In January, she decided to deploy more than 6,000 National Guard troops into the system following the collision of two trains that left one person dead and dozens injured. Metro workers said spare parts and maintenance were needed, not troops, but Sheinbaum suggested that sabotage could be to blame.

Sheinbaum had been in the habit of spending weekends making public appearances in other states and was away when that accident occurred. She curtailed her travel after that incident. Asked about the metro’s issues, the mayor pointed to major capital investments made during her term and said additional funding would be coming based on recommendations from a panel of experts.

“None of the three (candidates) have the president’s charisma,” said Ivonne Acuña Murillo, a political scientist at Iberoamerican University. “López Obrador has built a closeness with the people over decades, that there isn’t time for them to replicate.”

López Obrador spent decades in campaign mode and seeming happiest wading into a crowd.

“She has a very different style of governing from AMLO, much more based on evidence,” said Marcela Bravo Araujo, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, using López Obrador’s initials.

Still, Sheinbaum echoed López Obrador about recent controversial reforms that will cut resources to Mexico’s electoral authority, which has been lauded for running relatively clean elections since the end of seven decades of single-party domination.

Sheinbaum believes Mexico can achieve the same democracy or even a better one without “all of these resources that pay many, many, many people that probably the electoral system doesn’t need.”

She frames Mexico’s relationship with the US, which at times has been tense under López Obrador on issues such as immigration, drug trafficking and security, in entirely commercial terms. She said she sees great opportunity within the free trade agreement that Mexico has with the United States and Canada, but the challenge is making sure foreign investment “can bring wealth to the Mexican people.”

As for her political platform, she says that she wants to continue targeting poverty .

“For me, being from the left has to do with that, with guaranteeing the minimum rights to all residents,” Sheinbaum said, rattling off rights to education, health, shelter, decent work and pay. “In that sense it is shrinking the great inequalities, reducing poverty by building up the big rights and at the same time strengthening democracy.”

Sheinbaum’s Jewish grandparents emigrated from Lithuania and Bulgaria but she was raised not practicing any religion in overwhelmingly Catholic Mexico.

The formal campaign has not officially started, but one topic that has not become an issue is gender. Nine of Mexico’s 32 states have female governors. And even though gender-based violence remains a problem nationwide, along with daily sexism, Sheinbaum says that her gender has no negative impact on her aspirations today.

“Probably 10 years ago it was a handicap, right now it is something positive,” she said.

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