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Midterm Elections and the Ghost of Modernization in Mexico

By Wendy Esther Morán

In the midst of the six-year presidential term of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), the 2021 legislative elections take place in a highly polarized Mexico. The results of this election are highly relevant as they will not only reflect the level of acceptance of the president and his cabinet, but a wider acceptance of a moderate-left and its agenda after more than 30 years of right-wing party domination. 

What is observed at a first glance is a marked polarization of the social strata in Mexico. The national population has been divided around two edges: fifís, understood as conservatives who wish to maintain the status quo, and chairos, understood as the population who abrogates for equality, nationalism, and welfare state policies. 

The political opposition has argued the current president has emerged as a polarizing effect on the population. It is a premise that can be considered given the president’s engagement in undermining the opposition as neoliberals and fifís. Nevertheless, the argument is doomed to fail a critical analysis, considering that before his mandate in 2018, the country was already part of the 25% most unequal countries in the world. 

To get a clearer picture of inequality in Mexico, we must consider that in 2016, 30% of households with the highest income concentrated 63.3% of the gross national income, while 30% of the households with the lowest income participated with 9% of the income. While income inequality represents a sufficiently problematic picture, we must also consider the sharp differences these groups have on rights to the environment, security and education.

In this sense, what we undoubtedly could consider is that the Mexican president has provided what Marx would call class consciousness. The issues of inequality, indigenismo, and the effects of neoliberal policies have been placed at the center of the debate in Mexico, a discourse that we now see is being instrumentalized by establishment parties for electoral purposes, when before, little or no importance had been given to structural inequalities.

Among this historical heritage of vast social tensions, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, is where the electoral campaigns for Mexico 2021 federal deputies take place. 

It is of great relevance to consider how crucial this moment is in Mexican political history for two main reasons:

  1. There is a break with the previous development models – neoliberal deregulatory since Carlos Salinas in 1988. The current president bets for strong state institutions that push social and industrializing policies rather than weak state institutions that simply reinforce the private sector. This has also been propelled by the juncture. For instance, the winter storms in Texas also impacted Mexico, leaving blackouts in the states of the north due to energy dependency on the US, reflecting the importance of energy sovereignty. Here we can recall what dependency theorists reflected so much on: “The economic dependency of Latin American nations is an obstacle to national development” 
  1. As exemplified by the emblematic visit of Argentinian President Alberto Fernandez to Mexico in February, there is an option to re-consider regional cooperation with the countries of the South – which was never taken seriously by previous administrations. This form of cooperation relies on typical solidarity and fraternal relationship that has long been a tradition of left-wing scholars and governments in the region that seek to counterbalance the hegemonic influence of the US. 

Generally, we can say that the current government is part of the late Pink Tide that seeks to survive and regain power in the region, along with the governments of Alberto Fernández in Argentina, Luis Arce in Bolivia, and (yet to be seen) Ecuador and Peru. 

Modernization: the discourse is back

The great political mediatization that the elections have had follows the ‘reactionary’ Latin American political pattern: more than a substantive proposition, we find claims and attacks. In this case, it is mainly the ‘Going for Mexico’ coalition made up of the National Action Party (PAN), Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) that is fighting for power in the lower house against ‘Together We Will Make History’ made up of Morena – the president’s party, Green Ecologist Party (PVEM), and Labor Party (PT).

Among these options, the speech of the National Action Party draws attention to its proposal ‘Modernization of Mexico’. A proposal that seems sensible if we have made a clean sweep of the last 50 years of learning gained in the region.

We must begin by recalling that the promises of modernization were intrinsically linked to those of development. Development was spread as part of US foreign policy to suppress the threats of communism (or any form of communitarianism!) in the region, under the promise to raise the living standards in peripheral countries. 

Thus, in the 1950s, most Latin American nations would carry out the industrialization process. The basic premise was to ‘modernize’ those traditional societies that were not capable of matching the levels of economic growth and infrastructure found in Europe and the US.  

However, throughout the years, we have learned that the ideal of modernization is not merely an economic or infrastructural issue, but an ideological Pandora’s box. The modernization proposal revolves around: 

1) Considering a single model of capitalist development characterized by continuous environmental and financial crises, and social tensions. 

2) Embracing the ideals of modernization also means embracing the epistemic colonialism that has caused so many problems, that is, the excessive rationality that undermines any qualitative knowledge in favor of the quantitative and lucrative, and finally, 

3) Discrimination of those who don’t fit into modern conceptions. For instance, our indigenous populations have felt mainly this collateral damage. 

This summer’s decision is not a simple ‘ideological discussion’, as the opposition tries to deny by saying that the decision ‘goes beyond ideological dilemmas’. In fact, the discussion requires us to consciously choose the values ​​and ideas that will guide our próximo destino

Now, it remains for the Mexican population to decide the next direction of this crossroads between the old developmentalism or the new plural models of development: 

Relegating the development of the region to extractive capitalism, being unable to imagine other economic models beyond selling commodities and exchanging the labour of Latin Americans as assemblers in the global supply chain, or
choosing plural models of development like those that are taking place in South America (Abya Yala) that embrace local practices, redistributive states, and indigenous knowledge.


Wendy Esther Morán is a graduate candidate in the M.A. in International Relations and Political Science at The Graduate Institute. She is interested in matters of Political Economy and Development seen through a Marxist framework. You can reach her through: wendy.moran@graduateinstitute.ch or Facebook.


“Night view on Mexico city Mexico” Photo by Boris G licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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