Mexico’s Sheinbaum is seeking the historic presidency as custodian of López Obrador’s legacy

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – In a grainy black-and-white photo from 1991, Claudia Sheinbaum – the favorite for Mexico’s next president – holds up a banner that reads ‘Fair Trade and Democracy Now!!’ in protest against the Mexican government at the time.

Sheinbaum and her mentor, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a harsh critic of the establishment before he came to power, did not meet until years later.

But the photo, which she posted to social media in June, underscores their shared zeal to curb Mexico’s chronic inequality and belief that powerful elites perpetuate it.

Now, 61-year-old Sheinbaum wants to assume his role as the state’s defender, solidify public control over natural resources, and strengthen its welfare programs and flagship infrastructure projects. She also wants to persuade Mexico to make greater use of renewable energies.

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“There is no turning back from the transformation instituted by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador,” Sheinbaum called out to a crowd of supporters in central Mexico City late last month during their campaign for the presidential candidacy of the ruling left-wing National Regeneration Movement (MORENA).

On Wednesday, MORENA said Sheinbaum, who resigned as Mexico City mayor in June to continue the nomination, was her nominee to succeed Lopez Obrador.

Her victory was not without controversy, as her main rival, former Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard, denounced that the selection process was riddled with irregularities.

Under Mexican law, presidents can serve only a single six-year term.

If Sheinbaum or her opposition rival, businesswoman-turned-politician Xochitl Galvez, wins the June 2, 2024 election, one of them will become the country’s first female president.

Sheinbaum remained scrupulously loyal to López Obrador even as he struggled to stem record levels of violence, feuded with energy investors, pilloried critical media, and angered many wealthier Mexicans.

She has eclipsed him on security, cutting the number of homicides in Mexico City by almost half during her tenure as mayor. Sheinbaum also expanded public transport and pushed for greener energy policies.

Sheinbaum, a punctual former ballet student of Jewish descent whose student activism blossomed into a notable career as a physicist and environmentalist, is said by aides to be as analytical as 69-year-old Lopez Obrador.

Lopez Obrador regularly insults his opponents at daily press conferences. In contrast, Sheinbaum pursued a more measured, scientific style of government and praised collaboration.

“As a physicist, I’ll say this: it’s easy to create chaos, but it’s pretty hard to create order, especially when you have a social vision,” she told Reuters last year.

The President’s approval rating is consistently around 60%, making him vital to MORENA’s hopes of victory.

But as the presidential campaign gathers momentum, Sheinbaum must strike a balance between Lopez Obrador and offering new ideas, said political adviser Antonio Ocaranza, a former spokesman for former President Ernesto Zedillo.

The photo, shared by Sheinbaum on X, formerly Twitter, shows her at the center of a protest against a 1991 visit to Stanford University by then-President Carlos Salinas, a champion of economic liberalism long vilified by Mexico’s left .

“A few years have passed, but I still have the same feeling and yearning for social justice,” she wrote.

Salinas oversaw major privatizations after a highly controversial 1988 election, and Lopez Obrador has long credited these policies as the cause of modern-day inequality in Mexico.

A few weeks after Sheinbaum’s picture was taken, Lopez Obrador launched a week-long protest march dubbed “Exodus for Democracy,” claiming that Salinas’ Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) rigged elections in his home state of Tabasco.

The march to Mexico City propelled Lopez Obrador to national prominence — and later his first meeting with Sheinbaum after he was elected mayor of the capital in 2000.

Lopez Obrador was appointed Secretary of the Environment for the city of Sheinbaum, and she became a close ally. In 2018, she was elected mayor as part of the team that brought him to power.

Shortly after he became president, aides and political insiders cited her as his political heir and the most apt champion of Lopez Obrador’s quest to make the state the engine of social change and the custodian of the economy.

If elected, she would be just as nationalistic about the economy as Lopez Obrador, said Rene Cervera, a Sheinbaum associate who once worked for Ebrard, her MORENA rival.

While Lopez Obrador has pumped billions of dollars into state-owned oil company Pemex, Sheinbaum, who was a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, wants to harness Mexico’s renewable energy.

“With public investment,” said Cervera.

(Reporting by Dave Graham; Additional reporting by Diego Ore; Editing by Aurora Ellis)

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