Claudia Sheinbaum at Zocalo Square in Mexico City on June 3, 2024. Image Credit: REUTERS

MEXICO CITY: Claudia Sheinbaum, the former city mayor elected Mexico’s first woman president, is an environmental scientist and dedicated leftist known for keeping a cool head in times of crisis.

The granddaughter of Bulgarian and Lithuanian Jewish migrants, Sheinbaum is a close ally of outgoing President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

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Unlike her mentor, however, the 61-year-old is “not a populist,” said Pamela Starr, a professor at the University of Southern California.

“She is much more of a mainstream leftist politician” and likely to be “less ideological” than the outgoing president, she added.

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Sheinbaum won the presidency with between 58.3% and 60.7% of the vote, according to a rapid sample count by Mexico’s electoral authority. That is set to be the highest vote tally percentage in Mexico’s democratic history.

Opposition candidate Xochitl Galvez took between 26.6% and 28.6% of the vote, preliminary results showed, and Sheinbaum said Galvez had called her to concede.

“For the first time in the 200 years of the republic I will become the first woman president of Mexico,” Sheinbaum told supporters to loud cheers of “president, president.” Victory for Sheinbaum is a major step for Mexico, a country known for its macho culture and home to the world’s second biggest Roman Catholic population, which for years pushed more traditional values and roles for women.

Sheinbaum is the first woman to win a general election in the United States, Mexico or Canada.

“I never imagined that one day I would vote for a woman,” said 87-year-old Edelmira Montiel, a Sheinbaum supporter in Mexico’s smallest state Tlaxcala.

Complicated path ahead

“Before we couldn’t even vote, and when you could, it was to vote for the person your husband told you to vote for. Thank God that has changed and I get to live it,” Montiel added.

Sheinbaum has a complicated path ahead. She must balance promises to increase popular welfare policies while inheriting a hefty budget deficit and low economic growth.

Image Credit: AFP
What’s behind her historic election victory?
Former Mexico City mayor Claudia Sheinbaum became the first woman to be elected president of the Latin American nation on Monday.
In October, the 61-year-old will replace President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who enjoys an approval rating of more than 60 percent, largely thanks to his social programs for poorer Mexicans.
Here are some of the keys to Sheinbaum’s victory, according to analysts.
Intelligence, experience
Sheinbaum is a pragmatic scientist by training who had several crises thrown at her as both a local politician and Mexico City mayor, including a devastating earthquake, the Covid-19 pandemic and a deadly metro accident.
Supporters and critics alike recognize her intelligence and commitment to the left-wing ideals at the center of Lopez Obrador’s reform agenda.
Sheinbaum’s popularity “can in part be attributed to her intelligence and sharpness, her commitment to popular issues such as renewable energy and education, and her experience in leading Mexico City’s government,” said Michael Shifter, an expert at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.
Loyalty to Lopez Obrador
Sheinbaum repeatedly told voters that she would follow the same path as Lopez Obrador, an anti-establishment leftist who won a landslide victory in 2018 in a country fed up with corruption, crime and poverty.
“It was an easy-to-understand, strong message that, through repetition and discipline, really managed to get through,” said academic Carlos Bravo Regidor.
Sheinbaum also benefited from the extensive network of the ruling Morena party, as well as the support of state machinery.
Since decades of dominance by the Institutional Revolutionary Party ended in 2000, “Morena has probably become the most successful party model at the national level,” said Gustavo Urbina, an academic at the College of Mexico.
But it is premature to talk about a new era of hegemony, experts said.
Founded in 2014, Morena is still a young party whose strength has been largely based on loyalty to Lopez Obrador, widely known by his initials AMLO.
“The president continues to fulfill a symbolic, moral and decision-making role that is fundamental,” Urbina said.
While Sheinbaum won an internal party poll to represent Morena, she was always seen as the outgoing president’s favorite.
“AMLO supporters trust his judgement and have rallied around his handpicked successor,” Shifter said.
Unpopular opposition
The unpopularity of the traditional Mexican parties - the centrist PRI, the right-wing PAN and the leftist PRD - was a major disadvantage for the main opposition candidate, Xochitl Galvez.
“They have a very bad reputation,” Bravo Regidor said.
“That was a burden that greatly hindered Xochitl’s potential,” he added.
In contrast, Morena, of which Lopez Obrador and Sheinbaum are co-founders, is seen more positively by voters as “relatively new and different,” Bravo Regidor said.
The opposition’s “big mistake” was not paying attention to the “real, current and genuine discontent” of many Mexicans, said writer and analyst Jorge Zepeda Patterson.
Instead, Lopez Obrador’s opponents sought to underline problems such as violence or difficulties accessing healthcare.
Faced with such an approach, “people will say, ‘maybe, but at least they’re trying,’ while the traditional parties don’t even try,” Zepeda Patterson said.

Sheinbaum was born in Mexico City to parents caught up in the turmoil of the early 1960s, when students and other activists were seeking to end the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s long grip on power.

“At home, we talked about politics morning, noon and night,” she was quoted as saying in a recent biography.

Guillermo Robles, a former classmate at the prestigious National Autonomous University of Mexico, remembers Sheinbaum as a serious student.

Researcher in California 

Neither she nor I were that into socialising with everyone,” he said.

Sheinbaum’s magnetism as a young woman lay in her left-wing political convictions, Robles said.

“She never said ‘I can’t’. She always went, especially to the rallies,” Robles said.

Sheinbaum also spent several years as a researcher in California, where she honed her English language skills.

Image Credit: Reuters

She was a contributing author of the United Nations’ Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Her first public role was as Mexico City environment minister in the early 2000s.

Sheinbaum’s background is in science. She has a Ph.D. in energy engineering. Her brother is a physicist. In a 2023 interview with The Associated Press, Sheinbaum said, “I believe in science.”

Earthquake, metro collapse

Sheinbaum’s political career has been marked by controversy and tragedy at times.

In 2017, a powerful earthquake caused a school to collapse in a southern Mexico City district where she was the local mayor, killing 26 people, including 19 children.

Sheinbaum denied that irregularities in the construction were her office’s responsibility, and went on to be elected mayor of all of Mexico City the following year.

Her use of scientific methods and technological tools was seen in the Covid-19 pandemic response in the capital, though it did not prevent a high mortality rate.

“She has an impressive capacity for analysis, reading data and finding very practical solutions,” said Tatiana Clouthier, a former economy minister who is now a spokesperson for her campaign.

“Despite being a scientist, she is something of a social fighter, which makes a very good combination of heart and mind,” Clouthier added.

In 2021, while Sheinbaum was Mexico City mayor, disaster struck again when a section of elevated metro track collapsed, killing 26 people and injuring dozens.

Sheinbaum rejected accusations that budget cuts were to blame.

She negotiated with the construction company owned by magnate Carlos Slim that built the line to obtain compensation for victims and avoid lawsuits.

Cold and heartless?

“Governing is about making decisions. You have to make a decision and assume the pressures that can come from it,” Sheinbaum said.

During a series of heated election debates, an unflappable Sheinbaum avoided looking at her main opponent Xochitl Galvez or even calling her by name, despite a barrage of accusations.

Galvez branded Sheinbaum “cold and heartless,” saying she lacked sympathy for child cancer patients and earthquake victims.

“I would call you the ice lady,” Galvez said.

Sheinbaum has shown a warmer side at times, kissing and hugging supporters, and revealing a nerdy sense of humor in TikTok videos.

She shared videos with the news of her marriage in November 2023 to her university sweetheart, Jesus Tarriba.

Former classmate Robles, who has known Sheinbaum for 37 years, said success had never gone to her head.

“She does have love for Mexico. She’s not ambitious like many politicians. Claudia is not even remotely like traditional politicians,” he said.

Sheinbaum will also be the first person from a Jewish background to lead the overwhelmingly Catholic country.