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First female president is the result of Mexico correcting gender imbalances, Northeastern expert says

Claudia Sheinbaum’s victory comes after Mexico passed a law that mandates every political party put forward a field of candidates that is made up of 50% women.

Claudia Sheinbaum standing at a podium waving.
Claudia Sheinbaum won Mexico’s presidential election by more than 30 points to become the country’s first female leader (Photo by Carlos Tischler/Eyepix Group via AP)

LONDON — Claudia Sheinbaum broke the glass ceiling when she was declared the winner of Mexico’s presidential elections this week.

It is a modern-era feat that eludes Group of Seven powerhouses such as the United States, France and Japan. But Sheinbaum’s decisive victory means Mexico joins the likes of its Latin American compatriots, Argentina and Brazil, in electing a female head of state in the 21st century.

Pablo Calderon Martinez, a Northeastern University associate professor of politics and international relations, says the breakthrough is no accident.

When Sheinbaum is sworn in, Calderon Martinez points out, four of the most senior government positions in Mexico — president, Supreme Court president, head of the National Electoral Institute and the mayor of Mexico City — will be held by women.

In addition, there is an almost 50-50 gender split in the Congress of the Union, the country’s federal legislature.

Calderon Martinez says efforts were made in Mexico to “correct gender imbalances” with it written into law that every political party has to put forward a field of candidates that is made up of 50% women.

In the presidential runoff, 70 million voters backed a female candidate for president, with the runner-up, Xóchitl Gálvez, also a woman.

“I heard a U.S. pundit speaking in the Spanish-speaking news media saying, ‘Well, this is by chance, it just happens — women have run for president of the United States; Hillary Clinton ran and she just didn’t happen to win,’” Calderon Martinez recalled.

“But I don’t think it is down to chance. Obviously, they still have to win, but I do think in the last few years there has been an effort by different political parties, not just the government, to actually empower women in politics and try to correct that [gender] imbalance. And I think it has been successful, so I do not think this is just chance. 

“It is hard because there are still issues of gender biases that exist in Mexican society, as I suppose exist everywhere. The glass ceiling still exists, and people still have to vote [for a female candidate]. But I think it is very significant that more people have voted for Claudia Sheinbaum in Mexico than anybody else in the history of the country. She has secured more votes in any presidential election at any point in history. And it is a woman who has done that.”

Sheinbaum and Gálvez — who both declare themselves to be feminists — “skewed away a little” from focusing on issues traditionally seen as progressive, including abortion and women’s rights, Calderon Martinez says.

But he says that should be seen against the backdrop of Sheinbaum, representing the left-wing ruling party Morena, looking to win over parts of Mexico that “remain very conservative.” The former mayor of Mexico City’s left-wing values did not put voters off, with Sheinbaum winning in every state in the country except one.

Some commentators have emphasized the 61-year-old’s close relationship with outgoing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador as being key to her victory.

There is no doubt that Lopez Obrador and Sheinbaum are close — he appointed her environmental secretary when he was head of government for Mexico City, a move that helped launch the then-academic’s political career. However, talk of the president-elect being a puppet of the corruption-tackling incumbent comes with a “hint of misogyny,” according to Calderon Martinez, who is based in London but hails from Guadalajara, a city in western Mexico.

He says it is no surprise that Sheinbaum’s campaign looked to “piggyback” on the success of the past six years of Lopez Obrador’s government, but that the 31-point margin of victory in the election suggests she has her own personal following.

“They were trying to win an election and had a president of the same party that is hugely popular — of course they were going to wheel him out every chance they could,” Calderon Martinez says.

“By the way, it is the same thing that [U.S. president] Joe Biden did with Barack Obama. Obama is still a hugely popular figure, why wouldn’t you have him at your events and your rallies? But nobody in the U.S. is saying, ‘Oh, Joe Biden is Obama’s puppet,’ because he is not.

“I do think Sheinbaum owes a lot of the success to the previous government’s record. But I think a lot of people also came out and voted for her because they liked what they saw. They bought the project. 

“Voters were buying a record. They know what [the government] has done for the last six years, so they know what it means and clearly most people like that project. And they also like her as a person, otherwise you cannot explain the huge margin of victory.”