National AffairsPolitics

Mexico leapfrogs U.S. and Canada in electing women

With the politics of the United States in disarray, to say the least, let’s look a bit further for a glimmer of hope.

Mexico, renowned (and sometimes stereotyped) for its macho culture, has just elected a woman as president. Claudia Sheinbaum, who will take office on Oct. 1, is Jewish to boot.

How does it happen that Mexico, of all places, where women didn’t even win the right to vote until 1953, has chosen a woman as president before the United States, where women have had many more rights for much longer? (Canada, of course, has had a female prime minister but there’s a big asterisk by Kim Campbell’s name. Her 132 days in office in 1993, let’s face it, were more of a footnote than a true breakthrough.)

In fact, Mexico has leapfrogged both its northern neighbours in sheer numbers of women in elected office in the past decade or so.

Sheinbaum’s main rival for the presidency, Xóchitl Gálvez, was also a woman. Mexicans had gotten used to the idea of a female president and gender didn’t play much of a role in the campaign. Fifty per cent of the members of Mexico’s Congress are female and 10 of the country’s 32 states are governed by women.

In the U.S., by contrast, only 27 per cent of the House of Representatives is female, as are 12 out of 50 state governors. Canada does a touch better in the House of Commons, where 30 per cent of MPs are women. But these days there’s just one lonely female premier (Danielle Smith in Alberta) – a big decline from that brief moment in 2013 when six out of 10 premiers were women.

I’m no expert in Mexican politics but I did cover the presidential election there in 2000 when an opposition candidate, Vicente Fox, won for the first time since the country’s revolution almost a century before. The pent-up demand for change was palpable. Old political barriers began to crumble and women pushed for a share of power.

They convinced their Congress to set quotas for female candidates for elected office, starting at 30 per cent. By 2019, under outgoing president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico adopted a constitutional amendment mandating “parity in everything” – not just elected positions but key posts in the government and judiciary as well. It makes Justin Trudeau’s gender-parity cabinet look a lot less revolutionary by comparison.

Still, her gender is likely to be the least controversial thing about Sheinbaum. She’s 61, a climate scientist with a doctorate in energy engineering, and a contributor to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that won a Nobel Prize in 2007.

She was mayor of Mexico City and a close supporter of López Obrador, to the point where the biggest question that seems to be asked about her presidency is how different from him she’ll turn out to be once she takes office.

That’s far from clear. López Obrador (universally known as AMLO) created his own party, Morena, in 2014 and governed mainly from the left by rejecting so-called “neo-liberalism.” Under him minimum wages were doubled and millions of Mexicans were lifted out of poverty.

But AMLO’s record was decidedly mixed. He disappointed leftists by embracing fiscal austerity and put the military in charge of important parts of the economy in the name of fighting corruption. He undermined the independence of the judiciary and displayed what his critics call a troubling tendency toward authoritarianism.
At the same time, he failed to bring Mexico’s soaring crime and murder rate under control or to tame the country’s powerful drug cartels. Dozens of candidates for political office have been murdered over the past year, many because they fell foul of the cartels. Dozens of journalists have also been killed for trying to expose cartel power. AMLO tackled crime by focusing on root causes rather than enforcement – a policy he famously labelled “abrazos, no balazos” (hugs, not bullets). It’s been mostly a failure.

Now it’s Sheinbaum’s turn to show if she can do better. By all appearances her gender won’t play much of a role. And that, perhaps, is true progress.

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