Mexico's presidential race is between two women. So why is everyone talking about one man?

FILE - Supporters of presidential candidate Claudia Sheinbaum crowd into the Zocalo, facing the Cathedral, for her opening campaign rally in the Zocalo of Mexico City, March 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Aurea Del Rosario, File)
Supporters of presidential candidate Claudia Sheinbaum fill the Zócalo in Mexico City for a rally on March 1. (Aurea Del Rosario / Associated Press)

Andrés Manuel López Obrador is not on the ballot in Mexico’s presidential election on Sunday. But he might as well be.

The vote is widely viewed as a referendum on the popular but polarizing president known for pulling millions of Mexicans out of poverty while weakening some of the country’s key institutions, emboldening the military and failing to stem an epidemic of brutal gang violence.

Claudia Sheinbaum, López Obrador’s protege and the former mayor of Mexico City, is heavily favored to win the election — in large part because she has vowed to advance his signature projects, including welfare programs and efforts to reform the judiciary.

Supporters, some carrying signs, welcome Claudia Sheinbaum
Candidate Claudia Sheinbaum arrives at a campaign rally this week in Mexico City, where she served as mayor. (Eduardo Verdugo / Associated Press)

Meanwhile her chief opponent, Xóchitl Gálvez, an entrepreneur and former senator who represents an opposition coalition, has sought to tap into resentment among the middle and upper classes against the current president, who is known widely by his initials, AMLO.

“It is all about AMLO,” said Lila Abed, acting director at the Mexico Institute of the Wilson Center think tank in Washington. “I think a lot of people who will vote for [Sheinbaum] will be voting in their minds for him.”

Read more: What to know about Mexico's massive elections on Sunday

If Sheinbaum is indeed victorious, Abed said, one issue will loom above all others: “What role, if any, will AMLO play in the next six years? Is he going to be actively involved in the decisions that she makes as president?”

Sheinbaum has dismissed suggestions that López Obrador might control her presidency from behind the scenes as misogynistic.

Claudia Sheinbaum, the protege of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is favored to be elected Mexico's next leader.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador appears at a campaign event with Sheinbaum, his protege who is heavily favored to succeed him. (Fernando Llano / Associated Press)

In some ways, the heated debates about López Obrador’s record and legacy have overshadowed a more compelling storyline: the near certainty that the next president will be a woman.

That would be a first for Mexico, a traditionally conservative country known for machismo and high rates of violence against women. Women have made major inroads in politics here since a 2019 constitutional reform set quotas requiring gender parity in all elected posts at the federal, state and municipal levels. They now account for about half the Congress.

Sunday’s election is the largest in Mexico’s history. Along with a new president, voters will choose 128 senators, 500 congressional deputies, eight governors and the mayor of Mexico City, along with thousands of local officials. Mexican presidents serve a single six-year term.

Read more: Soldiers and civilians are dying as Mexican cartels embrace a terrifying new weapon: Land mines

Beyond breaking gender barriers, the election has significant policy implications for both Mexico and the United States.

The two nations share a sometimes turbulent partnership on security concerns such as immigration, organized crime and drug trafficking — all while trade between them approaches $1 trillion a year.

López Obrador has mostly cooperated with Washington on key issues even as he regularly assails its policies and even U.S. culture — denouncing “abusive meddling” and what he regards as U.S. moral decay. Sheinbaum and Gálvez, for their parts, have both pledged to maintain close ties with the United States.

“The two countries are so integrated economically that both know that upsetting it would have very deep consequences,” said Tony Payan, who directs the Center for the U.S. and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “No one wants that to happen.”

The future of U.S.-Mexico relations may depend less on who wins the Mexico election than on the outcome of the U.S. presidential race in November.

Read more: Bullets before ballots: Dozens of Mexican candidates have been killed as cartels seek more control

Former President Trump, who has railed against migrants and free trade, once threatened to slap tariffs on Mexican imports if the country did not do more to stop migrants from reaching the U.S. border. López Obrador promptly acquiesced — even as critics accused him of doing Washington’s “dirty work.”

In recent months, Mexico has dispatched troops to turn back migrants from border fences, kick them off northbound freight trains and return them to southern Mexico — often to try again.

But with the 2,000-mile border a major political issue in the United States, experts say that Mexico’s new president will continue to feel intense pressure from Washington to crack down on migrants.

Neither Sheinbaum nor Gálvez have provided much insight on how they might deal with the issue.

Presidential candidate Xóchitl Gálvez holds a campaign rally in Los Reyes la Paz, just outside of Mexico City.
Presidential candidate Xóchitl Gálvez holds a rally this week in Los Reyes la Paz, outside Mexico City, in advance of Sunday's election. (Fernando Llano / Associated Press)

The bigger political challenge for the next Mexican president is how to curb rampant cartel and gang violence. Polls indicated that security is the major concern of voters in Mexico.

Read more: This mega-city is running out of water. What will 22 million people do when the taps run dry?

While murders dipped slightly in the last few years, Mexico still has one of the world’s highest homicide rates. It is five times that of the United States.

And those figure don’t include the “disappeared” — mostly victims of gang violence whose ranks have soared to more than 100,000 during López Obrador’s presidency.

A complex patchwork of criminal groups control large parts of Mexico, with many local governments in the pocket of organized crime.

“The cartels need local political allies to operate,” noted Víctor Clark Alfaro, a longtime human rights advocate in the border city of Tijuana. “There’s widespread corruption in local government.”

Mexico’s criminal justice system is largely broken. The vast majority of crimes are never solved.

Read more: Dream interrupted: As gang violence soars in Mexico, migrants in U.S. rethink plans to go home

López Obrador handed over many security tasks to the military — an admission that police and the civilian justice system were unable to handle the crisis. But experts say that soldiers are ill-equipped to take on civilian law enforcement.

The national election campaign only dramatized the extent of criminal reach in Mexico. At least 31 candidates were assassinated, and attacks on political figures reached record levels.

“Political stability and the future progress of the country depend on the capacity to confront and overcome this wave of political violence,” journalist Yuriria Sierra wrote in Mexico’s Excélsior newspaper.

Apart from feeling domestic pressure to reduce violence, Mexico’s next president is also likely to face amped-up demands from Washington to rein in cartels’ drug-smuggling operations — especially the trafficking of fentanyl, the synthetic opioid blamed for tens of thousands of U.S. deaths a year.

U.S. lawmakers have expressed increasing frustration with what they view as an inadequate response from the López Obrador administration, which has also limited U.S. drug agents’ access to Mexico.

Read more: Mass shootings in Mexico become an issue in the presidential race

“Mutual trust between the United States and Mexico has deteriorated in recent years,” said Abed of the Wilson Center. “Security cooperation has deteriorated. There is going to have to be a rebuilding of mutual trust.”

Vowing to reduce violence, Sheinbaum has spoken of policies such as expanding police and National Guard training, improving law enforcement intelligence-gathering capabilities and providing educational opportunities for youths to dissuade them from joining organized crime.

“Where should our kids be — in the street or in school?” Sheinbaum asked supporters in her campaign-closing speech on Wednesday in Mexico City’s historic Zócalo, or central square.

It sounded a lot like López Obrador’s “Hugs not bullets” strategy — attacking the root causes of crime instead of trying to take down cartel kingpins.

Gálvez, the opposition presidential hopeful, has vowed “no more hugs” for criminals. But she too has provided few specifics to back up her reassuring vows to make violence go away.

Xóchitl Gálvez waves from a stage before a banner with her image
Gálvez greets supporters in Huixquilucan, Mexico, in April. (Marco Ugarte / Associated Press)

“I propose returning peace and tranquility to your families,” Gálvez told a crowd in her closing campaign rally in the northern city of Monterrey.

The near daily accounts of murders and mayhem clash with an alternative national vision: Mexico as a growing hub for international businesses keen to relocate operations from Asia or Europe to be closer to U.S. markets — a phenomenon known as near-shoring.

“Right now Mexico has a huge opportunity on its hands with the near-shoring movement, with its increased place as a trade hub in the global economy,” said Falko Ernst, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit research group.

But he said its full potential may not be realized “if you don’t find ways to contain the slide of Mexico into violent chaos.”

Special correspondent Cecilia Sánchez Vidal contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.