In July 2018, Leo Hernandez, a 23-year-old law student at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, joined millions of other millennial and Generation Z voters in helping Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador secure a landslide victory in Mexico’s presidential election. Hernandez was excited about the possibility of helping to elect the country’s first leftist president in recent history. And given his plans to return to his home city of Tijuana after graduation, he was particularly attracted to the attention Lopez Obrador was paying to state-level politics.
“He was moving away from acting like Mexico City was the only place that matters,” Hernandez told me in an interview about his initial enthusiasm for AMLO, as Lopez Obrador is known.
Hernandez joined his university’s chapter of Morena—an acronym for Lopez Obrador’s National Regeneration Movement, launched in 2014—even though the school, often called the “Harvard of Mexico,” is a stereotypical target of AMLO’s anti-fifi, or anti-elite, narrative.
Talk to Hernandez today, though, and his fervor for AMLO has faded. “I bought the discourse,” he said, referring to AMLO’s campaign platform promising sweeping change and the end of systemic corruption. “I didn’t expect the AMLO of today to be so different from the AMLO that was.”
Hernandez isn’t alone in his disenchantment. A January 2020 poll conducted by El Financiero, a leading Mexican newspaper, showed that individuals aged 18-30 were the group least likely to vote for Morena if an election were to take place the following day. At the time, those results might have been dismissed as reflecting the volatile nature of the millennial and Gen Z vote. But more than a year later, with the most recent data showing that Morena’s stronghold is now among the elderly, it is clear that millennials like Hernandez have moved on.
Mexico’s youngest generations of voters—the millennials, who range from their late-20s to early 40s, and the members of Generation Z, the oldest of whom are in their mid-20s—wield more potential electoral power than ever before. Today, there are 37 million Mexicans between the ages of 20 and 29; that’s 31 percent of the total population, more than at any other point in history. At the time of the 2018 election, millennials turned out in unprecedented numbers to support AMLO, who received a historic 48 percent of the vote of an age group notorious for its political apathy. Prior to 2018, participation had typically been very low for voters between the ages of 18 and 30.
Ideologically progressive, young Mexicans are also the most educated voting bloc in Mexico’s history, with over a quarter of them having completed higher education. In 2020, the average Mexican received 9.7 years of schooling, compared to just 3.4 years in 1970, and over 80 percent of these young voters reside in urban areas.
As internet users, they have access to a news and information landscape significantly more diverse than the one their parents knew, in which news outlets were heavily subsidized by the government and thus less able to criticize its policies. Also unlike their parents, who came of age before NAFTA and globalization ramped up Mexico’s linkages to the world, young people today are accustomed to an openness that transcends the purely economic. They are more tolerant than previous generations, with half of them supporting both gay marriage and abortion.
Once one of AMLO’s most monolithic support bases, young people in Mexico are turning away from the president they played a big role in electing.
Yet, they also find themselves economically disadvantaged. The unemployment rate among millennials is as high as 60 percent, and as a result, according to a 2018 study by Rice University’s Baker Institute, many millennials continue to depend on their parents for financial support. One in 5 Mexicans in their 30s have moved back into childhood homes, crippled by financial debt and a state pension program that has younger generations supporting older ones at their own expense. Decades of government mismanagement and poor investing has resulted in plummeting revenues, and a contracting economy means that younger generations are, unlike members of Generation X or Baby Boomers, unable to rely on Mexico’s petroleum industry to help carry the economy.
Once one of AMLO’s most monolithic support bases, young people in Mexico are turning away from the president they played such a big role in electing. Two and a half years after his resounding victory, the question is: Why have millennial and Gen Z voters abandoned Lopez Obrador, and what does their experience mean for Mexico’s democracy?
The First Generation Born Into Democracy
In a sense, young people in Mexico have participated in making history as an accident of birth. Older millennials had their first experience at the polls in the historic election of Vicente Fox in 2000. Fox, the center-right candidate of the National Action Party, or PAN, dethroned the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which had governed Mexico for 71 years.
“This is the only generation that’s ever experienced three different political parties. The PRI, the PAN, back to the PRI, and then Morena,” explained Francisco Parra, a public opinion researcher and former editor for polling at Nacion321, a news outlet for young people.
At the same time, millennials’ experience of the PRI is different from that of their parents. “It’s difficult to say if there’s an anti-PRI memory among millennials,” said Alejandro Moreno, the head of polling at El Financiero and a professor of political science at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. “They didn’t live a classic PRI [government]. What they lived is Pena Nieto. That’s what the PRI means to millennials.”
Pena Nieto is Enrique Pena Nieto, AMLO’s predecessor from 2012 to 2018. Known for his telegenic polish, EPN, as he was called, channeled Mexico’s aspiration to modernize its economy, using it to return the PRI to power after the presidencies of Fox and his PAN successor, Felipe Calderon. By the time he left office, though, Pena Nieto was the most disliked Mexican president in history, and his name is now synonymous with human rights abuses and corruption.
At the end of his term, Mexico’s homicide rate had reached 33,000 in a single year, at the time the highest in more than two decades. Pena Nieto was also embroiled in a series of corruption scandals that further tarnished his image. But perhaps the most damning legacy of his presidency were two horrific, high-profile incidents from 2014: the disappearance of 43 students from a teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa and the execution-style killing of 22 civilians by troops in Tlatlaya. Botched investigations into both—the 43 students remain missing—eroded trust in his government and led to widespread protests.
A sign reads “No to militarization” at a student protest against violence in Guadalajara, Mexico, April 24, 2018 (AP photo by Refugio Ruiz).
AMLO offered a departure from politics-as-usual that tapped into this broad discontent. In 2014, he left the mainstream Party of the Democratic Revolution party, which he had led from 1996 to 1999, to form Morena, the first leftist movement to occupy a significant place in Mexico’s political landscape since then-President Lazaro Cardenas’ push for a “Mexican revolutionary nationalism” in the 1930s.* Like Sen. Bernie Sanders in the United States, AMLO’s consistent rhetoric, combined with his long-term presence on the political scene, made him an authentic, appealing and transformational candidate.
“His discourse about ending the mafia de poder [the mafia of power],” said Parra, from Nacion321, appealed to Mexico’s “incredibly disempowered” youth. PRI’s fall and subsequent return, combined with a global economic outlook in which younger generations for the first time earn less money than their parents, primed millennial voters to opt out of the status quo. “The stars aligned for AMLO,” Parra concluded.
Moreno from El Financiero agreed. “AMLO’s message was going against the system that was very clearly discredited after the previous administration,” he said. “It was a vote sensitive to change.”
Daniel Silvaja, a 31-year-old Morena representative from Ecatepec, a municipality north of Mexico City, said that though he personally supports many progressive policies, he never expected them from AMLO. “El pueblo [the Mexican people] feels that AMLO is one of them because he understands that their enemy is neoliberalism,” Silvaja said. “Progressivism is a trend among elites. It’s a privilege. AMLO gets that, and it’s because of his closeness to his constituency, his visibility, that he’s remained so popular. People feel like he’s one of them because he gets them.”
This anti-system appeal explains why a young, ideologically progressive voting bloc so overwhelmingly supported the oldest candidate on the ballot—64 years old at the time of the election—who ran on a relatively traditional platform focused on fighting corruption, restoring peace and reallocating government funds.
“AMLO’s campaign was not about progressive issues as much as people in other countries might think,” Moreno said. “Theoretically, it would be nice to see the millennial vote guided by certain [progressive] issues—but, generally, the polls indicate that’s not largely the case.”
Stuck in the Past
Two and a half years into AMLO’s presidency, millennials’ enthusiasm toward him has cooled off noticeably. Within many social circles, particularly the left-leaning ones, voicing anything but disillusionment toward his administration has become something of a faux pas. Memes, which the Mexican media is famous for churning out, now mock those who “still believe in AMLO.”
“I knew AMLO was a complex, contradictory character,” said Leonardo Nunez, a 29-year-old investigator with a local think tank in Mexico City. “But there were four or five issues that he campaigned on that made me think, ‘Okay, I’ll take a chance on him.’”
Nunez’s loss of faith has been gradual, but he can identify the two main causes: the lack of progress in the fight against corruption and the growing militarization of the state’s fight against organized crime.
Many now view AMLO’s fight against corruption as selective at best, given recent scandals that have hit close to home. In August 2020, a video was released that showed AMLO’s brother receiving cash from another political operative in 2015, who ended up being appointed to a post in the Lopez Obrador administration years later. One month later, AMLO’s sister-in-law, along with other officials, resigned from political office in a multimillion-dollar embezzlement scandal in AMLO’s hometown, Macuspana.
Meanwhile, AMLO has doubled down on the militarization of public safety, announcing in May 2020 that he would be deploying the army and navy to support the National Guard, a quasi-military force he created in 2019 to address Mexico’s escalating violence. One month later, he added that that he was expanding the armed forces’ authority to include the country’s ports, in order to stymie corruption, contraband and drug trafficking. Civil society and politicians alike have widely criticized the militarization of public safety, which was first introduced by former President Calderon in 2006 as part of the “war on drugs.” By the end of Calderon’s six-year term, the armed forces had replaced local police units, leading to a culture of impunity so serious that human rights groups continue to call on the International Criminal Court to open an investigation into the military’s “crimes against humanity.”
“My disenchantment has grown over time, in part because the country’s militarization has happened over time,” Nunez said. In the end, he added, AMLO has delivered “the same practices with different names.”
“I voted for a historic process, for someone who was everything Pena Nieto and Calderon weren’t. But the people AMLO promised to put in jail are still walking around free.”
Pablo David, a 29-year-old architect from Mexico City, has also been disappointed to see AMLO abandon his radical campaign platform to become a president who is much more complacent toward the status quo than advertised. “I voted for a historic process, for someone who was everything Pena Nieto and Calderon weren’t. But the people AMLO promised to put in jail are still walking around free,” he told me. “I feel like I’m living in 2000,” he added, voicing a sentiment shared by many young Mexicans.
Another shared point of disillusionment among AMLO’s former young supporters is Mexico’s femicide crisis, which has seen murders of women more than triple since 2007. For Rebe Hernandez, a 29-year-old originally from Guanajuato who works at the feminist advocacy organization Information Group on Reproductive Choice, the turning point in her support occurred when AMLO was asked to comment on the massive protests on International Women’s Day in 2020, which turned out to be the largest feminist protests in the country’s history. The president responded by proclaiming that he was not a feminist, but a “humanist.”
“I had never been involved in politics before 2018, and my support for AMLO stemmed almost entirely from his alleged support of women,” she said. “I felt like he was surrounding himself with exciting women.” Once in office, AMLO made headlines for appointing an equal number of men and women to Cabinet positions, including Interior Minister Secretary Olga Sanchez and Social Development Secretary Maria Luisa Albores. Hernandez also pointed to AMLO’s choice for minister of health, Jorge Alcocer, and Hugo Lopez Gatell, the current deputy minister of health and Mexico’s controversial “coronavirus czar,” both of whom, she noted, are pro-choice. “But his team was just there for show.”
Nunez feels a similar dissatisfaction with the “anti-rights discourse” he said AMLO has adopted. “The first leftist government turns its back on women? This is not what we voted for, nor what we expected.”
Going further, Hernandez said Lopez Obrador has adopted a “you’re with me or against me” attitude that is “problematic and worrisome,” creating enemies in spaces where he needs allies. As an example, she referenced the debate over his ambitious plan to build a railway in the Yucatan peninsula, known as Tren Maya. “When he denounced local NGOs who were critical of the Tren Maya, I felt like this was a direct sign to human rights organizations, letting us know that if you’re against us, we’re against you.”
For Silvaja, the Morena representative, expecting anything from AMLO when it comes to social movements is a mistake. His flavor of populism has never been, and will never be, about issues like feminism, he said. Instead, AMLO is strategically playing to the interests of his core supporters, many of whom are still preoccupied with their grievances from Pena Nieto’s presidency.
“His fight is another. You have to understand his M.O.,” Silvaja said. “Sure, AMLO didn’t fulfill some promises … but people see him and think, ‘At least this guy’s still trying.’”
The Coming Voto de Castigo
Even for young people who have been open about being let down by AMLO, their view of the president is still complicated. For starters, not all of them are convinced that he alone is to blame for the failures of his administration.
“It might be too general to blame just him for my generation’s disillusionment. I don’t know if I should blame him, or Morena, or the 4T,” said David, the Mexico City architect, referring to Lopez Obrador’s Fourth Transformation, his ambitious project to transform Mexican society. “I see him and think, ‘He’s moving in slow motion.’ But then people close to him tell me, ‘He’s a genius.’ I don’t know who to believe or what to think.”
Adding to the confusion, Nunez said, “Not all people voted for AMLO for the same reasons, and not all of them are disappointed in him for the same reasons. Some of us are disappointed in his militarization strategies, while some of us are disappointed in the lack of cancer medications available to children, [and] others because of his anti-feminist positions.”
A young woman casts her vote for president during general elections in Mexico City, July 1, 2018 (AP photo by Anthony Vazquez).
Together, their concerns speak to a larger point: Where there was once consensus about the country’s problems and who could fix them, there is now confusion.
Silvaja, though, is not concerned, saying that although dissatisfaction among young people toward AMLO exists, it’s more reflective of that demographic’s socioeconomic status than the sentiment of the nation as a whole. Asked if he thinks losing the support of the chilangos—slang for the city slickers of Mexico City—matters to Morena’s leaders ahead of the 2024 federal elections, Silvaja doesn’t think twice. “Nah,” he said, dismissively. “[The party leaders] think they’ll be compensated by the popular vote that used to belong to the PRI.”
But Tony Payan, director of the Baker Institute’s Center for the United States and Mexico, said this kind of thinking is precisely why Morena has failed younger generations. “To simply discount and discard the legitimacy of [the opposition’s] demands because you don’t agree with them is Morena’s fundamental mistake,” he said. “They do not understand that Mexico is a very large, very diverse country with very different interests. We need a government that can respond to that.”
During AMLO’s campaign, Morena was able to appeal to voters who “are not committed to one political party but are committed to change,” Payan said. But now that it’s in office, the party has so far failed to create public policies that bridged those voters’ different interests, and that’s why it has started to experience “wear and tear” among young people.
Although Morena is likely to do well in the midterm elections on June 6, Payan thinks it’s possible some Mexicans will use the opportunity to cast a voto de castigo, or protest vote, supporting alternate candidates in order to split the vote or at least reduce Morena’s share.
“The Mexican electorate, as a whole, has proven very adept at using the ballot box as a way to behave strategically and signal its wishes to the incumbent and opposition parties,” Payan said. “Mexicans—even AMLO’s critics—are still choosing the ballot box to effect change. [Morena] may squeeze through to a victory because of the plurality rule, but there will be two-thirds of Mexicans who will say this is not the option.”
Millennials predict that the pervasive disappointment may lead to very low voter participation in future elections and, potentially, long-term costs for Mexico’s democracy.
It’s impossible to ignore a key takeaway from Payan’s prediction: Although young Mexicans may continue to exercise their right to vote, it will not be an exercise in empowerment. The enthusiasm for AMLO’s 2018 campaign was good while it lasted, but the desire to use the ballot to punish political parties signals the return of pessimism about the country’s democracy among younger voters.
“I do expect 30- to 36-year-olds to go vote,” said Aymara Flores Soriano, an expert on student-led social movements in Mexico and professor of education at Universidad de las Americas Puebla. This group of millennials, who voted for AMLO in 2018, have “learned that voting does have power, which is different than not having your expectations fulfilled,” she added.
On the other hand, she predicted that members of Generation Z that are currently around the ages of 16 and 17 and will vote for the first time in 2024 are likely to return to the PRI and PAN. The bogeyman of PRI’s political dominance “is meaningless to those who will be between the ages of 20 and 30 during the next election,” she said. “It’s far away—it’s in the last century.”
Because this younger demographic did not participate in social movements like last year’s feminist protests or the Ayotzinapa marches, they do not feel as anti-establishment as millennials do. Moreover, Flores Soriano added, “What they’ve been hearing from their grandparents is that the PRI and the PAN did know how to govern.”
At the same time, Flores Soriano envisions a return to grassroots movements for Mexico’s disenchanted youth, something akin to the surge that produced Spain’s far-left Unimos Podemos party.
But millennials themselves are less optimistic, predicting that the pervasive disappointment may lead to very low voter participation in future elections and, potentially, long-term costs for Mexico’s democracy.
“Will everything just continue to deteriorate? I feel a level of resignation,” David told me. “I think my generation will reorient their attention toward focusing on things we can have an influence on, or that fulfill us personally.”
*Editor’s note: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Lopez Obrador led the PRD from 1969 to 1999. The party was founded in 1989, and AMLO led it beginning it 1996. WPR regrets the error.
Nili Blanck is a freelance writer focusing on politics, culture and human rights. She received her Juris Doctor from the University of Michigan Law School and lives in Mexico City with her dog, Claudio.