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With election of new president, often-cynical Mexicans opting for hope

Politics is rarely a source of optimism in Mexico. But the election of leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the presidency on Sunday has brought hope to Mexicans – and perhaps a new way of looking at voting.

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Supporters of Andrés Manuel López Obrador celebrate his victory on Mexico City's main square, the Zocalo, July 1.

Ramon Espinosa/AP

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It’s not every day a nation wakes up after a presidential vote and collectively dons the colors of their national flag.

In Mexico Monday, that national pride had something to do with a World Cup soccer match. But the image of unity in the flag-waving, jersey-clad masses was an apt reflection of the energy and hope here following Sunday’s historic presidential vote.

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Three-time candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly referred to by his initials, AMLO, took the presidency with about 53 percent of the ballots. It’s the first absolute majority earned by a president in nearly two decades, and with 30 points between him and his closest competitor, the highest winning margin since 1982.

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Mexicans have long been profoundly cynical when it comes to their elected officials. That's been especially true the past six years, under a president who ran on a platform of change, but instead became synonymous with all-too-familiar scourges like corruption and violence.

But Mr. López Obrador’s overwhelming victory represents a new wave of hope for many here. He ran on promises to end corruption and to direct the country toward a fresh path that leaves behind violence and unemployment. There are nevertheless still plenty of Mexicans, many of whom have expressed a desire for change, who are skeptical of what kind of leader he will be, or if he can deliver on his pledges.

Yet his win, along with the forceful rejection of the country’s traditional parties, could signal a sea change in how Mexicans are approaching politics. After nearly two decades of multiparty democracy under the conservative PAN and the outgoing PRI, voters now may be approaching politics not with fixed loyalty to one party, but as "consumers" picking the best candidate for their current status.

A new path for Mexican democracy?

It's a marked shift, but one that the establishment parties laid the groundwork for – and which voters welcome now.

“For the first time in memory,” says Armando Zuñiga, a retiree who voted for AMLO this year after casting ballots for PAN and PRI in the past three elections, “I feel optimistic.”

In the first several days since his historic win, AMLO has gotten to work assuaging fears in the business community and with international investors, while letting his base supporters know that his focus remains on lifting up the poor and improving conditions for the most vulnerable and overlooked.

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Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the MORENA party arrives at a polling station during general elections in Mexico City on July 1. Mr. López Obrador won the Mexican presidency with an absolute majority, the first time that has happened in nearly two decades.
Ramon Espinosa/AP

“For the good of everyone, first come the poor,” he bellowed during his victory speech on Sunday. The PRI and PAN candidates conceded by 9pm – hours before the electoral institute even released its initial quick-count results.

“What I think we’re witnessing and will continue to witness in Mexico is that the voter has become more like a consumer,” says Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, based in Washington. “It used to be that you were a PRIista, PANista, or PRDista” he says, loyal to a party regardless of the party’s candidate. “Now, we are in a new reality where voters are choosing the option that makes the most sense for his or her life at the time.”

This election – and the move away from party identity – will have a lasting impact on the old party system, analysts say.

“Nobody would have thunk 20 or 30 years ago that the three parties [PAN, PRD, and PRI] that gave us electoral democracy, that steered it to safe port over the last generation, that they’d all be basically on their deathbed today,” says Federico Estévez, a political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, who has tracked the country’s political transition since the late 1980s.

Those parties failed to meet citizen expectations since Mexico’s transition to multiparty democracy in 2000, after more than 70 years of uninterrupted PRI rule. But they have played a key role in creating a landscape where citizens understand the importance of their voice in democracy, observers say.

The past three presidents, Vicente Fox, Felipe Calderón, and Enrique Peña Nieto, “worked on the creation and strengthening of institutions, and as a result civil society has grown and strengthened” over the past 18 years, says Valeria Scorza, program director for Avina Foundation, which works on citizen-driven, collaborative social change projects.

She expects citizens – even AMLO supporters – to continue taking to the streets and holding the government accountable under this administration, something Mexico has seen more of in recent years amid high-profile human rights and corruption scandals.

‘We all have a role to play’

But the excitement around AMLO has generated more than just hope and excitement – it’s created high stakes for the president. His party won majorities in both chambers of Congress and he has three years until midterm elections, leaving him few excuses if he fails to push through promised policy changes.

“AMLO’s not a saint,” says Isaîas Cesto, a musician who voted for López Obrador’s MORENA party across the ticket. “I’m not putting him on a pedestal. But I do expect him to change things. That’s why I voted for him. That’s what’s given me hope for the future.”

In a column for leading newspaper Reforma, political scientist Denise Dresser encapsulated the concerns of many AMLO voters and detractors, alike.

“I am not afraid that Mexico will become Venezuela,” she writes of a common scare-tactic used against AMLO in previous elections, due to his leftist agenda and populist rhetoric. “I fear that Mexico will remain the same Mexico.”

But amid the jubilant celebrations Sunday night in the historic Zocalo plaza, the honking cars zooming through city streets and excited screams spilling out of open windows, there’s also a burgeoning sense of responsibility that reaches beyond the enthusiasm for AMLO himself.

“I’m glad ‘el Peje’ won,” says Carolina, using the AMLO nickname that refers to a sharp-toothed, fresh-water fish from his home state of Tabasco.  “I like his ideas, but he won’t change Mexico alone,” says the bank employee who asked not to use her last name. “Change means everyone. If we don’t change [as a society], nothing will change. I’m hopeful, but we all have a role to play.”