As Mexico Elects Claudia Sheinbaum, the Departing Leader Begins His Farewell

As Mexico Elects Claudia Sheinbaum, the Departing Leader Begins His Farewell

Sunday was a historic day in Mexico, with a landslide election victory for Claudia Sheinbaum, the first woman and first Jewish person to become the country’s president.

But as much as it was about Ms. Sheinbaum, a decorated climate scientist and the mayor of Mexico City from 2018 to 2023, it was also about the most powerful man in the country who will soon head toward the exit.

The electoral triumph of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s handpicked successor marks the beginning of the end of a defining figure in Mexico.

He emerged from an area of the country where few national politicians have hailed and became president on his third try. He completely reshaped Mexican politics and built an entire political party around his outsize personality.

Critics also say he granted the military too much power and pushed measures that would chip away at democratic institutions, like the Supreme Court.

Yet, as the end of his six-year tenure approaches, Mr. López Obrador remains widely popular.

After nearly five decades in public life, Mr. López Obrador, 70, has said he will retire “completely” following his final day in office on Sept. 30, though some observers believe he will find a way to continue to exert influence behind the scenes.

He has said he wants to spend his days at his family’s ranch in the southern state of Chiapas.

For many in the neighboring state of Tabasco, a bastion of support for Mr. López Obrador, and the small town of Tepetitán, where he was born, Sunday was bittersweet.

Miguel Angel Solis Burelo, 72, said he was thrilled to see Ms. Sheinbaum win because she was “well prepared” to carry on Mr. López Obrador’s agenda. He also said it was “a great joy” to see a woman assume the presidency.

But Mr. Solis, who drove a motorboat down a river from the ranch where he works to vote in Tepetitán, admitted he also felt “a bit sad” to see Mr. López Obrador nearing the end of his presidency. Mexico’s presidents are limited to one six-year term by the Constitution.

Kenia Sandoval Salvador, 47, a stay-at-home mother, said she watched video highlights on social media of Mr. López Obrador’s career before she went to the polls on Sunday in Macuspana, a town also in Tabasco where the president was raised.

“I already feel the nostalgia,’’ she said.

Born in 1953, Mr. López Obrador attended the only elementary school in Tepetitán and helped at his parents’ store. He started middle school about 40 minutes away in Macuspana. He finished it and high school in Villahermosa, the state’s capital where his family moved. He went to college in Mexico City, where he later served as mayor.

Sunday’s election was seen by many as a referendum on Mr. López Obrador’s leadership, and Ms. Sheinbaum’s decisive victory was interpreted as a vote of confidence in the president, his policies and the Morena party.

Antenor Paz Acosta, 75, who works on a ranch in Tepetitán and said he had played baseball with the president growing up, made clear he had the current leader in mind, even as he voted for Ms. Sheinbaum.

“I’m always supporting what Andrés Manuel has done,” Mr. Paz said. “Where he goes, she does, too.”

During Mr. López Obrador’s tenure, the economy grew, millions of Mexicans were lifted out of poverty, the minimum wage doubled, pensions were expanded and workers’ benefits improved.

But his presidency has also fueled concern. He has been criticized for his “hugs, not bullets” strategy toward criminal cartels that has resulted in more violence. His detractors also say he hobbled the nation’s health system and prioritized fossil fuels.

Mr. López Obrador, who is known by his initials AMLO, will be remembered by many for his morning news conferences, or mañaneras, during which he spent hours nearly everyday for the past five years sharing his feelings, celebrating his victories, attacking his critics and lashing out at journalists. He could come across as both fiery and folksy.

“López Obrador governed through the mañaneras,” said Blanca Gómez, a Mexican journalist who wrote an unauthorized biography of Mr. López Obrador in 2005. “He realized that people paid attention when he spoke. People believe him. There are people who are going to miss his mañaneras. And many people will be happy not to hear him anymore.”

Though Lázaro Vidal Martínez, 62, a farmer in Tepetitán, was usually working in the mornings, he said he would occasionally listen. “I liked that he showed his face daily because other presidents never did that,” he said.

Mr. Solis, the ranch worker who arrived by motorboat to vote, said what he liked most about Mr. López Obrador’s presidency was his social welfare programs that helped “us who didn’t receive help or who weren’t taken into account.”

He said his pension, for those 65 and over, has jumped fivefold over the years to roughly $170 every month.

Still, Mr. López Obrador should have been tougher on criminal groups, Mr. Solis added, though he was generally satisfied with the country’s direction.

“We want the movement to continue,” he said, before hopping into his boat to head home.

During campaign visits to Tabasco, Ms. Sheinbaum promised to preserve Mr. López Obrador’s legacy, which drew cheers from the crowds.

In Tepetitán, a town of 1,500 people, what was once his grandparents’ home opened last year as the Obrador House Community Museum and features his bust outside. In Macuspana, a larger town with 31,000 residents, the lone reminder is a mural outside the public library.

Not far away in a cafe in the town’s main square sat Márvel Hernández Gutú, 79, a Tepetitán native, lawyer and former state official who has known Mr. López Obrador since their time together in a previous political party. He wished Mr. López Obrador had done more to develop Mexico in terms of business and infrastructure, especially in Tabasco, one of the poorest states in the country.

“As far as his legacy,” Mr. Hernández said, “we can’t say he left us great things because he had the opportunity to do so and he didn’t.”

Regardless of their views, many said they didn’t believe Mr. López Obrador would suddenly disappear after decades of public life and with his protégée in charge.

“His legacy matters a lot to him,” said Ms. Gómez, the journalist.

In a small way, it will continue on in Tepetitán.

During Mr. López Obrador’s successful presidential campaign six years ago, Mr. Vidal, who said his parents knew Mr. López Obrador’s parents, allowed a local artist to paint a mural on the side of his house that sits at the entrance to the town. Anyone entering or leaving the community would see it.

It has been repainted three times, with new flourishes added on each occasion. Surrounding Mr. López Obrador’s face are flora and fauna found throughout Tabasco: howler monkeys, parrots and the alligator gar fish, a local delicacy and a nickname for Mr. López Obrador in Spanish.

The mural’s artist died last year, Mr. Vidal said, and he hopes that another artist can help preserve the reminder of the town’s most famous son.

“That mural will stay,” he said.

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