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Mexico could elect its first female president after this weekend's election

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Many of the stories of this week's election in Mexico can be heard in the voices of women. This week we will bring you some of those voices - people reflecting on a historic moment when Mexico decides its next president, almost certain to be the country's first woman president.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) La presidenta, la presidenta...

FADEL: That's a crowd at an event for Claudia Sheinbaum, an ally of Mexico's current president who hopes to succeed Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The other leading candidate is Xochitl Galvez, who represents a coalition of opposition parties. After Sunday's votes are counted, the winner will oversee policies that bridge the border with the U.S. The U.S., of course, will have its own presidential election in November. So we reached out to two experts to help us sort through what matters to Mexican and U.S. voters. Brenda Estefan is a professor at IPADE Business School in Mexico City and a columnist at the newspaper Reforma. Lila Abed is the acting director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center. I want to start with you, Brenda. This has been Mexico's most violent election season ever. More than 30 people running for office have been killed. Will this be top of mind for Mexican voters as they cast their ballots?

BRENDA ESTEFAN: Undeniably, Leila. I think rising crime rates and pervasive fear of violence have made security the top issue in this election. And I would add that during Lopez Obrador's administration, over 180,000 murders were registered and 50,000 people have been reported missing.

FADEL: Wow.

ESTEFAN: So this combination of things have made that almost 75% of Mexicans feel unsafe.

FADEL: Beyond security, what are voters saying that they want from these candidates?

ESTEFAN: Cost of living is definitely one of the top three issues. Despite overdue increases in the minimum wage, the rising cost of living has eroded purchasing power for Mexicans. And then definitely health would be a third one, where...

FADEL: OK.

ESTEFAN: ...Public health system is in a state of deterioration. There are shortages of essential medications. And 50 million Mexicans lack access to health services.

FADEL: Security, economy, health - sounds very reminiscent of what matters to voters here in the U.S. Lila, I want to bring you in here now. Mexico is the United States largest trading partner. Politicians here also talk a lot about immigration from the U.S. southern border and the drug trade. How closely is Washington watching this election as it thinks about its relationship with Mexico and its southern border?

LILA ABED: It really represents national security interests for the United States. Every 12 years, elections in Mexico and the United States coincide. And this year, whoever wins the National Palace and who wins the White House will dictate, in large part, the future of U.S.-Mexico bilateral relations. It's going to be incredibly important how the next U.S. president deals with the migration crisis at the U.S. southern border with the next Mexican president. I mean, Mexico can either strengthen or undermine U.S. border policies. And these shared challenges of migration, security and strengthening commercial ties between both nations is going to be critical not only for the next four years in the United States, but also with Mexico's next government.

FADEL: Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. use a lot of rhetoric around security and safety. It features heavily in campaign material around immigration, around the southern border. I mean, is there a candidate of these two that the U.S. favors?

ABED: Well, interestingly enough, Leila, both candidates were - both Xochitl Galvez and Claudia Sheinbaum have really not addressed how they're going to deal with migration and their distinct political platforms. They're very much focused on strengthening the human rights of migrants and protecting them if they're staying in Mexican territory, because in recent years, Mexico is no longer just a transit country. It is now a destination country that has absorbed thousands of migrants that are now staying in Mexico. And even though the U.S. is not necessarily cooperating and present at these discussions, in reality they're depending on Mexico's ability to cooperate with these leaders so that they can also address migration flows and therefore reduce them regionally and prevent them from coming to the U.S.-Mexico border.

FADEL: Brenda, I want to bring you back in here. Why do you think it - I mean, it's featured so heavily in the U.S. election. It really isn't a feature right now among the candidates in the election in Mexico. Why do you think that is? I mean, because it does impact life in Mexico.

ESTEFAN: There's a feeling within Mexicans that migration is just passing through Mexican soil and not staying. Only towns where they're starting to feel this presence or increased presence of migrants are a bit more concerned about the topic. Otherwise, people just feel like it's just people transiting to the U.S. - it has always been there - but which is being more evident nowadays with this increase in migration flows. And I think that's - that would be the main reason why Mexicans don't see it as a priority.

FADEL: Has the current Mexican government demonstrated that it can make life better for most Mexicans? And how does that impact the way Mexican voters view the two candidates - one an ally with the current president and one from the opposition?

ESTEFAN: In a way, this election has been presented by the government as a copy-paste of what President Lopez Obrador has been doing and saying. And so what we're going to see next Sunday - it's going to be whether Mexicans want to continue with this government, the democratic backsliding, the doxing of opposition leaders from the National Palace, the efforts to undermine the country's national electoral institute, the hindrance of the capacities of autonomous institutions and, of course, pressure to the judiciary to support the president's policies. Whether we are going to continue with this democratic backsliding or the Mexican electorate is going to decide a different way towards more democratic institutions and respect for the Mexican relatively young democracy.

ABED: So to Brenda's point, I think with Claudia Sheinbaum, who's the current Mexican president's protege, the real question with her is if she's going to be a true continuation of her predecessor, or if she's really going to make a mark of her own. And that's the big mystery ahead of the election. I would just conclude saying that the positive aspect under the Biden administration is that the bilateral relationship between the United States and Mexico is now institutionalized. So this will allow a certain stability to continue, despite who wins the presidency on both sides of the border. And that will hopefully continue to provide a positive relationship between both neighbors.

FADEL: Brenda Estefan of IPADE Business School, also a columnist at Reforma, and Lila Abed of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center. Thank you both so much for your time and your insights.

ABED: Thank you, Leila.

ESTEFAN: Thank you, Leila. It was a pleasure to be with you.

FADEL: And stay with us all week for more stories from Mexico heading into Sunday's election. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.