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Mexico’s president depicts Sunday’s congressional, state and local elections as the last opportunity to keep conservatives from returning to power, while opponents say it is a twilight battle to defend the country’s democratic institutions against a powerful populist. Security analysts worry that gangs and drug cartels are playing a role in local politics in some towns, after the killings of about three dozen candidates.

There’s a bit of truth in all those perspectives. But drug cartels have long tried to control local government in Mexico and the conservative opposition is so rudderless it probably won’t come back anytime soon. And despite President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s hostility to critical voices in the media, the courts or regulatory agencies, he so far hasn’t taken strong action against them.

What truly could emerge from Sunday’s vote is a clearer picture of whether López Obrador’s movement, built on his personal popularity and little else, will outlast him. López Obrador is barred from seeking reelection, and for a man who has been campaigning unceasingly for 32 years, this may be the last election he plays a leading role in.

For such a powerful movement — despite one of the world’s highest per-capita death tolls in the pandemic, López Obrador still polls over 50% in approval ratings — the president’s “Fourth Transformation” doesn’t seem to have a clear direction beyond completing the projects already announced, and his Morena party may well fail Sunday in its bid to become a truly nationwide force.

Morena may hold on to the majority it now holds with allies in Congress, but the party seems unlikely to win governorships in northern states where it is weak. Even so, despite a slower than expected economic recovery and his party’s constant internal disarray, López Obrador himself is doing fine, thank you.

Like Britain’s Boris Johnson or America’s Donald Trump, López Obrador’s mishandling of the start of the pandemic doesn’t appear to have hurt him all that much; people are more likely to remember the end of the story — Mexico’s ability to finally get vaccines — than the terrible beginning, said Federico Estevez, a political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

“It doesn’t matter, people aren’t voting based on performance anymore,” Estevez said. “They’re voting on what they like or dislike.”

There is no shortage of dire predictions by academics, activists and members of the conservative opposition that López Obrador is trying to tear down the safeguards and independent watchdog agencies built up — at huge cost to taxpayers — since the old ruling party began to lose power in 1997.

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