Analysis-Mexico City mayoral race tightens on anger over water shortages

By Thomson Reuters Mar 15, 2024 | 7:02 AM

By Diego Oré

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Just a few months ago ruling party candidate Clara Brugada looked like a shoo-in to be elected the next mayor of Mexico City. But a worsening water crisis has many voters rethinking their choice to run Mexico’s largest and most important city.

A severe nationwide drought has hit the capital particularly hard, and with it has come growing criticism of Morena – the party that has run the city and the country for the past six years.

In November, Brugada, a 60-year-old economist, had the backing of 47% of potential voters compared to 34% for opposition alliance candidate Santiago Taboada, according to a poll by newspaper El Financiero. By early March, the gap had tightened to 8 percentage points.

Internal polls conducted for Brugada’s team, and shared with Reuters, show the race as even narrower.

“There is fear,” a source working on Brugada’s campaign told Reuters on condition of anonymity. “In some internal polls they’re already nipping at our heels. The water problem is taking its toll on us.”

Spokespeople for Brugada and Taboada did not respond to requests for comment.

In February, for the first time, water scarcity surpassed security as the main concern of Mexico City’s almost 10 million residents, with the percentage of voters flagging the issue more than tripling from May, according to a survey by Aragon, a research firm.

In Iztapalapa, a sprawling poor neighborhood, people rise early to source water, lining up to fill buckets from government water trucks. Often, government supply does not meet demand and users must wait until late at night or pay private tankers.

“I was thinking of voting for Morena, but they are responsible for us now not having water,” said Martin Juarez, an Iztapalapa resident.

For sure, the roots of the Mexican capital’s water problems go back decades. Under-investment and poor planning resulted in a system plagued by leaks and unequal distribution.

But with left-wing parties ruling Mexico City since 1997, voters are broadly blaming Morena and its rival the PRD for the shortages, with a particular focus on the incumbent.

Taboada, a 38-year-old politician for the conservative PAN party, has made water scarcity a central issue of his election campaign. A former municipal governor, he has promised to immediately address the water shortages through plans to improve collection, management and reuse.

The opposition blames the government for the decades of neglect and warns the city could run dry. Brugada, a former government leader of Iztapalapa, has rejected that as a “lie.”

Mexico City is the country’s beating economic and political heart and the job of mayor is one of the top jobs, as well as a common launching pad for a future presidential bid – as it was for the current leading candidate Claudia Sheinbaum.

A loss for Morena would be a huge blow for the party, an electoral juggernaut in recent years, although the water shortages are seen by pollsters as unlikely to play a significant role in June’s presidential election.

The growing role of water scarcity in voter decisions is, however, a potential window into the political future of Mexico and further afield as climate change increasingly impacts people’s lives. In Mexico, scientists predict there will be worsening droughts in the capital and north.

The Cutzamala System – made up of three dams and supplying 25% of the water consumed in the capital and almost half of that in the adjoining State of Mexico – is at 40% capacity, an historic low.

Last year was the driest and hottest since the 1940s, according to official figures, which meant reservoirs did not refill as much as usual. Authorities warn that if the Cutzamala System levels fall further, they could be forced to cut off supply entirely.

“The water crisis is getting worse,” said Gibran Ramirez, a founding member of Morena and political analyst who now represents opposition party Citizens’ Movement. “Without a doubt it will be an issue in the elections.”

(Reporting by Diego Oré; Editing by Stephen Eisenhammer and Rosalba O’Brien)