In Mexico Election, López Obrador’s Grip on Congress Slips

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MEXICO CITY — Voters in Mexico tapped the brakes on President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s ambitious plans to overhaul the country’s economy and society by narrowing his leftist coalition’s majority in Congress in midterm elections on Sunday.

The governing Morena party was expected to hold between 190 and 203 seats in Mexico’s lower house of Congress, a decline of up to 60 lawmakers, according to preliminary results released late on Sunday night by the country’s electoral board.

Although Morena, together with allies, will still be the dominant force in the 500-seat legislature, the coalition is expected to fall well short of the two-thirds majority required to push through the most sweeping aspects of Mr. López Obrador’s agenda.

“It’s a powerful reversal,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a political analyst and professor at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City.

Morena has also suffered heavy losses in Mexico’s capital, a megalopolis of nine million that had voted for leftist candidates since 1997, losing seats in the local assembly and key municipal offices. The defeats in Mexico City were an important blow to the government, symbolically as well as substantively, underlining the ebbing of support for Mr. López Obrador’s project among the country’s educated middle class, said Genaro Lozano, a political scientist at Mexico’s Iberoamerican University.

While many aspects of Mr. López Obrador’s agenda are already underway, such as the construction of major infrastructure, the election results will make other changes more difficult. In particular, the results will hinder Mr. López Obrador’s flagship plan to return Mexico’s energy sector to state control.

Despite the president’s enduring popularity, especially among the poor, the results appear to show the limits of his popular mandate to change the nation under a bold program he has billed Mexico’s “Fourth Transformation.”

In a silver lining for the government, Mr. López Obrador’s coalition was expected to make major gains in the more than 20,000 local and regional offices also contested in Mexico’s largest-ever elections, deepening Morena’s national reach and cementing the ascendancy of a party that was founded less than 10 years ago.

The elections were marred by one of Mexico’s worst waves of political violence, underlining Mr. López Obrador’s challenge on confronting crime, which polls showed was one of the voters’ main concerns.

Thirty-four candidates were killed during the campaign and dozens of polling stations were shut down by armed assailants, or out of fear of retribution. A human head was thrown at the entrance of one polling station in the city of Tijuana, on the border with the United States, and body parts were found nearby. It was not immediately clear to authorities who did it, or why.

The Mexican peso rallied nearly one percent in early Monday trading, one of the best performances among emerging market currencies, suggesting the business sector was reacting positively to new checks on Mr. López Obrador’s power.

The main opposition parties performed better than expected at the polls, after deciding to put aside major ideological differences and confront Mr. López Obrador in a coalition. The pro-business National Action Party will be the biggest opposition force in Congress, with 106 to 117 seats. An opposition candidate also led the preliminary results in the governor’s race for the state of Nuevo León, Mexico’s economic powerhouse.

Mr. López Obrador has spent much of his three years in power attacking opposition parties and independent institutions such as Mexico’s electoral commission as wasteful or downright corrupt, widening the political schisms in Mexican society, said the political analysts. Now, in order to push the more radical changes he is pursuing, the president faces the choice of doubling down on his polarizing approach and trying to govern by presidential decrees or negotiating with the opposition, they added.

Governing by decree could prove challenging: To date, most of the president’s landmark laws are tied up in Mexico’s courts, which so far have resisted presidential pressure to allow the bills to take effect.

“We’re seeing a ruling party that’s been humbled, that will need to negotiate from now on,” said Mr. Lozano, the political scientist. “We are far from political hegemony.”

On Monday morning, during his regular news conference, Mr. López Obrador appeared to strike a more conciliatory tone.

“Unlike in previous times, the state did not intervene,” he said. “The people spoke — they decided who should represent them.”

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