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Mexico is set to make history by electing its first female president

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Mexico is marking a moment in history. Unless there is a seismic upset in the ensuing months, the country appears all but certain to be on course to elect its first female head of state in next year's elections. This comes after, late yesterday, the governing Morena party selected the former mayor of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum, to be its candidate. She will face businesswoman and senator Xochitl Galvez, who was selected last week as the main opposition coalition's candidate. NPR's Eyder Peralta is in Mexico City. Hi there.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: How significant is this moment in Mexican politics? Was it a surprise?

PERALTA: It is big, and it was a surprise because it's likely to mark the shattering of a glass ceiling in what is a notoriously patriarchal society. But it's also not surprising because it's taken hard and long work on the part of women in Mexico. We can go back to 1953, when women gained the right to vote. But I think we should go back to the late '90s, when Mexico started imagining what a multiparty democracy would look like. And women back there, feminists back there pushed the view that democracy could only exist if an equal participation of women was guaranteed.

And they made sure that those were not just words. Slowly, Mexico instituted quotas in government positions, and in 2019, Mexico passed a constitutional amendment guaranteeing parity in every aspect of government. So today, Mexico's Congress is 50% women. The president's cabinet is balanced. The Supreme Court president is a woman. So is the central bank's governor. And not that this is a competition, but we should note that when it comes to gender equality, Mexico is far ahead of the United States. The Inter-Parliamentary Union, which keeps tabs on women lawmakers, ranks Mexico fourth in the world when it comes to parity. It ranks the United States 71st. Only about 28% of American lawmakers are women.

SHAPIRO: So tell us about these two women, one of whom is likely to be Mexico's next leader.

PERALTA: So who they are is actually the surprising bit. Both of these women are unlikely protagonists in Mexican politics. Sheinbaum is an environmental engineer, and Galvez is a computer engineer. Both of them were brought out of civilian life by presidents. Galvez was appointed to deal with Indigenous issues by former President Vicente Fox. And Sheinbaum dealt with environmental issues when current President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was the mayor of Mexico City. Galvez also identifies as Indigenous, and she speaks the Nahnu language. And Sheinbaum is Jewish. She was the first Jewish and woman mayor for Mexico City. And barring, as you mentioned, some miraculous third-party win, either Claudia Sheinbaum or Xochitl Galvez will be elected Mexico's first woman president next summer.

SHAPIRO: And how are people in Mexico reacting to that fact?

PERALTA: I think people on the streets appreciate the history. Let me play you a little bit of tape from Maria Luisa Hernandez, who is a 65-year-old secretary.

MARIA LUISA HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: And she's saying, "this is a great opportunity for Mexico because the time for women has arrived. I know," she says, "that we're a machista and corrupt country, but this woman will triumph." And I think that sentiment is widespread here. Mexicans are yearning for a different country. They want justice. They want transparency. They want equality. And people here feel like men haven't been able to deliver. So maybe women will. It also tells you that whoever takes power, the expectations are going to be out of this world.

SHAPIRO: Finally, Eyder, let me ask you about a different story that relates to gender rights in Mexico. The Supreme Court ruled to decriminalize abortion across the country. What did the judgment say?

PERALTA: Well, the Supreme Court threw out all federal criminal penalties for abortions, and that means that federal health facilities and federal health insurance will have to provide abortions. Abortion rights groups are calling the decision historic. It will open up access to abortions to millions of Mexicans. But this is not full legalization. Some 20 Mexican states still criminalize abortion, and those laws still stand. But it's clear that abortion rights advocates will try to - will start trying to change those state laws.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Eyder Peralta in - on history being made in Mexico City. Thank you very much.

PERALTA: Thank you, Ari. 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.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.