Mexicans are mobilizing to protect their eroding democracy

National Electoral Institute (INE) Session
Luis Barron / Eyepix Group/Future Publishing via Getty Images

A set of reforms to the country’s independent elections agency are the latest anti-democratic move by Mexico’s president.

This Sunday, for the second time in less than a year tens of thousands of Mexicans will fill their capital city’s main public square to protest their president’s goal of remaking Mexico’s independent elections agency, sounding a siren that Mexican democracy is at a tipping point.

These reforms would severely cut the agency’s budget and its staffing (and thereby its ability to administer local elections), limit its autonomy, and restrict its ability to punish political candidates who break electoral laws.

Unlike the first protest in November, this time the demonstration might be too late: the changes to the elections agency, the National Electoral Institute (el INE, as it’s known by its Spanish acronym), have already been approved by the Mexican Congress (the senate passed the proposal on Wednesday). Commonly known as the “Plan B,” the legislation is headed to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s desk for final passage, and upon signing, would amount to the biggest overhaul of the country’s election system in nearly a decade.

The reforms are the culmination of “a very clear political strategy, to sell the INE as a biased, partial authority,” the INE’s director told the New York Times after the vote. And they fit into a broader effort by López Obrador, known also by his initials, AMLO, to consolidate power in the executive branch during his term and with his political party, which controls both chambers of Congress, a majority of the country’s governorships, a plurality of state legislatures, and the influential mayoralty of Mexico City.

Opposition parties, civil society groups, and citizens who oppose the measure still have one hope to hold off the implementation of the changes. Mexico’s Supreme Court is likely to take up a challenge to the reform in the coming months.

If the changes are carried out, electoral officials, academics, and activists say the future of free and fair elections in Mexico, including the presidential and congressional elections next year, will be in jeopardy and may be marred by the distrust and corruption that sparked the INE’s creation in the first place.

American observers also view the reforms with distrust.

“By approving President López Obrador’s proposal to slash the National Electoral Institute’s funding and oversight capabilities, the Mexican Congress has imperiled the future of its country’s democratic institutions,” the Democratic and Republican chairmen of both the Senate and House foreign affairs committees said in a statement early Friday evening. “Returning Mexico to its dark past of presidentially controlled elections not only sets the clock back on its democracy, but also U.S.-Mexico relations.”

What Mexico’s “Plan B” does, and how it will impact elections in 2024

These changes are the second time AMLO has attempted to use the legal process to interfere with and adjust the way the highly respected oversight body operates. Attacking the institute has been a theme of his candidacy that he has carried into office. He first proposed a constitutional reform to the electoral system last year that was blocked by the lower house of Congress in December.

That first effort would have replaced the INE with a National Electoral and Consultation Institute (INEC) in charge of administering and overseeing all federal and state-level elections with a seven-member panel directly elected by the public (a third of the candidates standing in that election would be selected by the president, congress, and the supreme court). Currently, the 11 members of INE’s leadership board are selected by a nominating committee and confirmed by Congress to staggered 9-year terms, which are meant to outlast congressional and presidential tenures (Mexican presidents serve for six years and cannot be reelected) and restrain political influence. Four of the 11 members of this current board were appointed during AMLO’s presidency.

Thousands of people join a march from the Angel of Independence statue to the Monument to the Revolution in Mexico City to protest against AMLO’s electoral reforms in November 2022.
Marco Rodriguez / Eyepix Group/Future Publishing via Getty Images
Thousands of people join a march from the Angel of Independence statue to the Monument to the Revolution in Mexico City to protest against AMLO’s electoral reforms in November 2022.

The measure was likely to fail even before being formally proposed in Congress: though AMLO’s party, Morena, and two allied parties control both houses of the legislature, constitutional changes in Mexico require a two-thirds majority vote in Congress, which he does not have. Still, he came up with a “Plan B” — keep the INE, but severely hamper its operations, budget, and internal processes through the standard lawmaking process in Congress that only requires a simple majority.

AMLO and his allies say the cuts are an attempt to save millions of dollars, improve a bloated bureaucracy, eliminate avenues for possible corruption, and make voting easier, including for Mexicans living abroad. Those specific budget cuts fit into the fiscal austerity that AMLO frequently invokes when talking about his economic agenda: “They have a large bureaucratic apparatus with very high salaries,” he said in December, after the senate passed the first version of the Plan B. “With this reform some areas will be shrunken so that more can be done with less.”

But the savings may be modest, while still delegitimizing the agency as it oversees two gubernatorial elections this year and general elections next year.

The INE, which has been fighting back against the president’s criticisms and attacks, said in a report it commissioned that the budget cuts would mean losing up to 85 percent of its professional staff. That loss of staffing would, in turn, hamstring the agency’s ability to staff and administer polling places, keep voter rolls up to date, and carry out civic education programs — amounting to a violation of civil rights and harming the legitimacy of elections.

“The efforts to restrain INE’s ability to carry out elections under the guise of saving money are really worrisome,” Andrew Rudman, the director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, said in an earlier interview. “Most of the time you’re not going to be able to cut the budget of an independent agency enough to make an impact. But more importantly, INE is such a highly trusted independent agency in Mexico that it’s essential that it retains its autonomy because that’s what gives people faith in elections.”

AMLO’s reforms fit a broader erosion of democratic norms in Mexico

These reforms are not the first time that AMLO has lashed out at the oversight body. Before winning the presidency in 2018, he had lost presidential elections twice before in 2006 and 2012 — losses certified by the INE (at the time, it was known as the IFE, the Federal Election Institute). Both defeats still sting him — but the 2006 loss holds particular sway both with him and his supporters.

Since the turn of the century, the INE has been broadly popular (about 60 percent of Mexicans view it favorably, despite AMLO’s attacks last year) and celebrated internationally for facilitating the rise of Mexico’s modern democracy. Autocrats and juntas have ruled Mexico for most of its post-colonial history, but the 2000 election saw an opposition party candidate win the presidency after decades of one-party rule. That peaceful transfer of power was only possible because of the INE.

Then came the bitter 2006 election, which AMLO lost by less than a percentage point and which he still holds, without hard evidence, was stolen from him. Many have tried to compare that “stolen election” narrative to the voter-fraud conspiracies that have taken root in western democracies since 2020, but the 2006 election and its aftermath was a whole other beast that tested the foundations of Mexican democracy: AMLO, who was mayor of Mexico City before running for president, seemed like the favorite to win the election. But as the race tightened, he grew more conspiratorial, raising the specter of voter fraud and ballot stuffing. On election night, the IFE found the race too close to call; days later, it declared Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, the candidate from the incumbent president’s party, the winner by a tiny margin. AMLO demanded a recount saying he’d respect the IFE’s review, but called his supporters to occupy key parts of the capital city. He ultimately rejected the results, calling the whole process “old-school fraud,” and led a monthslong effort to delegitimize Calderón and his government: he appointed his own shadow cabinet, held his own inauguration in Mexico City’s central plaza, and AMLO’s allies in Congress even tried to prevent Calderón’s inauguration.

To this day, the “fraud of 2006” is etched into the memories of many Mexicans, especially AMLO’s most hardcore supporters. He has turned it into a cornerstone of his ongoing “fourth transformation” of Mexico: his effort to remake Mexican politics, economics, and society by improving public safety, helping the poor, and ending political corruption and the grip of elites and those who he deems “conservatives” (anyone who opposes him and his party’s agenda).

But that populist, revolutionary framework has clashed with Mexico’s institutions, press, opposition parties, and foreign obligations, like the free trade agreements Mexico signed with the United States and Canada. In the face of his fourth transformation, democratic norms have tended to get in the way, and AMLO has spent countless hours attacking journalists and columnists, non-governmental organizations, civil rights groups, and independent agencies like the National Commission on Human Rights, the Transparency and Freedom of Information Institute, and, now, the INE — all of which he lumps together as the faces of the old regime he’s trying to end.

Under this lens, it makes sense to still dwell on the 2006 election, “not just because they stole the presidency from me,” as AMLO said in 2019, but because of what came next: more than a decade and half of violence and death in Mexico, spurred by a struggle against drug cartels, criminal syndicates, and American demand for illegal drugs. “If we hadn’t had the fraud of 2006, the country wouldn’t be like it is … They installed Calderón, and his first decision, his first act, was to declare war on narcotrafficking without understanding the root causes,” AMLO has said.

AMLO’s case was boosted this week with the guilty verdict of Genaro García Luna in a Brooklyn federal court on Tuesday: convicted of taking millions of dollars in bribes from the Sinaloa drug cartel, García Luna was Calderon’s top law enforcement officer, charged with leading the war against the criminal syndicate whose payroll he was on. “Justice has arrived for the former squire of Felipe Calderón,” tweeted AMLO’s spokesman. “The crimes against our people will never be forgotten.”

In the senate the next day, members of AMLO’s party unfurled posters and carried signs lumping the INE protestors in with García Luna, Calderón, and Mexico’s first president elected in a free and fair election, Vicente Fox Quesada.

This week demonstrates the interconnected problems of violent crime, drug trafficking, democracy, and rule of law — something the Biden administration has been hesitant to discuss directly or publicly with Mexico and AMLO (the White House did not reply to requests to comment on the approval of the INE reforms). The US needs AMLO’s cooperation to address the flow of deadly drugs and migrants into the country — all American presidents have needed the help of their southern neighbor. But as AMLO slowly erodes Mexico’s democracy, “that presidency presides over less and less of Mexico,” David Frum has written at The Atlantic. Over the last three presidencies, the Mexican state has lost more and more influence and control over its country. As the recent violent uprising by the Sinaloa cartel in Culiacan state demonstrated, armed criminal syndicates have the power and numbers to take on the Mexican military and state head on. Violence, in turn, fuels distrust in democracy and the rule of law, which is already taking a hit by the slow but constant assaults of Mexico’s head of state. Though these problems might not seem to have a direct impact on the average American’s daily life, they have trickle down effects through increased migration and illicit drug availability and thus – overdoses.

On Sunday, Mexicans will chant two slogans: “El INE no se toca” and “Mi voto no se toca” — both calls for the government to keep its hands off the INE and the right to vote. What comes next may either be a rebuke of AMLO’s tendencies, or the first step in securing even more power for his political party and a populist movement that will outlast his six-year term.

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