López Obrador’s Reforms Threaten Mexican Democracy

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has flatlined the country’s economy, damaged its energy sector, and silenced critics. Now, he has his sights set on Mexico’s fragile democracy.

Mexico’s Senate approved a legislative overhaul of Mexico’s National Electoral Institute (INE) in late February. The reforms, spearheaded by López Obrador, would slash the agency’s budget, shrink civil service staffing, and strip the agency’s independence ahead of the 2024 presidential elections. The worry is that these reforms—the president’s second bite at the apple—signal a larger trend away from the democratic system that has dominated in Mexico for more than two decades, making voting more difficult and reducing trust in elections. By gutting the INE, one of the country’s most revered and respected agencies, López Obrador threatens to end the longest period of political stability and democratic governance in Mexico’s modern history—much of which has been owed to the watchdog role played by the INE. 

“There are some real concerns about whether Mexicans will continue to believe in their democratic system and their democratic institutions if the reforms play out the way President López Obrador seems to want, in the sense that he wants the legislation to be upheld,” said Andrew Rudman, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center.

López Obrador’s gambit is the latest in a line of incumbent power grabs in the hemisphere, including insurrections and doubt about electoral integrity stoked by former U.S. President Donald Trump and former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, former Peruvian President Pedro Castillo’s attempt to dissolve Congress late last year, and El Salvadorian President Nayib Bukele’s widespread undermining of democratic controls. And López Obrador himself can’t even run in 2024—he just wants to make sure the dedazo finds the right candidate—meaning that his chosen successor makes their way into office.

“Our countries are not isolated islands,” said Lorenzo Córdova Vianello, director of INE. “We, as Mexicans, were worried about what was happening in Brazil—the largest democracy in Latin America—because we are aware of a domino effect. And I think what is happening right now in Mexico, which is not an isolated case, there are a lot of links with what is happening in American democracy, or Brazilian democracy, or even in other parts of the world.”

In weakening democratic institutions, incumbents across the Americas in recent elections have made desperate attempts to strengthen or perpetuate their grasps on power. With the INE reforms, López Obrador is making it easier for incumbents and their parties, like his Morena coalition, as well as other groups to challenge electoral outcomes if they don’t like them, Rudman said. 

The latest reforms were “plan B,” following a failed attempt at a sweeping constitutional reform last December that sought even more extreme measures to restrict electoral agencies and remove their independence. López Obrador, whose grievances with the INE date back to his failed 2006 and 2012 presidential bids, said these changes would guarantee “clean and free” elections. But they will likely have the opposite effect and help usher López Obrador’s preferred successor into office.

The irony is that López Obrador was elected to succeed an unpopular president from the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ran Mexico for most of the time from its revolution more than a century ago until a couple of decades back. But the changes signal López Obrador’s nostalgia for his own days in the PRI and a yearning for one-party rule, said Juan Cruz, former senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council in the Trump administration. 

“The backsliding would be returning to something where you guarantee that you close a space for opposition parties,” Cruz said. “The opposition parties in Mexico are a little disorganized right now, trying to find their way, but he’s trying to make sure that they stay in a corner.”

The INE reforms are the latest, and perhaps highest-profile, of the Mexican president’s moves. But for years, he has demonized the media, lionized the military, and belittled his political opposition. There has been a long trend of “really significant anti-democratic instincts” in López Obrador, said Thomas Carothers, co-director of the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“He has shown some troubling instincts of lack of tolerance for opposition, a willingness to compromise with a military that has deeply anti-democratic characteristics, and a willingness to challenge traditional institutions,” Carothers said.

For Rudman, the parallels between Mexico’s current institutional reforms and the early days of some of the established authoritarian regimes in Latin America today, including Venezuela and Nicaragua, are too glaring to ignore. 

“If you look at how [Hugo] Chávez came to power in Venezuela or [Daniel] Ortega in Nicaragua, to pick two countries, they started out playing within the democratic system. And then, once in power, started trying to subvert the system to remain in power,” Rudman said.

The reforms aren’t a done deal yet: The Mexican Supreme Court still has a say. Although the reforms represent a “real threat” to democracy, said former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda, he remains optimistic that they’ll be struck down.

“It’s obvious that almost all of the elements of this reform are unconstitutional,” Castañeda said. “People from Morena itself have said that they know it’s unconstitutional, but they don’t care. And I think that at this stage, the government doesn’t have the four secure votes that it needs in the Supreme Court for it to be sustained.”

The waves of massive protests in several Mexican cities, including a crowd of more than 500,000 people in Mexico City, in defense of INE have demonstrated Mexicans’ desire to uphold the two-party system. They are also a signal to the Supreme Court that there is strong public opposition against the reforms.

“We have to expect continued trouble for Mexico. But fortunately, as the protests about the electoral authority showed, Mexico is a very pluralist society with a lot of people who believe in democracy and stand up to protect institutions,” Carothers said.

Mexico—which has only held what are considered free and fair elections since 2000, when Vicente Fox was elected president with the National Action Party (PAN)—is “a democracy in diapers,” Castañeda said. That is why it’s crucial that Mexicans channel these civil society protests electorally when the time comes, he said. And, as several countries in the Americas have seen during recent years, democracy is not an easy road.

According to Freedom House’s latest Freedom in the World report, nine of the 35 countries in the Americas saw a decline in their scores since last year. Among the worst-performing countries in the region are Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and most recently, Haiti.

“Even though the gap between the countries that improved and the countries that declined in our report this year has declined for the first time in 17 years, the larger trend of backsliding continues,” said Gerardo Berthin, vice president of international programs at Freedom House. “And Latin America is on the same path.”

The backsliding trend across the Americas is especially marked by the closing of civic spaces and civil society, attacks on democratic institutions from within, incumbent institutional restructuring, impunity for corruption, disregard for human rights, and the influence of other actors like organized crime networks and anti-democratic forces from China, Russia, Iran, and Cuba, Berthin said.

But Berthin noted that 22 of the 35 countries in the Americas are staying the democratic course, and four nations are even improving. Colombia, in particular, moved from “partially free” to “free” in Freedom House’s latest report, jumping six points from last year. Brazil was able to regain its democratic footing following Bolsonaro’s aborted insurrection on Jan. 8. And other countries are operating, at present, without notable interruptions, including Argentina, which will hold federal elections later this year, as well as Uruguay, which has elections in 2024.

Still, in a hemisphere that has seen leaders rise to power through charismatic leadership and populistic ideals only to reveal their authoritarian intentions and machinations down the line, there’s reason to be cautious, Berthin said.

“As long as institutions are being undermined by personalistic or caudillo-like figures, I think the vulnerability of democratic gains will continue to be the trend,” Berthin said.

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