Latin America Advisor

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How Will Proposed Reforms Shape Mexico’s Politics?

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador last week proposed major constitutional reforms that could shape debate in the country’s election.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Feb. 5 proposed broad constitutional reforms, including overhauls of pensions, the judiciary, electoral law and environmental regulations, despite lacking the necessary majority in Congress to pass these changes into law. How will these proposed reforms shape the conversation around this year’s election and affect the upcoming vote? What are the most significant parts of the reforms? How likely is Mexico’s next president to push for these changes?

Andrés Rozental, member of the Advisor board, president of Rozental & Asociados and former deputy minister of foreign affairs of Mexico: “López Obrador’s main proposed constitutional reforms, coming only three months before Mexico’s presidential election, and seven months before the end of his six-year term in office, have very little chance of being adopted by the required two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress. Some had already been mooted earlier in AMLO’s presidency, while others are unlikely to overcome rejection by the opposition PRI, PAN and PRD political parties. The more polemical reforms, including giving social security retirees 100 percent of their last salary (something that doesn’t exist anywhere in the world), having all judges in the country elected by popular vote (only Bolivia experimented with this), abolishing all autonomous regulatory and governmental oversight bodies, and reducing the size of both houses of Congress, are almost sure to fail. Other, less controversial, changes such as making fentanyl illegal, protecting animal welfare (no more bullfights) and allowing passenger trains to use the country’s rail network, don’t require constitutional reforms at all. Mexico’s president is therefore clearly pushing this reform agenda mainly to set the agenda for the electoral campaigns that begin March 1, as well as to force the opposition candidates to assume responsibility for failure to pass legislation and thus to enhance his own party contender’s chances of election. There is, however, one chance that AMLO could achieve his goal of approving the reforms: if after election in early June his Morena movement and its allied parties obtain qualified majorities in Congress, then the president could use September, while he is still in office and the newly elected Congress is controlled by his movement, to ram through the constitutional changes he has proposed. Hopefully, enough Mexicans will go to the polls in June and vote to make this impossible.”

Aranzta Alonso, senior analyst for the Americas at Verisk Maplecroft:“By presenting a package of 20 reform initiatives just four months before Mexico’s presidential election and thereby dictating the priority issues in the run-up to the polls, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has shown–once more—that he has a tight grip over the national political narrative. The timing of the reforms has turned them into a powerful electoral strategy, as the conversations around them will likely influence the upcoming vote. Indeed, AMLO’s initiatives put the opposition on the spot.  On the one hand, if the opposition blocks all of the initiatives, including those that have broad popular support, such as the reforms related to pensions, welfare programs and the minimum wage—citizens could perceive it as resisting positive changes and thus turn to AMLO’s Morena movement in June. Conversely, any initiatives that are approved will provide ammunition to Morena, which could argue the need for continuity as the only path toward social progress. Moreover, given that the only ideological glue of the Fuerza y Corazón por México coalition (formed by the right-wing PAN, the catch-all PRI and the left-wing PRD) seems to be its rejection of AMLO and his government, providing a clear position on popular initiatives while maintaining internal unity could prove challenging.The most significant parts of the reforms include overhauling the judicial and electoral systems, eliminating autonomous institutions and regulators and bringing the National Guard under military rule. We expect these initiatives to face more resistance from both the opposition and the public.”

María Elisa Vera Madrigal, professor of criminal law at Escuela Libre de Derecho: “AMLO’s proposed constitutional reform comes with an unusual and politically advantageous time element. Five and a half years into his term, there is no doubt of his political genius: he is a brilliant politician who knows how to take control of the conversation, and every brilliant politician knows that every second of conversation should not be taken for granted during the pre-election months. So why move focus to an idyllic and unlikely set of reforms right before the election (especially when those amendments could have been passed many months in advance)? There are two possible answers:one, because, although, the presidency isn’t at risk, the composition of Congress still is; second, because levels of insecurity and social unrest in several regions of the country—particularly in the state of Guerrero—have been rising speedily, becoming a time bomb that must be addressed soon. While the president doesn’t want to bear the political cost of addressing the issue, he does want to keep the topic off the table (at least until the election). With Sheinbaum expected to triumph, the question, then, is not who wins the election, but whether she will rule with a majority in Congress and how much control the opposition will have of Congress. Losing congressional control might come as an additional complication to her presidency, which is not expected to run as smoothly as that of her predecessor. Indeed, the reforms are not meant to pass at this moment; they are meant to win as many votes as possible from the unhappy and undefined middle class, votes that could very much give Morena the counterweight in Congress they are hoping for.”

Earl Anthony Wayne, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and co-chair of its Mexico Institute Advisory Board: “President López Obrador’s 20 proposed reforms appear aimed at boosting his chosen successor, Claudia Sheinbaum, and his Morena party in Mexico’s June 2 election. They would protect and advance AMLO initiatives, concentrating more power in Mexico’s president, reducing checks and balances in its democracy, introducing elections for judges and bolstering the military’s public security role. AMLO’s presidential candidate, Claudia Sheinbaum, is 15-20 percent ahead in the polls, but AMLO wants his allies to win the two-thirds legislative majority to approve his recommended constitutional amendments. AMLO’s proposals seem aimed at keeping him in the limelight during the campaign season; they appear designed to knock the opposition off balance with proposals appealing to poorer Mexicans, including new salary and retirement benefits. Several propositions could well weaken Mexico’s electoral, legislative and administrative institutions, give the government more concentrated economic power regarding energy and regulation, and impose costly programs on his successors. From a U.S. perspective, some proposals threaten commitments made in the USMCA trade agreement and could harm U.S. businesses working in Mexico. Mexico is the United States’ largest trading partner and depends heavily on the American market, but AMLO’s proposed reforms would weaken regulatory institutions important for good USMCA implementation. AMLO also proposes to constitutionally ban genetically modified corn, despite major U.S. GMO corn exports to Mexico and a pending U.S. trade complaint. Strategically, the United States seeks a strong democratic Mexico to partner in building a more competitive and prosperous North America, but several of AMLO’s proposed changes send flashing red warnings.”

Lillian Briseño Senosiain, researcher at the National School of Education and Humanities at Technológico de Monterrey: “President López Obrador recently announced a series of constitutional reform initiatives that propose an important change toward the pension system and even the prevention of the sale of vapes and fentanyl. Like with everything that the president plans, the initiatives caused a stir on the national political scene. While for some, these represent important changes that favor the people, for others they are demagogic and unviable realistically. The pension reforms, for example, are considered impossible to realize because of the state of the economy and the cost of implementing the modifications. But further from whether these proposals are right for the country, many believe it’s useless to dedicate so much time to the discussion, considering that the president does not have the sufficient congressional votes to approve them, which transform them into sterile ideas that will not pass. In this sense, the initiatives that AMLO announced will be mere distractions in an election season that, by suggesting the impossible, are designed to animate his followers and have a great impact on votes favoring Morena. Regardless of whether these pieces of legislation pass or are considered good or bad, there should always be space to debate, in a rational and respectful way, the viability and convenience of any proposal.”

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