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What Would AMLO’s Election Reforms Mean for Mexico?

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador last month proposed a package of election reforms. One of the changes would eliminate the body that oversees elections and replace it with a new agency. // File Photo: Mexican Government. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador last month proposed a package of election reforms. One of the changes would eliminate the body that oversees elections and replace it with a new agency. // File Photo: Mexican Government.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on April 28 proposed a series of wide-ranging reforms for Mexico’s electoral system. The reform would dissolve the National Electoral Institute (INE), which oversees elections, and replace it with a directly elected body with less funding than the INE. What do the proposed electoral system reforms entail, and how would they affect the legitimacy of elections in Mexico? How likely is it that the Mexican Congress will approve the reforms? How do the Mexican people feel about the proposed changes, and how would the reforms affect the 2024 presidential election?

Gerónimo Gutiérrez Fernández, senior advisor at Covington & Burling and former Mexican ambassador to the United States: “As anticipated last year, President López Obrador just proposed a reform of Mexico’s electoral system. Among the changes, three of them stand out: the creation of a new national electoral authority whose members would be directly voted in by ‘the people’ and also manage state and local elections, cuts to public funding and media time for political parties, and a reconfiguring of Congress. This last point deserves close attention. The reform would not only eliminate 200 (out of 500) proportional representation seats in the lower house, but also the remaining 300 would be elected by statewide lists from parties rather than districts. This gives parties—especially the president’s—not citizens more influence on who gets elected. It is safe to say the proposal was dead on arrival. López Obrador lacks the supermajority in Congress for constitutional reforms. Moreover, the opposition remains adamantly against it. Yet, he will seek support from ‘the people’ and polarize society with his proposal. It is still worrisome. The president has publicly expressed his distrust and opinion of today’s National Electoral Institute (INE), the authority under which he was elected. It seems that he would like to have a new one that bends to his will. Traditionally, in Mexico, electoral reforms have come from the opposition, not the sitting government. The president argues that the changes would save money and strengthen democracy. Independent experts disagree with this view. The reform looks more like something out of the autocratic populism trick bag than a democrat’s way of saving money.”

Pamela K. Starr, senior advisor at Monarch Global Strategies and professor at the University of Southern California: “AMLO’s proposed electoral reform would gut the institutions that have guaranteed democratic practices for a generation and change the way federal legislators are elected in order to lock in Morena’s legislative majorities for a long time. It would mark the end of Mexican democracy as we have known it. The reform would replace the INE and the Federal Electoral Tribunal (TEPJF) with new entities whose members are elected from a list of 60 names proposed by the president, the Supreme Court and Congress. With so many candidates and with no requirement for expertise in organizing and monitoring elections, the winners would likely be selected exclusively on political criteria. The resulting electoral institute would thus be highly politicized. New election districts would parallel Mexico’s 32 states, creating very large, proportional representation districts naturally favoring the majority party. At the same time, eliminating state funding for political parties’ operational expenses is apt to increase the amount of dirty money financing campaigns. Since the political opposition is highly unlikely to vote for a reform that directly undermines its interests, this constitutional reform has little chance of being approved. But that does not mean it will not benefit the Fourth Transformation. Opposition legislators voting against this reform will be tarred as elitist politicians more concerned with their personal interests than the national interest. And even without the reform, deep expected cuts to the INE’s budget will hinder its capacity to oversee future election rules, which Morena demonstrated a willingness to break during the recent recall referendum.”

Lila Abed, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center: “President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s electoral reform, which aims to reduce the size of Congress by eliminating proportional representation and selecting Mexico’s electoral regulators and justices by direct vote rather than through the legislature, is almost guaranteed to fail. The president’s party lacks the necessary supermajority to approve the bill, and the opposition seems unified in voting against it. Reactions so far have been negative, with the exception of AMLO’s fervent supporters. AMLO’s objective is to ramp up his electoral base—blaming the ‘neoliberals’ for trying to preserve a political system that caters to the elite—and to bend yet another democratic institution in favor of the governing party, Morena. AMLO’s so-called transformation of the National Electoral Institute (INE) is consistent with his distaste for independent bodies that limit executive power. If the bill passes, it would politicize what is currently an apolitical body (despite Morena’s views to the contrary). This, combined with budget cuts, would lead to less access to democracy, not more. It is a political stunt to win the 2024 presidential election, promoted as a necessary measure to strengthen direct democracy. If successful, political parties would have reduced resources in 2024, surviving purely on contributions and quotas from their members. The new electoral authorities, chosen by Morena sympathizers given their majority in Congress, would oversee the electoral process backstopped by a judiciary that has shown a tendency to favor AMLO’s policies. The approval of the electoral reform would be a win for AMLO at the detriment of Mexican democracy.” 

Nicolás Mariscal, member of the Advisor board and chairman of Grupo Marhnos: “Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s electoral reform entails the end of the National Electoral Institute’s (INE) independence and the demise of the electoral public service. It would severely affect the legitimacy of elections, as only an autonomous body with professional and apolitical public servants can deliver reliable results. Let’s not forget that a stepping stone in Mexico’s transition to democracy was, precisely, the birth of a specialized and independent body, enshrined in the Constitution. However, it is highly unlikely that Congress will approve this reform. Opposition political parties have clearly stated so and, as the president’s party and its allies do not have enough votes for constitutional reform, the bill will be short-lived. Both the president and the INE have a good image among the population. A recent survey by Reforma newspaper found that the president has a 66 percent approval rating, and the INE has 64 percent approval. Still, a majority supports the president’s reform: 61 percent said they favored it, whereas 30 percent opposed it. The good news is that a slight majority is against a dominant party in Congress, and there is a broad consensus that the electoral authorities should be experts in their field. As the saying goes: ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.’ And the Mexican electoral system works very well.” 

Alma Caballero, director at McCarty Associates: “President López Obrador (AMLO) has spent decades battling election officials in Mexico. Though imperfect and with room for continued improvement, Mexico’s democratic structures should not be broken. The National Electoral Institute (INE) is one of Mexico’s most treasured and trusted institutions (with an approximately 65 percent approval rating), and it has been at the forefront of the country’s democratic processes. However, AMLO deems the independent body as anti-democratic and politically biased against his government. As part of the latest series of back and forth, AMLO has proposed dramatic reforms that would severely dismantle the INE as well as the country’s electoral system. Among the proposed changes, the reforms would reduce the size of Congress and eliminate state-level electoral bodies while electing the INE’s federal election board by popular vote every six years. The proposals would also create a new election authority, the National Institute of Elections and Consultations (INEC), to carry out all elections in the country. Political parties would receive funding only during campaigns, and the rules for government program promotion during campaigns would be eased. In the unlikely event that Congress approves the reforms (which would require a two-thirds majority), a reduction in federal funding for political parties and elections in general would be enacted. This comes after the AMLO administration has continuously cut the INE’s funding—most recently reducing its budget by nearly $250 million. This ‘budgetary blackmail,’ as the INE’s president, Lorenzo Cordova, called it, is likely to continue throughout the administration and affect Mexico’s democratic future. This is yet another example of AMLO’s focus on enacting austerity measures and solidifying his mandate by lashing out against his critics, questioning the value of independent institutions and undermining institutional checks and balances.”

Rubén Olmos Rodríguez, president of Global Nexus: “López Obrador’s electoral reform initiative would reduce the cost of the elections by replacing the National Electoral Institute (INE) with the National Institute of Elections and Consultations. It would reduce the number of electoral councilors elected by popular vote (from 11 to seven), change political parties’ financing model, reduce the number of legislators and eliminate state electoral bodies, among other changes. This would mean a setback for Mexican democracy. The bill would centralize the elections, giving greater control to the ruling party. The reduction of legislators implies an underrepresentation of the opposition and small political parties. Moreover, the selection of electoral councilors by popular vote and the elimination of ordinary financing for political parties could result in a more significant interference of organized crime in the electoral processes. Morena needs the support of the opposition to approve the constitutional reform, which will be difficult as the opposition has been clear on its rejection of a proposal that weakens the INE and gives more power to the ruling party. In recent polls, AMLO’s electoral reform was backed by 50 percent of citizens, since the president has conveyed to his base that the initiative promotes austerity. Despite this, the INE continues to be one of the institutions with the highest approval. With this bill, Morena aims to control the public agenda around the president’s priorities and communicate to the public that his administration is reducing bureaucracy to gain resources for social programs, thus strengthening its political capital for the 2024 elections.” 

Georgina De la Fuente, electoral governance specialist and former advisor at Mexico's Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE): “One of the main features of the president’s proposal entails the extinction of the National Electoral Institute (INE), to be replaced with a new underfunded institution, whose decisionmakers would be directly elected by the people from a pool of candidates proposed by the three branches of government. This would severely undermine the independence and professionalism that characterize Mexico’s electoral management body, as has been certified by national and international observers for the past three decades. The proposed reform also calls for a drastic reduction in public financing, which is the basis for our system of political parties and for guaranteeing a level playing field. A constitutional reform like this, however, requires a supermajority of two-thirds of Congress, which the ruling coalition does not have. Furthermore, the opposition has already announced its own proposal. This breaks with established practice around electoral reforms, in which public debates are driven by the opposition after an election and a consensus among all parties is reached around one piece of legislation. The unlikeliness of the approval of the president’s proposal in its current form and its timing suggests that he may have another objective in mind. The national debate around the INE’s existence and costliness will create the perfect opportunity to continue attacking its credibility, while also playing into an already deeply polarized public ahead of the 2024 presidential election. But polls indicate most Mexicans trust the INE, which has approval ratings of over 60 percent. It is yet to be seen if Lopez Obrador’s bet pays off.” 

[Editor’s note: Mexico’s Embassy in Washington declined a request from the Advisor for a commentary for this issue.]

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