Latin America Advisor

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What Would AMLO’s Electoral Reforms Mean for Mexico?

Photo of Andrés Manuel López Obrador Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has two years left on his term, is pushing for controversial electoral reforms. // File Photo: Facebook Page of Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in cities across Mexico on Nov. 13 to protest President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s proposed reform of the country’s election system. Two weeks later, tens of thousands of López Obrador’s backers marched with him in Mexico City this past Sunday in support of the president. The electoral reforms seek to replace the National Electoral Institute (INE) with a new agency whose members would be voted in by the public, from a pre-selected list by Congress, the president and the Supreme Court. How likely is the legislation to pass? What are the most significant changes of the proposed reform, and why has it become so controversial?

Lorena Becerra Mizuno, political analyst at Grupo Reforma: “President López Obrador’s proposed electoral reform signifies a radical change to the country’s modern electoral system. It represents an alarming attempt to undermine the strength and independence of the electoral referee, which has maintained exemplary autonomy from political influence and has conducted elections in a transparent, independent and homogeneous manner countrywide since 1997. The National Electoral Institute currently has an approval rating of 76 percent nationwide. Eighty-four percent do not wish to see the agency replaced by a new one, 71 percent say its disappearance would pose a threat to democracy, and 77 percent anticipate increased uncertainty in upcoming elections under this scenario. With such an important endorsement from public opinion, it is no surprise to see massive protests across the country that have pressured parties that have seemed to be wavering, such as the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), to reject it. The president has recently acknowledged that the reform is unlikely to pass in Congress because his party and its allies do not hold the constitutional majority for it to advance. However, he is now trying to push forward secondary laws that may be in violation of the Constitution but that only require a simple majority to be approved, seeking to weaken the electoral institute in any possible way. Under the banner of austerity and anticorruption, López Obrador seems to be determined to move against the majority sentiment in order to ensure that his party can control future electoral processes.”

Luis Rubio, chairman of Mexico Evalúa: “The proposed electoral reform is controversial for three reasons. First, it is meant to consolidate the power of the government and the ruling party, Morena, thus reducing electoral competition and the likelihood that other political parties might win an election in the foreseeable future. Second, Mexico’s democracy is both relatively recent and too weak to be redefining the rules of the electoral game without a broad consensus such as the one that brought about the current law and its institutions, which enjoy ample popular support. And third, what President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is proposing this late in his administration and so close to the 2024 presidential race is such a drastic, fundamental change in course that it should be left for the beginning of the next administration. The core change being proposed is to eliminate the autonomy of the electoral institutions, which would be brought back under the control of the government, the excuse being that a lot of money would be saved. Although there is no question that money could be saved, the fundamental issue at stake is the autonomous nature of the electoral institutions precisely because of the extraordinary power of the federal government and its ability to make the Congress and the Supreme Court bend to its will. Odds are that neither house of Congress will pass the proposed reform. However, non-constitutional measures, including increasing budget cuts, could be passed that would effectively transfer control of these institutions to the government. The end result would be a heavy blow against the potential for Mexico to keep moving toward democracy with proper checks and balances. The very fact that such a bill is being proposed shows the enormous frailty of the rule of law and of the country’s democracy.”

Mneesha Gellman, assistant professor of political science at Emerson College: “I have spent much of my career decrying the way that procedural democracy—which is defined by having rules and procedures that facilitate free and fair elections—is confused for substantive democracy, in which citizens experience real democratic inclusion and empowerment beyond elections. This expanded notion of democracy is especially important for those who are the most marginalized in a given society, for example, Indigenous peoples, women and girls, and people who are incarcerated. I see President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s intention to reconfigure INE as problematic, but not necessarily for the same reasons that have been circulating in the media. Institutions are built and maintained by people; that means they are no more perfect than the people who run them. It also means institutions can change, because human-made policies in even quasi-democratic contexts are a product of deliberation, and deliberations are renegotiable. López Obrador is looking to circumvent democratic practices that threaten his power on multiple fronts. His populist tendencies are similar to those of other leaders, whose countries are backsliding away from democracy, riding waves of popular dissatisfaction with previous political leadership in order to consolidate personal power. His attacking of institutions like INE and the press, which are vital for basic democratic infrastructure raises concerns about the extent to which he is willing to push Mexico toward democratic backsliding in order to further his own agenda.” 

Ana Lorena Delgadillo Pérez, executive director of Fundación para la Justicia: “President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s proposed electoral reform, which raises crucial points that represent a setback for our electoral system, is being presented in a complex environment, in which consensus building has become more difficult and with a presidential election to be held in less than two years. Some of the alternatives presented as solutions for specific problems do not seem to properly address them and instead create greater drawbacks. One example: it presents the deficit in ‘political representation’ of political parties as a problem, and as a response, instead of tackling the lack of democracy within the parties in the selection of their candidates, the president proposes to eliminate their current ordinary public financing. Thus, not only will the power of party elites continue, but this too will lead to unfair competition. The party in power has a greater capacity for funding its activities, and the reform would affect the representation of minorities represented by small parties. It could also open the door for organized crime to get deeply involved in the finances of political parties. Additionally, the reform not only establishes a popular vote as the mechanism for electing the bodies that govern the elections, it also threatens essential aspects of the electoral system that do work, such as the professional body of workers of the National Electoral Institute (INE), its constitutional autonomy and its control over the electoral registry.”

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