The End of Democracy in Mexico?
Wherein I state that politics is not my focus, and then write 1500 words on politics
Long before election denialism became table stakes in the politics of the United States, Mexico's current president - Andrés Manuel López Obrador (commonly known as AMLO) - attributed his loss of the presidential election of 2006 to election fraud, for which he has never offered any evidence.
Politics is not the focus or point of the articles here at Mexico Listo, but I believe it is important for foreign visitors and residents to have at least some familiarity with what is going on in Mexico politically, at least at a high level. My objective here is not to amplify my own opinion of Mexico's politics in general, or AMLO in particular; rather it is to hopefully offer some insight and context into what is by any measure an extremely contentious and catalyzing reform that AMLO is pushing forward.
Thanks for reading Mexico Listo! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
And I do this with full knowledge that politics may be the last thing that foreign visitors and residents want to hear about. I know that many people have left the U.S. and Canada specifically to get away from the contention and dysfunction of their political systems back home; they don't want to escape their home's politics just to end up inheriting some new political dysfunction in their chosen haven. More than that, it is illegal for foreigners to get involved in politics in Mexico; so foreigners may choose to just ignore it as much as possible simply because it is something that is out of their hands. And while ignoring politics in today's world is, in my opinion, a completely rational act, some foreign residents of Mexico might look out their windows or turn on the news and wonder why there are so many people gathered in public squares, seemingly upset about something.
For the last few months in Mexico, that something that many people are upset about is changes to the structure, funding, and rules of Mexico's Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE).
A Brief History of the INE
For much of the 20th century, Mexico had effectively been a one-party state: that party is the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). The PRI was founded in 1929 (under a different name - it has gone through several name changes) and it had held uninterrupted political dominance in Mexico from 1929 until 2000. As with any one-party system anywhere, the PRI devolved over the years into larger and larger scale corruption and electoral fraud. During the later part of the 20th century, over 80% of the Mexican electorate considered the PRI to be a corrupt institution. Due to both the real corruption and some election irregularities, a Mexican constitutional reform occurred in 1990 in which an autonomous public agency was created to oversee Mexico's elections; this agency was called the Instituto Federal Electoral (IFE). Yet another reform took place in 2014, in which the IFE was supplanted by today's INE.
The IFE and INE were recognized worldwide as extremely progressive and effective election agencies, and they are credited with ending Mexico's former one-party system of government and bringing about inclusive, honest, and fair elections in the country.
A Brief History of AMLO
Andrés Manuel López Obrador's rise to the presidency of Mexico is an interesting story - but that story deserves its own article (which I may write one day). In brief, AMLO is a liberal, populist politician who is immensely popular in Mexico, enjoying a 60% voter approval rating as President of Mexico. He is a member of the Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional (MORENA) party, which he himself founded and which became a registered party in 2014.
Before winning the presidential election in 2018, AMLO ran for president (and lost) in 2006 and in 2012, both times as a member of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD), an opposition party to the PRI. In 2006, AMLO lost by an extremely narrow margin of 0.58%. AMLO demanded a recount, but the INE's precursor the IFE ultimately rejected the demand and declared AMLO's opponent, Felipe Calderón, the winner. AMLO, rather than accept the IFE's verdict, continued to declare himself the legitimate winner or the election. He organized protests and acts of civil disobedience in Mexico City, and he even went as far as holding a mock inauguration for himself as President. Of course Calderón was officially inaugurated, but for AMLO, the die was cast: he would carry a sense of profound distrust of the IFE and its successor the INE from that election forward.
AMLO's INE "Plan B"
AMLO has framed the INE as an unnecessary economic drain on Mexico's public funds. It is true that the INE has a very large budget - they are tasked with training election workers, staffing elections, setting up polling places, tabulating results. But a huge part of INE's budget goes toward campaign financing: in Mexico, as opposed to most other democracies around the world, almost all of the legal campaign financing is supplied by the government.
Nevertheless, AMLO has characterized the INE as "elitist", "classist" and "racist", and believes that much of INE's budget would be better spent on projects benefiting Mexico's poor.
AMLO's first inclination was to abolish the INE and replace it with something else entirely - but that would require a change to the constitution, something that AMLO doesn't have the senate votes for (constitutional changes require a 2/3 senate majority; AMLO has the support of over half of the senate, but not two-thirds). Given that he can't go the constitutional reform route, AMLO developed what he termed a "Plan B" reform of the INE, which would only require a simple majority of senate votes: to cut IME's budget and staff, curtail its autonomy, and limit its ability to sanction politicians who break election laws.
Opponents of AMLO's "Plan B" claim that the changes would decimate the INE, cutting off its power and forcing it to reduce staff by up to 80%. Opponents are concerned that reducing the efficacy of the INE is really designed to weaken Mexico's democratic institutions and advancements, with a return to the old days of electoral fraud and single-party dominance.
The U.S. news coverage seems to be particularly apoplectic about the reforms. U.S. reportage about Mexico has a chronic fondness for saying "Mexico" and "failed state" in the same breath, and they've been doing a lot of that lately. David Frum, a well-known columnist for The Atlantic opined complete catastrophe for Mexico in this somewhat hysterical Twitter thread.
That U.S. reporters live in a glass house is another issue entirely.
History is an Afterthought
What reportage in the U.S. (at least what I have read) seems to universally ignore is that there is not much to grasp onto in Mexico's history to suggest that with or without the INE, Mexico's political future is anything but guesswork. Consider that even with an autonomous elections commission, Mexico still managed to empower some of the most grotesquely corrupt politicians of the 21st century. The fact is, AMLO would not even be president of Mexico were it not for the staggeringly overt corruption of his predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto along with many of the politicians in Nieto's orbit.
But Still, Why?
Other than his own personal gripes about the INE, why is AMLO orchestrating legislation designed to disempower election oversight when:
He cannot, by law, run for president again next term
He and his party enjoy an unprecedented approval rating and polling majority
It is all but certain that the next MORENA candidate will be the next president of Mexico
It does seem odd that given these realities and advantages, AMLO would still drive forward with his anti-INE agenda. Certainly, for ideological reasons, he would like to see his party continue to be the dominant political force in Mexico in the next elections and beyond. And by knee-capping the INE, opponents warn that AMLO is just setting in motion some guarantee that his political legacy will thrive.
In the meantime, massive protests by opponents of these INE reforms are underway across Mexico, along with massive displays of support for the reforms. And the reforms will be legally challenged and will almost certainly end up on the docket of Mexico's Supreme Court.
In the end, it does seem unfortunate that AMLO is pursing this particular cause. And I sympathize with Mexicans who see this as an affront to their democracy and democratic norms. But I don't see this as an outlying phenomena, the way that U.S. reporting appears to. Gerrymandering and the electoral collage are affronts to democracy. Limiting poll access is an affront to democracy. Special interests and Super PACs are affronts to democracy. Social media and electorate manipulation are affronts to democracy.
If democracy is on shaky ground, the ground is shaking beneath everyone's feet.
Thanks for reading Mexico Listo! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Thank you Mike for helping me understand what's going on. I've heard about INE but didn't really know what it was or what the proposed changes were.
We did study some politics and some of the reforms that happened in the 90's when I was a student in the University, but it was more in the context of learning Spanish than really trying to understand the political dynamics.
As for ."..continued to declare himself the legitimate winner or the election", that sure sounds familiar. I'm pretty sure I've heard that somewhere else. :)
Great job with the article Mike, Definitley did a good job in terms of trying to stay neutral as you can while at the same time informing readers what's going on with the election laws. I would like to read more about it though, I mean I'll read Frum's piece in the Atlantic surrounding the changes, but I don't really trust the guy given his track record, do you know of any English News sources covering Mexico?