Is Democracy under threat in Mexico?

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's controversial election reforms have many worried

Crowd of protestors wearing pink and white at the Zocalo main square, in Mexico City, Mexico
(Image credit: Anadolu Agency / Contributor/ Getty Images)

Tens of thousands of people gathered in Zócalo, Mexico City's central plaza, on Sunday to protest President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's recently-passed legislation that many believe will "threaten democracy" and "mark a return to the past," The Associated Press reports. Many of the protestors wore white and pink, the colors of electoral watchdog National Electoral Institute (INE), shouting slogans like "Don't touch my vote!" The scene echoed a similar march last year in November when people nationwide protested López Obrador's proposed constitutional amendment.

The legislation, which passed last week, aims to cut INE's staff and almost one-third of the agency's $760 million annual budget, "eliminating many of its units and nationwide offices in charge of issuing national identification cards to the country's 95 million adults at no cost," The Wall Street Journal says. The ID cards are required to vote in Mexico's elections. INE estimates that the laws would lead to massive layoffs, "including key technical staff in charge of organizing elections," the Journal writes. López Obrador's first attempt to pass constitutional amendments to replace the electoral agency failed in December.

"We are clearly witnessing a direct onslaught against the independence of Mexico's electoral system, against the country's democratic system," Lorenzo Córdova, the head of the INE, said in an interview about the earlier protests last fall.

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Fernando Belaunzaran, a lawmaker from the opposing party who helped organize the recent protests, "argued the INE changes weakened the electoral system and increased the risk of disputes clouding the 2024 elections when López Obrador's successor will be chosen," Reuters writes. "Normally, presidents try to have governability and stability for their succession, but the president is creating uncertainty," Belaunzaran added. "He's playing with fire."

What are the commentators saying?

Critics say the laws threaten Mexico's progress since transitioning to democracy 25 years ago. Mexico was governed by a single party until a candidate from the opposition won the presidential election in 2000. "The creation of a strong electoral agency independent from the government in 1996 was a key step toward ending the single-party rule," the Journal explains.

Indeed, the INE is one of the most trusted institutions in Mexico, The Economist observes. "By nobbling it, Mr López Obrador makes it less likely that elections will be free and fair." He claims the INE's operational costs are excessive and its management corrupt, but this argument is "flimsy," says the Finacial Times. Really, he wants to "handpick a successor," hold on to a congressional majority, and get enough power to change the constitution, so he needs an electoral institute that's on his side. "López Obrador's attacks on the electoral system mirror those of other populists in the Americas, such as Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro," the FT writes.

The protests have prompted a response in the United States. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols tweeted that the U.S. "supports independent, well-resourced electoral institutions that strengthen democratic processes and the rule of law."

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairmen of the House and Senate foreign relations committees, said that by approving the amendments, "the Mexican Congress has imperiled the future of its country's democratic institutions," per The Washington Post. "Returning Mexico to its dark past of presidentially controlled elections not only sets the clock back on its democracy but also U.S.-Mexico relations."

What's next?

"Opposition parties, INE's directors, and governors of many of Mexico's 32 states have said they would file constitutional challenges against the laws," the Journal reports. The head of INE said citizens are also expected to file thousands of injunctions because the laws violate their constitutional right to free and fair elections. He added that INE staff would file similar injunctions if they were fired.

Lawmakers from the rival party say the president's ruling party will have another opportunity to take over the INE by packing its governing council with loyalists, the Journal adds. "Four of the institute's 11 board members, including its president, will be named next month when their terms end."

Some ruling party legislators are doubtful that the overhaul of the electoral system will move forward, though, "as lower court judges can suspend the implementation of laws that have been challenged until the Supreme Court issues a ruling," the Journal says.

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