Mexico’s controversial electoral reforms heralding a return to one-party rule

Thousands protest against the president’s autocratic powergrab ahead of elections next year

Supporters of the National Electoral Institute flood Mexico City’s main square, 26 February 2023
Supporters of the National Electoral Institute (INE) in Mexico City this week
(Image credit: Daniel Cárdenas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Half a million people took to the streets of Mexico City on Sunday to protest the government’s controversial electoral reforms and the increasingly autocratic tendencies of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

With many supporters wearing pink and white, the colour of the National Electoral Institute (INE), and holding signs that read “Hand of the INE”, Reuters reported, the rally “appeared to be the largest protest so far” against the president’s administration.

Why are the reforms so controversial?

The National Electoral Institute (INE) “earned international acclaim for facilitating clean elections in Mexico, paving the way for the opposition to win the presidency in 2000 after decades of rule by a single party”, said The New York Times.

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But López Obrador, commonly known by his initials AMLO, has attacked the INE, accusing it of being partisan, corrupt and inefficient. After months of wrangling and mounting opposition, lawmakers in Mexico’s Congress last week finally approved a major overhaul of the independent body in a bill backed by the president.

This will result in the agency’s budget being slashed, which could lead to an 85% reduction in its staff, according to CNN, as well as the closure of local election offices and funding cut for training citizens who operate and oversee polling stations. It would also pare back the INE’s overall responsibilities and oversight capabilities and reduce sanctions for candidates who fail to report campaign spending.

CNN also reported that “electoral officials warn the change will affect their ability to run free and fair elections ahead of the 2024 general election, when Lopez Obrador, who is limited to a six-year term, is expected to anoint a successor”.

Opponents have one last throw of the dice to stop the reforms becoming law, vowing to take the legislation to the Supreme Court, which could “overturn some of the changes, as courts have done with other presidential initiatives”, said NPR.

What has the reaction been?

Speaking to The New York Times after last week’s vote, the director of the INE, Lorenzo Córdova, said the reforms were the culmination of “a very clear political strategy, to sell the INE as a biased, partial authority”. He later tweeted that the move will “seriously affect future electoral processes”.

US observers are also looking on with concern. “By approving President López Obrador’s proposal to slash the National Electoral Institute’s funding and oversight capabilities, the Mexican Congress has imperilled the future of its country’s democratic institutions,” the Democratic and Republican chairmen of both the Senate and House foreign affairs committees said in a statement on Friday. “Returning Mexico to its dark past of presidentially controlled elections not only sets the clock back on its democracy, but also US-Mexico relations,” it added.

However, the 69-year-old left-wing president and his allies have denied the changes will weaken Mexican democracy, instead claiming the measures will save millions of dollars and make voting more efficient, including making it easier for Mexicans who live abroad to cast online votes.

AMLO also sought to dismiss concerns about his plans by accusing protesters of having links to drug cartels.

Is Mexico becoming an autocracy?

David Frum in The Atlantic said by reining in “the country’s admired and independent elections system” the president “is subverting the institutions that have upheld Mexico’s democratic achievement” and that on its present trajectory, “the Mexican federal elections scheduled for the summer of 2024 may be less than free and far from fair”.

Vox said the measures “fit into a broader effort” by López Obrador “to consolidate power in the executive branch during his term and with his political party, which controls both chambers of Congress, a majority of the country’s governorships, a plurality of state legislatures, and the influential mayoralty of Mexico City”.

To this end “he has also weakened other autonomous bodies that check his power on the grounds they are a drain on the public purse and hostile to his political project”, reported Reuters. More broadly, said CNN, “moves to limit independent agencies like the INE have raised fears of the return of practices seen when Mexico was run by an autocratic single-party for decades prior to 2000”.

López Obrador has enjoyed approval ratings of 60% or higher but, given the Mexican constitution limits presidents to a single six-year term in office, AMLO “is unlikely to benefit directly from these changes”, said the Financial Times.

But he is likely to hand-pick his successor by choosing the presidential candidate for his National Regeneration Movement (Morena) party, which in just a few years has become the dominant force in Mexico and is the strong favourite to win the 2024 election.

“His electoral ‘reforms’ could then help local Morena officials to fix elections. That would return Mexico to the system of corrupt one-party rule, and rigged elections, that blighted the country for most of the 20th century,” warned the FT.

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