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Mexico’s Conundrum: The proposed electoral Reform Is a Threat to Its Young Democracy

por | Ene 25, 2023 | 0 Comentarios

By Víctor Gómez Villanueva

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“Democracy is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off,” said President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Mexico’s President López Obrador, who was democratically elected, would probably agree with the spirit of the quote. Four years into his administration, López Obrador has now succeeded in getting his electoral reform passed, one that Human Rights Watch deems as a threat to the country’s young democracy.

López Obrador’s reform was proposed as an overarching constitutional amendment to the electoral framework, allegedly in an attempt to cut public spending – only 0.2% of the country’s budget is assigned to the electoral authority, though. As envisaged originally, the reform was much more aggressive, as it would have put seats within the electoral authority’s general counsel up to the popular vote, seriously jeopardizing its already battered autonomy. This first proposal had little chance to get passed, however, because amendments to the Constitution require an absolute majority, something that López Obrador’s party (MORENA) does not have at the moment. Following large demonstrations in several cities, the opposition firmly rejected the most aggressive version of the reform, so López Obrador had to resort to his watered-down but still aggressive “Plan B.”

“Plan B”

The “Plan B” consisted of a package of amendments to the electoral law, which just needed a simple majority to get passed. In the end, this pathway bore fruits for the López Obrador administration, as it got passed before the end of the legislative session in December.

Essentially, the approved reform aims at rendering the electoral authority inoperative in the long run, by cutting its headcount by over 80%. It also reduces the number of district bodies, jeopardizing the installation of polling stations and the vote count. Overall, the authority’s ability to organize and oversee elections will be seriously hindered by this reform, whenever it is finally implemented.

It is worth noting that elections in Mexico are already violent, especially in rural areas where security presence is rare and subject to considerable interference from both organized crime and the ruling party. The reform will thereby exacerbate such risks and will surely reduce the competitiveness of the opposition – already fragmented and lacking credible leadership –  in the coming elections, strengthening the hold of MORENA on power and lessening  the chances of political alternation in the coming years. By reducing penalties for those who violate the electoral law, candidates will also have a greater incentive to instigate violence, especially against female rivals that dare to run for public office.

The opposition to the López Obrador administration has rightly called out several inconsistencies between the approved package and the Constitution, which they already brought to the Supreme Court. López Obrador’s “Plan B” would thus be pending a court’s resolution to be enforced in the 2024 presidential elections. However, since López Obrador has successfully increased his influence in the Supreme Court, a favorable resolution to most of “Plan B” is possible. Mexico’s democracy is convalescent at the young age of 22 years.

Other Signs of a Crumbling Democracy

The electoral authority is López Obrador’s most recent target, but hardly the only one through his administration. The dismantling of regulatory authorities, an ongoing militarization, and a complete disregard for freedom of the press are other signs of Mexico’s endangered democracy.

As mentioned above, López Obrador has so far dismantled more than 100 autonomous agencies, trust funds, and regulators whose functions have been assumed by government ministries, weakening their regulatory and supervisory functions. 

Militarization also gained traction during the López Obrador administration: The former Federal Police was transformed into a militarized police called “Guardia Nacional” that is now controlled directly by the army. Tasks that used to fall on civil authorities, such as supervising customs or building infrastructure, now belong entirely to the army. The army also enjoys a larger budget that has had no impact on the ongoing security crisis related to the drug cartels. The army has few institutional restraints and its finances remain opaque to public scrutiny. 

As the head state of one of the deadliest countries for journalists, López Obrador often disdains or even attacks journalists who criticize his administration. When renowned news anchor Ciro Gómez Leyva recently survived an attempt on his life, López Obrador went to the extreme of suggesting it might have been carried out to destabilize his government. His words, and even more his lack of action added to the near total impunity of crimes against journalists might be instigating others to perpetrate such attacks.

Relevance and Repercussions

On the global stage, Mexico’s democratic backsliding is no minor issue. It is occurring at the very doorstep of the US, which is currently juggling domestic polarization, Chinese competition, and Russia’s ill-planned challenges to the world order. 

Being Mexico the second largest democracy in LATAM, more governments in the region might be tempted to get off the democracy streetcar too, if they are not already doing so (i.e., Guatemala, El Salvador). The US’s failure at restoring trust in the democratic values among its neighbors is a narrative that Chinese and Russian adversaries will happily exploit.

Mexico’s democratic backsliding could further increase the US’s polarization thanks to even larger flows of migrants. Governments that incrementally erode democracy tend to perform poorly both in supporting free markets and in creating a welfare state, which certainly is a reason for people to seek an opportunity elsewhere. Dealing with even larger flows of migrants, and what that implies to domestic polarization, might keep distracting the US from the serious challenges to the world order.

In a context where companies might have the incentive to reduce their exposure to geopolitical risks from China, Mexico’s backsliding might mean a missed opportunity for trade. Large investors can handle political risk, but how much are they willing to tolerate? Mexico, one of the largest trading partners of the US, might lose its chance to attract foreign investment if security does not improve within its boundaries. López Obrador’s policy of “hugs instead of bullets” (“abrazos no balazos”) has so far stopped no criminals from firing daily their deadliest bullets. 



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