Mexico owes its young democracy to its elections institute. The president wants to dismantle it

For most of the last century, elections in Mexico have been a farce.

The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party controlled ballot boxes, electoral rolls and even counted votes. Not surprisingly, the party won every time.

It became known as “the perfect dictatorship,” an authoritarian regime that rarely resorted to brute force because of its tight control of elections.

It all collapsed in 2000, when a candidate from another party won the presidency for the first time in seven decades. All of this was thanks to a groundbreaking 1996 reform that protected the newly established National Electoral Institute from political interference.

Now the institution that produced Mexico’s democracy is under attack.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a left-wing populist whose party controls both houses of Congress and most state governors, is pushing for a dramatic overhaul of the institute, which critics say will lose its autonomy and put power back in the hands of the ruling party would concentrate .

The president has proposed amending the constitution to change many landmark features of Mexico’s electoral system, cutting the number of seats in Mexico’s Senate and Congress, ending public funding for political parties, and abolishing state electoral boards.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador is shown during a rally November 27.

(Fernando Llano/Associated Press)

Crucially, the proposed law would also change the choice of electoral authorities. Currently, civil servants are serving staggered terms after being selected from a pool of experts by the legislature. Under the new law, every six years a new class of officers would be elected directly by voters from a pool of candidates nominated by the President, Congress and the Supreme Court.

Critics – including many foreign and local election experts – warn that the new system would be prone to politicization and that the changes appear aimed at helping the president’s political party stay in control.

“It’s an attempt to subjugate the electoral process in order to gain an electoral advantage,” said Mariano Sánchez Talanquer, a professor of comparative politics at the College of Mexico.

He described the proposed electoral changes as part of López Obrador’s broader strategy to “weaken independent centers of power … and uplift the president.”

As part of his pledge to bring austerity to a government often plagued by corruption, López Obrador has cut funding in most ministries and imposed particularly drastic cuts on institutions designed to counterbalance the presidency, such as regulators and the Human Rights Commission. He recently slashed the Electoral Institute’s budget by nearly $250 million, a move his president called “budget blackmail.”

The president’s latest proposal has sparked protests, with opposition leaders and others accusing López Obrador of wanting to drag the country back into its authoritarian past. At a march through the capital last month, López Obrador was compared to Venezuela’s left-wing autocrat Nicolás Maduro, while tens of thousands of people chanted, “Democracy, yes! Dictatorship, no!”

As is his habit when he is criticized on almost any issue, López Obrador dismissed the protests as “very classist and racist,” blaming a wealthy establishment he says is afraid of losing its standing , if it transforms Mexico into a more equal society .

On Sunday he organized his own mega-march in the capital with tens of thousands of his supporters.

Supporters of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Supporters of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador march November 27 in Mexico City.

(Eduardo Verdugo/Associated Press)

So far, López Obrador does not appear to have the necessary majority in Congress to push through his election changes.

He has said he has a “plan B” to move forward with many of the changes without changing the constitution. Polls show that his proposals have broad public support.

With an approval rating of 66%, López Obrador is one of the world’s most popular presidents, loved by many for his outspoken style and promise to put the poor first in a country plagued by deep-seated inequality. He has pumped money into social programs and raised the minimum wage dramatically.

Many of his supporters seem ready to support him at any cost, even if it means concentrating power in the executive branch and transforming the institution that has helped promote Mexican democracy.

“We are very grateful to the President,” said Patricia Salazar, an elderly woman who traveled with her husband from Michoacan state on Sunday to march down tree-lined Reforma Avenue behind López Obrador. “We say we would give our lives for him.”

Newspaper columnist Jorge Zepeda Patterson said the criticism of the president failed to recognize that many of his supporters have more pressing priorities than protecting the country’s electoral institute.

“They talk about defending democracy, but what does that mean to a hungry man campesino?” he said.

López Obrador is constitutionally barred from running for a second term in Mexico’s next presidential election.

Some critics fear he may want to change electoral institutes because he wants to run again, and although some of his supporters carried signs at March Sunday urging him to do so, López Obrador says he will retire to his southern ranch when his term ends State of Chiapas.

But he undoubtedly hopes that the party he founded, Morena, which means “brown skin” in Spanish, will continue to dominate Mexican politics.

López Obrador says the electoral institute needs reform because it is dominated by conservatives. But many have noted that his desire to change it seems to stem in part from a personal grudge.

In 2006, López Obrador garnered 0.56% of the vote to win the presidency, denouncing his loss as a fraud. He turned a large part of downtown Mexico City into a protest camp after the electoral authorities dismissed his allegations of fraud.

Twelve years later, López Obrador won the presidency in a landslide victory, beating his closest challenger by 31 percentage points. The results were certified by the electoral institute.

Cecilia Sanchez and Leila Miller of the Times Mexico City bureau contributed to this report. Mexico owes its young democracy to its elections institute. The president wants to dismantle it

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