Back to an Authoritarian Past? Elections in Baja California

On the 2nd of June2019 Mexico held local elections that proved to be a successful referendum on the incumbent president’s popularity. These elections were the first ones after his inauguration on December 1st, 2018. Despite a declining economy and increasing levels of violence, his ruling party, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), gained major wins and further extended his influence across 6 states: The governorships in Baja California and Puebla; Tijuana’s Mayor’s seat; and legislative majorities in the local congresses of Baja California and Quintana Roo.

Baja California has become key in recent weeks in the process of democratisation in the country. After 30 years of being the ruling party in the state, the National Action Party (PAN), was defeated by MORENA. Conditions are set in Baja California are set for an intense post electoral process with serious consequences for the incumbent administration, and for the prospects of democracy in Mexico: On Monday 8th of July, the local Congress approved an extension to the current term of the governor from 2 to 5 years.

The choice of Jaime Bonilla as MORENA’s candidate was a troublesome one. Bonilla was resident of the American state of California until very recently, and a militant of the American Republican Party. The problem lies on the way he was chosen as candidate and his Republican militancy in the United States.  Bonilla’s candidacy was propped up when Andrés Manuel López Obrador travelled to Baja California and agreed to publicly share a photo with the candidate, in a style that mirrored the very old authoritarian practices of the former hegemonic party Institutional Revolutionary Party, (PRI). MORENA’s obstinacy materialised to ensure the extension of the term once he was elected.

A 2014 constitutional reform mandated that the governor of the state of Baja California elected in 2019 would serve a 2-year term. This was done to align the state’s gubernatorial elections with the federal mid-term elections of 2021. MORENA argued that a 2-year term administration would prove to be more expensive and create higher political and economic uncertainty in the state. If such argument is allowed to be used this time, this could set a dangerous precedent to disappear institutions and extend terms of future administrations in order to make public administration more cost-effective. This is not a plausible justification and represents a serious setback.

The extension of the term from 2 to 5 years is a constitutional violation and electorally speaking it represents a throwback to the old monopolistic practices of the PRI. It also represents a violation to what election means in a democracy. Elections make a fundamental contribution to democratic governance. Because direct democracy. Elections enable voters to select leaders and to hold them accountable for their performance in office. Accountability can be undermined when elected leaders do not care whether they are re-elected or when, for historical or other reasons, one party is so dominant that there is effectively no choice for voters among alternative candidates, parties, or policies. Elections also reinforce the stability and legitimacy of the political community.

More importantly, a country cannot be truly democratic until its citizens have the opportunity to choose their representatives through elections that are free and fair. Elections also need to ensure the respect of essential criteria to be considered fair that include impartial electoral frameworks; credible electoral administration; and respect of electoral results.  In the particular case of Baja California, such a reform to extend the term of the governor, should have been discussed, negotiated and ratified in 2017, before the elections of 2018 and 2019 for it to be considered as a legitimate measure. From a constitutional perspective, electoral processes are considered conclusive and each stage is final.

The president has decided to distant himself from the matter and leave this issue in the hand of the judiciary. The president has the attribution to promote an action of unconstitutionality in the Supreme Court of Justice, should he wish to condemn a clear anti-democratic action. Legislators of opposition parties have presented such recourse, and the incumbent Baja California governor has refused to ratify the results. López Obrador’s attempt to distance himself from the decision in Baja California is not an expression of respect and autonomy, it is rather one of consent and complicit that would leave doors open to further unconstitutional actions. 

It is worrying bathat López Obrador washes his hands in a clear trampling of the popular will and the constitutional framework. By not defending effective suffrage, the president is validating the right to extend the term of any administration, by simple legislative whim, in any other governmental administration. All this could mean a setback to Mexico’s democracy. Like the PRI, MORENA is a pragmatic umbrella organisation including all sorts of political actors: there is room for everyone: the left, the right, those with a history of corruption, those who are not corrupt. It is back to the future. MORENA could also take over much of the PRI’s old patronage networks. While the PRI has curbed the power of top unions, MORENA has courted them, and part of MORENA’s ascent is based on the territorial grassroots work that the PRI dominated decades ago, let us hope that MORENA does not decide to also start mirroring the old authoritarian, undemocratic practices that allowed the PRI to remain in power for 71 years.

Lisdey Espinoza Pedraza
Lisdey Espinoza Pedraza
Lisdey Espinoza Pedraza is a politics and international relations tutor at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. She gained her Bachelor's in International Relations at the Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City and her MA in International Relations and World Order at the University of Leicester, England. She holds a PhD in Politics and International Relations from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. She has spoken at numerous international conferences and has written on topics such as democracy, migration, European politics, Contemporary Mexican Politics and the Middle East. Her research interests include: Democratisation processes, governance and theories of the state, contemporary Mexican politics, Latin American politics, political parties, international relations theories, contemporary USA-Latin America foreign policy.