Transitioning Backwards? AMLO’s Electoral Reform

On October 26th, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) approved a 21 Member Commission to set in motion a major political reform that would downsize the National Electoral Institute (INE); cut public funds and media time for political parties; and eliminate 200 of the 500 seats in the lower House of the Congress. The proposal also contemplates to make all posts in electoral institutions subject to popular vote. The Mexican Congress is scheduled to debate these changes in   late November. The time was not randomly chosen, it is when the world will be too busy watching the FIFA World Cup to even pay attention to the dangerous developments in Mexican politics that could see the demise of Mexican democracy as we know it.

This electoral reform is something AMLO has long been considering to push forward. Just like Bolsonaro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the US, AMLO has been a fierce critic of the Mexican electoral system since he lost the presidential election in 2006, and blame it on fraud. The INE is, however, one of the strongest and most respected institutions in Mexico. In order to guarantee democratic rule it is essential a credible electoral process is run and administered by institutions that are independent from the administration in power. The INE has therefore been essential to guarantee free and fair elections since 1994.

The reform proposal, as drafted by AMLO, would mean the most serious democratic regression in contemporary Mexico in the last 40 years. It would return the control of electoral institutions to the president. Mexican democracy has been through a long, slow and patchy road since the creation of the Mexican state in 1821. Mexico has witnessed one of the longest single, hegemonic party rules in the world: the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), was in power from 1929 to 2000. The major victory of the Mexican democracy was the creation of the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) in 1994 that took away the full control the executive power had over the preparation, supervision and certification of electoral results.

Mexican democracy is fragile enough as it is. It does not need that its institutions are weakened even further. The iconic presidential elections of 2000 that saw the victory, for the first time in 71 years, of an opposition candidate to the Mexican presidency, was the result of eight electoral reforms, and the slow, but steady openness of the political system. It was through a consensual dialogue and negotiated reforms that Mexico could achieve, at least, electoral democracy on paper and in practice. Now, it is being threatened.

If this reform is approved as it is, it would mean the most serious attack not only on Mexican democracy as a whole, but in the institutions that sustain Mexican democratic governance. The Democratic Commission for Democracy through Law (also known as the Venice Commission) issued the past October a report that concluded that AMLO’s plan to potentially replace the INE with a new, untrusted electoral institution, might seriously compromise the impartiality and independence of future electoral processes in Mexico.

Dismantling, weakening, or eliminating INE is a considerable risk, especially when there are presidential elections in 2024. The current government has been unable to prove that there are serious problems in the functioning of the INE or in any other of the electoral institutions in the country. Withdrawing public funding altogether for political parties could pose the risk of illegal, drug-related financing as well as weakening opportunities of  new political parties to access funding. Subjecting all posts in electoral institutions, although it sounds democratic, would further politicise democratic institutions. It empowers political parties that are stronger and have a considerable wider electoral base to form alliances with potential candidates to those posts. In practical terms, this would grant, MORENA, the most popular party for at least the last four years, control of elected officials in electoral institutions.

By eliminating the 200 deputies that are currently nationally elected, and increasing the number of those who are elected by state, could further complicate the prospects of new political parties, and fragment the country. This could open the door to the creation of regional forces among states in order to increase their power, something that could be detrimental to democracy altogether. All in all, this reform would debilitate electoral institutions that are strong at the moment.

What is the rationale behind this reform? AMLO argues that downsizing the $706 million Mexican pesos of INE’s annual budget is essential to save on government funds that are currently misspent. An irony if one considers AMLO has spent over 23 billion in building an oil refinery in Dos Bocas, an area prone to severe flooding and predicted to collapse even before it officially opens; a new airport that remains virtually empty following the cancellation of the airport in Texcoco that had been initiated by his predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto; and a tourist train that is causing great environmental damage in the Riviera Maya.

AMLO has been pushing forward a very strong anti neoliberalism discourse ever since the start of his administration. Everything that does not suit his needs or does not meet his approval is easily labelled as neoliberal. His critics, from opposition politicians to academics, reporters, foreign governments and foreign media are also labelled as part of the neoliberal mafia seeking to destroy Mexican democracy and his government. This dichotomous view is dangerous because it divides rather than unites. It is also dangerous because he is now linking neoliberalism with the electoral success or failure of the Mexican democracy. What Mexico is witnessing is the slow erosion of its institutions, and the gradual return to centralisation of power in hands of the president.

Dismantling the INE, and all other associated electoral institutions around it, would mean taking Mexico back to the old days where the president and its hegemonic, single party were able to fix elections at their will. Is Mexico, maybe, witnessing the resurrection of that system, with AMLO and MORENA at the helm, instead of PRI?

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.