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Breaking Mexico’s election regulator will lead to soft autocracy

AP Photo/Marco Ugarte
Citizen organizations march in support of Mexico’s National Elections Institute as President Andrés Manuel López Obrador pushes to reform it, in Mexico City, Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022.

Mexico’s National Electoral Institute (INE) has been a key partner in bringing about Mexico’s democracy in the 1990s and early 2000s. The INE is now in jeopardy. While all institutions should be reviewed for improvements, drastic changes proposed to INE would destroy it — and Mexico should not follow through on the proposed changes.

This is particularly relevant as President Biden travels to Mexico next week.

On Dec. 15, the Mexican Congress passed legislation that will limit the power and autonomy of the INE. The legislation will be signed into law by Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (“AMLO”) this year.

Destroying or crippling the INE has been AMLO’s revenge project for more than a decade. He claimed that he “won” the presidential elections of 2006 and blamed the INE for “rigging” that election against him. But he overplayed his hand, staging months of protests in the streets of Mexico City. His behavior as an “election denier” cost him electorally for the next decade — until the rival parties performed so poorly, he won (and the INE ratified his victory) in 2018.

President AMLO argues that the INE is “overly expensive and possessed by political interests” and cites both to justify encroaching on the INE’s independence. But the INE has been a keystone in Mexico’s democracy. Its solid performance is responsible for running the elections well, ensuring campaigning parties obey electoral law, and issuing voting credentials which serve as ID cards for 97 million Mexicans.

With the help of the INE, Mexico transitioned from an authoritarian regime to democracy with the election of the first president from a opposition party in 2000 — after over 71 years of one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI in Spanish).

Founded in 1990, the INE was part of three critical democratic reforms of the 1990s and early 2000s. Before these reforms, the ruling one-party PRI government for 70 years organized, intervened in, and manipulated elections with no opposition party strong enough to push against the intrusions.

The steps planned by AMLO to cripple the INE will create conditions to allow his party to stay in power past the 2024 presidential election by resurrecting the extreme advantages of incumbency that dominated Mexico for 70 years.

President AMLO seeks to eliminate the requirement that election officials be elected by multiple political parties and instead advocates for the public to vote directly for their election officials from a predetermined list created by Congress, the Supreme Court, and the president himself. There will no longer be a rule preventing the use of public funds for self-promotion. There will be changes in campaign finance laws making it difficult for smaller parties or alternatives to emerge. Finally, the INE’s staff will be gutted by nearly 85 percent, hamstringing its ability to monitor and enforce electoral law.

The new legislation is being pushed through despite backlash from across the Mexican public, which trusts the INE more than any institution except the military.

Human rights groups, the Catholic Church, and businesses have lambasted the legislation.

On Nov. 13, tens of thousands of protestors marched in opposition to the changes, the largest demonstration against the president after nearly four years in office.

There are major challenges, however, in mustering an international response.

First, AMLO was democratically elected and enjoys a relatively high approval rating of 60 percent. Some will argue that he has a right change the electoral laws. But AMLO does not have enough of a majority to change Mexico’s constitution, and the INE’s status is embodied in the constitution. Therefore, AMLO is seeking to break the INE through changing secondary laws that his congressional majority can approve. The moves are as drastic as if a U.S. president who did not like rulings of the Supreme Court and could not abolish the court, instead drastically cut the court’s budget, fired its staff and sought legislatively to change its mandate.

Second, the U.S. has many other priority “asks” in front of AMLO, including migration, security, and trade, making it difficult to get involved in what AMLO will characterize as matters of “sovereignty.”

While the U.S. and Mexico have been developing more closely-linked relations for decades, the relationship began souring during the Trump administration. The Biden administration has invested heavily in building new mechanisms to improve relations, but cross-border security has deteriorated with increased smuggling of deadly fentanyl to the U.S. Of highest priority, the Biden administration believes it needs Mexico’s cooperation to help manage the border migration crisis. 

So, what is to be done?

President Biden should explicitly raise the issue of the INE with President AMLO when they meet next week.

Democracies should condemn this attack on Mexico’s electoral infrastructure. Canada, the UK, Spain, and — hopefully — Latin American countries including Chile, Ecuador and Uruguay should speak with one voice on this issue.

The new U.S. Congress should hold early hearings on the INE. 

President Biden’s Special Advisor for the Americas, former Sen. Chris Dodd, should take on the INE issue.

President Biden should press the issue when he meets AMLO again July 9-10 for the North American Leaders Summit in Mexico City. Statements from congressional leaders and international opinion leaders raising serious concerns would help.

The U.S. is co-hosting a democracy summit in March 2023, and the follow up to the 2022 Summit of the Americas will be in Denver in 2023. These should include active INE participation and content.

International friends of democracy should apply pressure to stop the actions that are planned by AMLO and his Morena party to cripple the INE. President Biden and Republicans in Congress should not want Mexico to make a major move towards soft authoritarianism on their watch.

Daniel F. Runde is a senior vice president and William A. Schreyer chair in Global Analysis at CSIS. He is the author of “The American Imperative: Reclaiming Global Leadership Through Soft Power” to be published in February by Bombardier Books.

Tags AMLO Andrés Manuel López Obrador Democracy election denialism election deniers Election integrity Elections Joe Biden Mexico Mexico–United States relations Politics of Mexico

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