In Mexico’s 1988 presidential election, the official count halted after early returns showed the opposition candidate in the lead, supposedly because of a computer malfunction. When the tally resumed, the ruling party’s man was the winner. A comprehensive reform of Mexico’s electoral authority in the 1990s consigned such chicanery to the history books. Fair elections allowed the opposition to win a historic victory in 2000, ending 71 years of one-party rule.
Now Mexico’s populist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador wants to turn the clock back. The leftwinger last week strong-armed legislation through congress to slash the budget of the independent National Electoral Institute (INE) and weaken its supervisory powers. This was his second attempt to neuter the institute after even more draconian legislation failed last year.
López Obrador’s reasoning for mutilating one of Mexico’s most popular and well-respected institutions is flimsy. He claims that the body’s $765mn budget is excessive. Yet the INE’s responsibilities include administering a secure national identity card system for nearly 95mn people. He alleges that it is biased and corrupt. But the INE certified the president’s election victory in 2018 and has endorsed numerous wins by his Morena alliance since.
The opposition smells a rat. Mexico holds presidential and congressional elections next year in which López Obrador is keen to cement his political dominance. Presidential re-election is a century-old taboo in Mexico, so he will instead handpick a successor to run under the ruling party’s colours. He wants at all costs to retain a congressional majority, and if possible reach the two-thirds threshold which allows constitutional change. A compliant electoral institute will make his task much easier.
Such tactics are familiar in Mexican politics. For most of the 20th century, they were the preserve of the Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI), famously described by the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa as the “perfect dictatorship”.
López Obrador cut his political teeth as a PRI activist in the 1970s and 1980s before joining a new leftwing party. Now he seems intent on resurrecting some of the PRI’s worst traditions. The Mexican president is worryingly intolerant of political opposition or critical media coverage. Both, in his mind, are the work of corrupt elites. Independent institutions such as the central bank or the Supreme Court are only pukka if they do his bidding. A state-centric, oil-powered economy remains a goal; a $16bn oil refinery is due to come on stream this year.
López Obrador’s attacks on the electoral system mirror those of other populists in the Americas, such as Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro. This is no accident. López Obrador enjoyed a good working relationship with Trump and was among the last world leaders to recognise Joe Biden’s election victory.
What is to be done about López Obrador’s assault on Mexican democracy? The opposition is organising a mass protest and plans to challenge the new electoral law in the Supreme Court, itself under siege from the president.
It is time for Mexico’s allies and friends to speak out. The EU should find its voice. But most important is the US, Mexico’s neighbour and biggest trading partner. The Biden administration has been commendably robust in denouncing creeping authoritarianism in Central America yet curiously quiet about the same phenomenon in its most important Latin American ally. This must change. How can there be “friendshoring” to a country that is growing intolerant of political opposition and a free, open society?