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Mexican Democracy in Peril – Mary Anastasia O’Grady

People take part in a protest in Cancun Quintana Roo, Mexico, Nov. 13. (Paola Chiomante/Reuters)

By Mary Anastacia O’Grady

Hundreds of thousands of protesters in cities across Mexico turned out on Nov. 13 to oppose President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s plans to eliminate the independence of the country’s electoral authority.

In simpler terms, the world witnessed a national rally to save what’s left of Mexico’s democracy after four years of AMLO—as the president is known—at the helm.

Mr. López Obrador is subject to a strict one-term limit. He can’t legally remain in the presidency beyond the end of his six-year tenure in 2024. Yet he can retain power behind the throne if his Morena Party candidate is declared the winner of the next election.

As an insurance policy toward that end, he has proposed a constitutional amendment in Congress aimed at changing the way members of the National Electoral Institute, or INE, are chosen. If passed, Mr. López Obrador and Morena would be able to gain control of the institute, which is the arbiter of fairness during campaigns and counts the vote in elections.

AMLO also wants to give control of the voter rolls (now in the hands of INE) to the government, use proportional representation to elect the entire lower house of Congress, and eliminate electoral authorities at the state level.

Civil society is having none of it. It went to the streets not for partisan politics but in the defense of competitive elections. In Mexico City alone, a conservative estimate put the size of the demonstration that jammed Paseo de la Reforma at upward of 250,000.

The president dismissed the crowds as a bunch of well-to-do racists. But he’s clearly worried about what appears to be broadening resentment against his antidemocratic governance. He can hold his own rallies but he knows they’re rent-a-mob events.

He won the presidency in 2018 because the anti-AMLO vote was split among multiple candidates, turnout in northern states was lackluster, and he dominated Mexico City. In this latest outpouring of resistance, an energized opposition has emerged alongside signs that he has lost the support of the intellectual left.

He accused the demonstrators of standing in the way of his agenda, which he calls the “fourth transformation” of the country. That much is true. His consolidation of power in the name of progress is unpopular.

When Mr. López Obrador was elected with nearly 53% of the vote, some Mexican democrats shuddered. His lack of respect for democracy had been well-established when he refused to accept his narrow loss in the 2006 presidential election. There also was grave concern about his vision of restoring centralized economic and political power in the presidential palace of los Pinos.

Others were more sanguine, confident that after more than two decades of reforms designed to modernize the country, Mexican institutions were strong enough to contain the ambitions of the 65-year-old caudillo.

So far the democracy is holding on—barely. AMLO has abused executive authority to shut down construction of the international airport at Texcoco and to give the military a larger role in the economy.

Financial investigations by the government that freeze assets are used to intimidate his adversaries. He employed this strategy to push a Supreme Court justice off the bench as part of his effort to gain control of the high court by filling it with his own picks. He has wrested control of the energy regulator and the hydrocarbons commission, both formerly independent.

The lunge for INE is alarming. With near 90% approval, the institute has a stellar reputation in the country as an impartial referee, ensuring fair elections. Incumbent parties at the local level, for the first time in modern Mexican history, frequently lose elections. While INE relies on government funding, it derives its support, across the political spectrum, from its autonomy and its use of trained citizens to staff polling stations.

AMLO’s bully-pulpit insults of the institute have backfired, uniting a broad range of politics. One notable voice at the demonstration in the capital was José Woldenberg, a chairman of Mexico’s first independent electoral institute who has a history of working for socialist ideas: “We are gathered here with one clear and important goal: to defend the electoral system that several generations of Mexicans built.”

It’s possible the mass demonstration will turn out to be only one more protest march thrown on the funeral pyre of democracy in Latin America since Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999 and began taking control of independent institutions. Many large marches in Caracas were unable to stop Fidel Castro’s most successful South American protégé.

But Mexico is different from Venezuela, where power was heavily concentrated in the state-owned oil company. Nov. 13 could go down in history as a turning point in the struggle to defend the pluralism, self-government and freedom Mexicans have been working for since the 1990s.

Write to O’Grady@wsj.com.


Mary Anastasia O’Grady is an Opinion Columnist, writes “The Americas,” a weekly column on politics, economics and business in Latin America and Canada that appears every Monday in the Journal. Ms. O’Grady joined the paper in August 1995 and became a senior editorial page writer in December 1999. She was appointed an editorial board member in November 2005. She is also a member of the board of directors of the Indianapolis­-based Liberty Fund. Energiesnet.com does not necessarily share these views.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), on November 20, 2022. All comments posted and published on Petroleumworld, do not reflect either for or against the opinion expressed in the comment as an endorsement of Petroleumworld.

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