The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Mexico’s president intensifies his attacks against independent institutions

Mexico's President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico City on Thursday. (Henry Romero/Reuters)

In early 2019, during the first weeks of his administration, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador canceled the construction of Mexico City’s new airport, a massive project already 30 percent completed that would have turned Mexico’s capital into an international hub. The airport’s termination would end up costing Mexican taxpayers at least $8 billion.

The decision confirmed López Obrador’s disposition to dismantle most of what has come before he won the presidency, worthy of the pike or not. He has also dismantled the country’s flawed but functioning health-care system; gone also is his predecessor’s education reform. He has now vowed to grant control of the electricity sector back to state monopolies. From human rights to freedom of information, he has shrunk the role of Mexico’s autonomous watchdogs.

Now, with Mexico’s crucial congressional and local elections less than two months away, López Obrador has begun a grave escalation. What at first could have been excused as a radical reimagining of the country’s governance has now become a frontal assault on Mexico’s institutions.

Over the last couple of weeks, López Obrador and his Morena party, led by loyalist Mario Delgado, have launched a campaign to publicly discredit the Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE), Mexico’s electoral authority. After the INE disqualified Félix Salgado Macedonio, Morena’s controversial candidate for governor in the southern state of Guerrero, for failing to disclose campaign expenditures, the president’s party began airing an unprecedented ad, accusing the INE of being corrupt, defaming the country’s electoral authority weeks before the first votes are cast. Lorenzo Cordova, a respected academic who heads the INE, responded with a call for temperance.

López Obrador doubled down. He called the INE’s decision to disqualify Salgado “an assault on democracy” and threatened to overhaul the institute after June’s election. “I don’t trust the INE,” he said. Emboldened by the president, Salgado then took the feud to alarming levels. “Wouldn’t the people of Mexico like to know where Lorenzo Córdova lives?” he asked, menacingly.

In normal circumstances, López Obrador’s meddling at the height of the country’s electoral season, his relentless effort to discredit the INE — an institution that has managed to remain independent — and Salgado’s appalling threats on Córdova would have led to a wave of public indignation and, perhaps, a modicum of presidential restraint after the backlash.

Instead, López Obrador has gone off the rails.

Last week, the president’s party, with the support of some of the increasingly pliable opposition in the Senate, passed a controversial two-year extension to the four-year period established in the constitution for Mexico’s head of the supreme court. The beneficiary, in this case, is Judge Arturo Zaldívar, whose term was set to expire in 2022 but would now conclude in 2024, the same year that would see the conclusion of López Obrador’s presidency (of which Zaldívar has been often supportive). The reaction to the likely unconstitutional measure was immediate.

“This is alarming. It’s a coup,” said the opposition senator Emilio Álvarez Icaza. For the writer Héctor Aguilar Camín, the extension of Zaldívar’s term endangers Mexico’s basic separation of powers. “We are approaching the tyranny envisioned by James Madison,” he wrote, referring to Madison’s famous warning against the concentration of authority in the hands of a few. Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, a respected figure among Mexico’s left, had much the same warning. The vote, said Muñoz Ledo, was “pathetically unconstitutional . . . would nullify the division of powers and could lead to the dissolution of the republican regime of government.”

López Obrador has remained defiant. Extending Zaldívar’s term, he has argued, is not unconstitutional. On the contrary. If Zaldívar stayed on, the president said, he would finally be able to “moralize the judiciary” through López Obrador’s preferred set of reforms. And Zaldívar? Throughout the ordeal, Mexico’s chief justice has remained conspicuously silent, out of character for a man with an active social media presence and who has a regular column in one of the country’s newspapers.

López Obrador’s systematic attacks on the country’s institutions have always justified concern. But these recent developments are far beyond the pale. López Obrador himself doesn’t seem to mind. When asked whether he would abide by some of the INE’s recent decisions, he seemed unfazed. “It is my right and my freedom, and that is above any other provision or any regulation,” he said.

While the country’s institutions and constitutional order could yet withstand López Obrador’s assault, one thing seems clear: In the battle against democratic institutions, Mexico’s president has crossed the Rubicon.

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