On June 6, midterm elections in Mexico will determine control of several state governments and, crucially, the lower house of congress. The process is shaping up to be a referendum on the presidency of Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The outcome of López Obrador’s self-proclaimed “fourth transformation” hangs in the balance.
Recent polls seem to confirm the popularity of Morena, the president’s party: four out of 10 Mexican voters will likely back Morena. Still, other scenarios suggest Mexico’s fragmented opposition could erode enough support from López Obrador to prevent the president from enjoying a supermajority. This would reduce the scope of his ambitions.
The prospect of this result has unsettled López Obrador.
In the past few weeks, Mexico’s president has been looking for a fight. He has interfered in the electoral process, calling for the prosecution of opposition candidates in the crucial state of Nuevo León, where his candidate has lost ground (“Of course I am,” he replied when asked whether he was intervening in the campaign). In his daily morning news conferences, he has also confronted Mexico’s electoral authority and personally mocked opposition candidates.
On May 7, López Obrador turned to a predictable boogeyman: the specter of American interventionism. In an accusation without much precedent in the modern history of the bilateral relationship between Mexico and the United States, López Obrador claimed the U.S. government was funding two organizations he considers not only part of the opposition but potentially seditious: Article 19, a global nonprofit dedicated to the protection of journalism and freedom of speech, and Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad (MCCI), which has played a significant role in uncovering corruption and graft since its founding in 2015 (López Obrador’s presidency began in 2018).
The United States provides funds for both organizations through the United States Agency for International Development, the foreign aid and development agency that works in more than 100 countries around the world, with both governments and civil society alike (including with AMLO’s own Interior Ministry). AMLO would have none of it. “It’s interference, it’s interventionism, it’s promoting coup-plotters,” López Obrador fumed. He then sent a formal diplomatic complaint to the United States. On Wednesday, he doubled down, demanding the United States “cancel its support” of MCCI. “Hopefully this same week,” he said.
Behind López Obrador’s conspiracy theories of American interventionism and his obstinate persecution of independent watchdogs in Mexico lies not only his fear of losing ground in next month’s legislative elections, but something more nefarious: his intolerance to both oversight and criticism. A few days after accusing the United States of meddling in the country’s political life, he again took to his morning news conference, this time to bully MCCI’s board of advisers. “Look, these are the people who question us,” he said, chuckling as he pointed to a screen filled with pictures of journalists, intellectuals and entrepreneurs. “So much objectivity, plurality, impartiality, independence, autonomy!” he added, sarcastically.
López Obrador has focused much of his ire on Claudio X. González, a founder of MCCI who has been critical of his administration. Like with many other critics of the administration, López Obrador has accused González of plotting against the government.
In an interview, González told me he left MCCI last June and expressed concern over the president’s attacks. “In a democracy, you can speak of opponents, but not of coup-plotters,” he told me. “I am a democrat.” María Amparo Casar, current director of MCCI and another frequent López Obrador target, lamented what she called the government’s “intimidatory actions.” She denied USAID has any bearing on her organization’s processes.
“It has no influence whatsoever in the development of the investigation, the approach used or in the results of the investigations. There is no proof of interventionism whatsoever,” Casar told me. “MCCI is not an ‘opposition group.’ We are not behind any coup. Beyond the fact that our stated corporate mission and articles of incorporation expressly prohibit it, there is not a shred of evidence that MCCI participates in partisan politics,” Casar said. “The nature of our work is uncomfortable for the government. It was for the Peña Nieto government, and it is now.”
And yet, while former president Enrique Peña Nieto faced intense scrutiny in the press (including a blockbuster MCCI inquiry on graft), he didn’t use the presidency’s bully pulpit to argue he was the victim of a subversive conspiracy. López Obrador has no such qualms. A president who publicly berates and exposes his critics or who can accuse the United States of interventionism with absolute impunity is no laughing matter. On June 6, Mexican voters will decide whether to grant him even more power.