The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Mexico’s young democracy teeters on the edge of a cliff

Protesters rally at Mexico City’s Zócalo on Feb. 26 in support of the National Electoral Institute and against President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s plan to reform it. (Reuters) (Webcams de Mexico/via REUTERS)
3 min

Twice in recent months, first on Nov. 13 and then on Feb. 26, tens of thousands of Mexicans took to the streets to protest a new law that will gut the nation’s autonomous electoral authority. Their cries of distress should be heard widely — and heeded. The electoral law, championed by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and signed by him in recent days, is a knife stabbing at the heart of Mexico’s democracy.

“Don’t touch our vote!” the demonstrators chanted in Mexico City’s Zócalo, the vast square in front of the presidential palace, many wearing shirts and baseball caps in pink, the color of the National Electoral Institute, or INE, that would be sundered by the new law. “We’re not ready to lose our democracy,” Óscar Casanova, a businessman, told The Post’s Mary Beth Sheridan.

For seven decades, Mexico was ruled by a single party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which lost the presidential contest in 2000, opening the way to a period of multiparty competition. The National Electoral Institute has played a key role in this transition as an independent, nonpartisan authority, deploying thousands of workers who issue voter IDs and control virtually all aspects of state and federal balloting. The new law would emasculate the INE, requiring it to close 40 offices around the country and sharply reduce its staff and resources. It would also weaken the agency’s enforcement mechanisms, limiting its ability to sanction candidates for severe offenses.

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Mr. López Obrador, a populist who is genuinely popular, claims the electoral authority is a bloated bureaucracy and that he will transfer savings to the poor. But there are deeper, personal reasons behind his actions. He nurses grievances over his narrow election loss in 2006, which the election authority certified. The Mexican constitution limits Mr. López Obrador to one six-year term, which ends in 2024, but a weakened electoral system could ease the way for his chosen successor and let his party remain in power.

Now that Mr. López Obrador has signed the bill into law, the courts are the last chance to stop it. Hopefully, they will recognize the potential damage and block it, but Mr. López Obrador has not been shy about meddling with the legal system.

The United States cannot ignore the weakening of democracy in Mexico. The interests of the two nations are tightly intertwined, with huge border flows of goods and people. The United States also is striving to combat the scourge of fentanyl manufacturing that has picked up pace in Mexico in recent years. Moreover, Mr. López Obrador’s move marks another step backward for democracy around the world. As Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) quite correctly warned in a statement, “Returning Mexico to its dark past of presidentially controlled elections not only sets the clock back on its democracy, but also U.S.-Mexico relations.”

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