On Sunday, February 26th, for the second time in less than a year, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans filled their capital city’s main public square to protest their president’s goal of remaking Mexico’s independent elections agency, sounding a siren that Mexican democracy is at a tipping point.
These reforms would severely cut the agency’s budget and its staffing (and thereby its ability to administer local elections), limit its autonomy, and restrict its ability to punish political candidates who break electoral laws.
Unlike the first protest in November, this time the demonstration might be too late: the changes to the elections agency, the National Electoral Institute (el INE, as it’s known by its Spanish acronym), have already been approved by the Mexican Congress (the senate passed the proposal on Wednesday). Commonly known as “Plan B,” the legislation is headed to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s desk for final passage, and upon signing, would amount to the biggest overhaul of the country’s election system in nearly a decade.
The reforms are the culmination of “a very clear political strategy, to sell the INE as a biased, partial authority,” the INE’s director told the New York Times after the vote. And they fit into a broader effort by López Obrador, known also by his initials, AMLO, to consolidate power in the executive branch during his term and with his political party, which controls both chambers of Congress, a majority of the country’s governorships, a plurality of state legislatures, and the influential mayoralty of Mexico City.
Opposition parties, civil society groups, and citizens who oppose the measure still have one hope to hold off the implementation of the changes. Mexico’s Supreme Court is likely to take up a challenge to the reform in the coming months.
If the changes are carried out, electoral officials, academics, and activists say the future of free and fair elections in Mexico, including the presidential and congressional elections next year, will be in jeopardy and may be marred by the distrust and corruption that sparked the INE’s creation in the first place.
American observers also view the reforms with distrust.
“By approving President López Obrador’s proposal to slash the National Electoral Institute’s funding and oversight capabilities, the Mexican Congress has imperiled the future of its country’s democratic institutions,” the Democratic and Republican chairmen of both the Senate and House foreign affairs committees said in a statement early Friday evening. “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.”
What Mexico’s “Plan B” does, and how it will impact elections in 2024
These changes are the second time AMLO has attempted to use the legal process to interfere with and adjust the way the highly respected oversight body operates. Attacking the institute has been a theme of his candidacy that he has carried into office. He first proposed a constitutional reform to the electoral system last year that was blocked by the lower house of Congress in December.
That first effort would have replaced the INE with a National Electoral and Consultation Institute (INEC) in charge of administering and overseeing all federal and state-level elections with a seven-member panel directly elected by the public (a third of the candidates standing in that election would be selected by the president, congress, and the supreme court). Currently, the 11 members of INE’s leadership board are selected by a nominating committee and confirmed by Congress to staggered 9-year terms, which are meant to outlast congressional and presidential tenures (Mexican presidents serve for six years and cannot be reelected) and restrain political influence. Four of the 11 members of this current board were appointed during AMLO’s presidency.
The INE, which has been fighting back against the president’s criticisms and attacks, said in a report it commissioned that the budget cuts would mean losing up to 85 percent of its professional staff. That loss of staffing would, in turn, hamstring the agency’s ability to staff and administer polling places, keep voter rolls up to date, and carry out civic education programs — amounting to a violation of civil rights and harming the legitimacy of elections.