As a young social-justice activist in the Mexico of the 1970s and 1980s, Uuc-kib Espadas Ancona knew he had little chance of making change through the electoral system. The Partido Revolucionario Institucional, which governed the country for 71 consecutive years, controlled the election machinery and ensured its candidates won every time. When he protested the flagrantly rigged presidential election of 1988, police violently shut down the demonstrations.
“It was outrageous – they were stealing the election. We got angry and we mobilized. But it was useless,” he recalled.
Now a 59-year-old academic and councillor on the Instituto Nacional Electoral, the independent elections agency that grew out of Mexico’s transition to democracy in the 1990s, Mr. Espadas fears the country may be set to return to that dark time.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has launched a series of reforms meant to reduce the power of the INE and loosen elections rules. Mr. Espadas sees it all as a bid to suborn democracy to the President’s governing Morena political party.
“It’s an authoritarian tendency,” he said at INE’s headquarters, a complex of grey and pink stucco buildings at the junction of two expressways in the Mexico City suburbs. “The objective is to make INE a weak institution.”
Since taking office in 2018, Mr. Lopez Obrador has regularly drawn accusations of autocracy. He has expanded the role of the military, mused about abolishing various independent regulatory bodies and disregarded constitutional law to curtail green energy projects. But none has met the opposition provoked by his efforts to change INE.
Last year, the President tried to push through a constitutional reform that would have dissolved the commission’s 11-member governing council, which is currently appointed by Congress from a list of experts for staggered terms. It would have been replaced by an elected seven-person body tied to the presidential election cycle. After mass protests both for and against the law, opposition members of Congress united to block it.
So Mr. Lopez Obrador put forward what he called “Plan B” bills that aim to cut INE’s budget and roll back some of Mexico’s famously strict rules on campaigning for office. The chief consequence, the agency says, would be the firing of more than 84 per cent of elections workers, raising the risk that polling stations could either be taken over by political operators or not open at all.
Jorge Alvarez Maynez, a legislator with the opposition Movimiento Ciudadano, says Mr. Lopez Obrador usually bats away concerns over the country’s democratic institutions as first-world problems of little day-to-day importance. With INE, however, Mr. Alvarez said, there was a much stronger response from regular citizens.
“This is different, because it feels for the people like we have a democracy – with failures, with things that you can discuss or try to improve – but we have a democracy,” he said. “It was a big mistake for him.”
Because of Mexico’s history, INE holds an outsized place among state institutions. In addition to maintaining the country’s election infrastructure, it uses a system akin to jury duty to enlist regular citizens to help out during the vote. This is designed to make it impossible to cheat and keep average Mexicans invested in the process.
The agency also enforces some of the world’s most stringent electoral laws. Politicians are allowed to campaign only during limited election periods and face prohibitions on using their current offices for electoral advancement.
Several of Mr. Lopez Obrador’s political allies have run afoul of these rules, including one state gubernatorial candidate who was kicked out of the race for failing to file financial paperwork. The opposition has lodged complaints against Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo, a protégé of the President, for holding campaign-style events around the country ahead of next year’s presidential race.
Despite it all, Mr. Lopez Obrador remains popular, regularly notching approval ratings of 60 per cent. This may come partly from his direct communications style, anchored by two-hour-long daily press conferences. It is also likely owing to his expansion of government programs that deliver monthly cheques to Mexicans, a highly tangible form of wealth redistribution that fits his left-wing populist brand.
One insider of Mr. Lopez Obrador’s government said the President’s thinking is driven by what policies will be the most popular with his base. For that reason, his decisions often don’t fit a consistent ideological plan for governing.
The Globe and Mail is not identifying the source because they were not authorized to speak publicly about internal matters.
Mr. Lopez Obrador has accused opponents of electoral reform of being out-of-touch elitists.
“It was a sort of public political striptease of conservatism in Mexico,” he said of protests against the policy. “This is very good … because if this doesn’t emerge and remains underground, it does a lot of damage to having a better society, more fair, more egalitarian, more fraternal.”
Fernando Belaunzaran Mendez, who helped organize the protests, contends that Mr. Lopez Obrador’s progressive image is little more than patina. The President has imposed fiscal austerity on the government, failed to deliver on his promise of universal health care and made virtually no effort to advance access to abortion.
Instead, Mr. Belaunzaran sees Mr. Lopez Obrador as part of a broader group of “illiberal” politicians, including Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela and former president Donald Trump of the U.S.
“In these times, the difference between the left and the right is: Are you for democracy or autocracy?” Mr. Belaunzaran said. “He’s not a leftist.”
The President has caused worry by increasing the use of the army in policing and at the border, and assigning military units to help build the new Mexico City airport and rail lines in the Yucatan. He has talked about bringing several currently independent watchdogs under the direct control of his government, including the access-to-information office and the country’s antitrust regulator.
In the electricity sector, meanwhile, Mr. Lopez Obrador’s administration has blocked permits for private solar and wind generation projects, instead favouring government plants burning fuel oil – counter to provisions in the Mexican constitution that mandate open competition in the energy market.
“The objective is control. Anything which moves independent of the government is thought of as dangerous,” said Montserrat Ramiro Ximenez, an energy expert and former head of Mexico’s regulator.
For his part, Mr. Espadas, the elections official, sees Mr. Lopez Obrador’s reforms as only a symptom of the larger problem causing a “global recession in democracy.” For many people, he said, electing governments hasn’t resulted in any improvements to their daily lives. Democratic leaders must show they can tangibly help the people who put them in office; if they don’t, the system he has spent his life fighting for will be on borrowed time.
“Mexico is a country that has succeeded in constructing a democracy where, 40 years ago, there were no free elections at all. But that can change.”