Is AMLO undermining democracy in Mexico?
Some say the president is breathing new life into the country’s ossified institutions, but there are good reasons to be worried
Under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), some of Mexico's democratic institutions are being undermined. It’s not yet clear if this is a precursor to reforming them, or the dawn of a new authoritarian era. But all signs currently suggest the latter. In recent months, AMLO has seemed more interested in bringing democratic institutions under his control rather than making them more efficient.
The warning signs are everywhere but I will discuss just two of them here. The first is the constant harassment by AMLO and Morena, the party he founded, of the National Electoral Institute (INE) and the Electoral Tribunal of the Federal Judiciary (TEPJF). For example, the president declared at his morning press conference in late April that the TEPJF and the INE “were created to prevent democracy”. It was obvious that he was frustrated by the INE’s decision, backed by the Tribunal, to prevent two Morena candidates from running for the governorship of Guerrero and Michoacán in south-central Mexico in elections on 6 June.
The party had to put up new candidates because the original nominees hadn’t submitted pre-campaign expenses to the INE, as required by law. The INE imposed the penalty that the law stipulates, yet AMLO’s reaction was one of anger: “Do you think that the INE councillors or the court magistrates are democrats? I say: no, on the contrary, they conspire against democracy.”
AMLO’s animosity towards the autonomous body responsible for organising federal elections in the country, as well as its preeminent electoral court, is not new. It dates back to his defeat in the 2006 and 2012 presidential elections. He never accepted that he lost and always claimed there had been electoral fraud.
Now, the INE seems beyond help. Whatever the outcome of the June midterm elections, AMLO’s party is sure to cry foul. As a first step, it will pass legislation to undermine the body’s autonomy. Eventually, it may try to get rid of the INE, ahead of the 2024 presidential elections.
Court in the act
The second sign of authoritarian regression is what’s happening with the Supreme Court. Slowly but surely, it is being colonised by the executive, which is concentrating its power by weakening the autonomy of the judiciary. It all started with the resignation in October 2019 of Eduardo Medina Mora as one of the Supreme Court’s 11 judges. The federal authorities were investigating his assets. Medina Mora’s vacant seat was swiftly filled by Margarita Ríos Farjat, perceived to be a close ally of AMLO.
More recently, the president’s party sponsored a controversial bill to extend the term of the court's chief justice, Arturo Zaldívar, by two years. Article 97 of the constitution states: "Every four years, the judges will elect the chief justice of the Supreme Court from among its members." But on 23 April, Morena voted to pass the so-called “Zaldívar Law,” which extends his term to six years. It is clearly an unconstitutional move, but one that has the blessing of AMLO, who “trusts”' Chief Justice Zaldívar to carry out judicial reform. The president seems to have forgotten that the chief justice of the Supreme Court is not a subordinate, but the head of an independent branch of government.
All of this is happening while AMLO’s administration moves ahead with a programme of direct cash transfers to those most in need, including the elderly, the unemployed and small landholders. But the scheme seems to have no clear rules and appears to be meant solely to boost the president's popularity. This is the case with social programs such as Jóvenes Construyendo el Futuro, Sembrando Vida, Programa para el Bienestar de las Personas Adultas Mayores, and Tandas del Bienestar.
A new deal for Mexico?
The question is: should the institutional decay and democratic backsliding be understood as part of the transition towards a new, more authentic democracy in Mexico? That is what the government says, and some sympathetic analysts suggest that this phase of Mexico’s history is like the transformational era in the US, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, between 1933 and 1945. AMLO describes Roosevelt as “the best president the US has had in all its history”.
It’s true that in his day, Roosevelt came under sharp attack for his allegedly authoritarian tendencies. And it’s also true that today, he is recognised as a leader who saved democracy with his New Deal, when his country was going through a very difficult time. Is what we see today in Mexico comparable? Are we at the dawn of a new, more democratic regime, or are we taking an authoritarian turn?
There is no easy answer. Nancy Bermeo, an American political scientist and senior research fellow at Nuffield College, University of Oxford, says as much in her article “On Democratic Backsliding”. As she writes, these processes of change tend to be ambiguous. This is particularly true when the backsliding has popular support, or when it is portrayed as an attempt to make elections and democracy more inclusive.
Should the backsliding be understood as part of the transition towards a new, more authentic democracy in Mexico?
Bermeo suggests that those who oppose democratic backsliding should avoid characterising its supporters as pro-authoritarian rule. As she explains, democratic backsliding seeks to undermine a specific set of democratic institutions, which may not necessarily be in the best shape. Certainly, even those of us who follow events in Mexico with concern can imagine better and more efficient electoral bodies.
Camila Vergara, a professor of law at Columbia University, supports the idea that a populist leader like AMLO is acting to reinvigorate stagnant democracy. Vergara points out that AMLO’s leadership has the potential to deepen democracy by breaking the economic elites’ hold over public institutions and returning them to the “people” in the form of communes or bodies that represent the grassroots.
She is not the only academic to hold this view. Hélène Landemore, a political scientist at Yale, says something similar in her book ‘Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the Twenty-First Century’. Landemore describes modern democratic institutions as “closed and guarded” places where “only certain people, with the suit, the accent, the wealth and the right connections are welcome.”
Simeon Nichter, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego makes an interesting point in his book ‘Votes for Survival’ about the client networks that AMLO is allegedly seeking to build with the cash transfers. He argues that clientelism is not a tool for the elites, but an ongoing political relationship between elites and citizens subject to the fulfilment of campaign promises and constituent services. From his perspective, clientelism could be understood as a way of incorporating marginalised sectors into politics, and ultimately promoting accountability. Isn’t that what democracy is all about?
It is an excellent scenario that Nichter has sketched out: democratic backsliding as a process of creative destruction. But will that really be the case? What are the chances that we will have a better set of democratic institutions? Will AMLO's client networks really succeed in politically integrating the marginalised, and promote accountability? I would love to be wrong, but I am afraid the answer is no.
As I indicated before, the current administration does not seem to have any interest in replacing existing institutions with more autonomous ones. Instead, the apparent objective appears to be for the executive to take them over.
For much of the 20th century, Mexicans experienced something similar under the authoritarian rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PRI had a hegemonic party system and ran an “imperial presidency”, in the words of the historian Enrique Krauze. Under its rule, executive, legislative and judicial powers, as well as authority over budgetary resources, were merged into the person of the president, who could deal with them as he saw fit.
The democratic backsliding underway in Mexico seems to be heading in that direction, with Morena seeking to become PRI-lite. There is another, slightly more far-fetched possibility, too. That a regime which rejoices in the cult of personality hollows out Mexico’s democratic institutions and leaves them empty of value. Whatever happens, it is clear we are on the threshold of a new political era in Mexico. Let's call it the Presidential Restoration.
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