For most of the last century, elections in Mexico were a farce.
The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party controlled ballot boxes, voter rolls and even tallied votes. Unsurprisingly, the party won every time.
It became known as “the perfect dictatorship,” an authoritarian regime that rarely resorted to brute force because it so decisively controlled elections.
That all crumbled in 2000, when a candidate from another party won the presidency for the first time in seven decades. It was all thanks to a groundbreaking 1996 reform that shielded the newly formed national electoral institute from political interference.
Now the institute that helped birth Mexico’s democracy is under attack.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a leftist populist whose party controls both houses of Congress and most state governorships, is pushing for a dramatic overhaul of the institute that critics say would strip away its autonomy and once again concentrate power in the hands of the ruling party.
The president has proposed amending the constitution to alter many landmark features of Mexico’s electoral system, slashing the number of seats in Mexico’s Senate and Congress, ending public financing for political parties and eliminating state elections boards.
Crucially, the proposed law would also change how electoral authorities are chosen. Currently, officials serve staggered terms after being picked by legislators from a pool of experts. Under the new law, a fresh class of officials would be chosen every six years directly by voters from a group of candidates nominated by the president, Congress and the Supreme Court.
Critics — including many foreign and local election experts — warn that the new system would be susceptible to politicization and that the changes seem designed to help the president’s political party maintain control.
“It’s an attempt to subjugate the electoral process to gain an advantage in elections,” said Mariano Sánchez Talanquer, a professor of comparative politics at the College of Mexico.
He described the proposed electoral changes as part of López Obrador’s broader strategy “to debilitate independent centers of power … and elevate the president.”
As part of his pledge to bring austerity to a government frequently beset by corruption, López Obrador has slashed funding across most departments, imposing particularly steep cuts on institutions designed to serve as a counterweight to the presidency, such as regulatory agencies and the human rights commission. He recently shrank the budget for the elections institute by nearly $250 million, a move that its president decried as “budgetary blackmail.”
The president’s latest proposal has triggered protests, with opposition leaders and others accusing López Obrador of seeking to drag the country back into its authoritarian past. At a march through the capital last month, signs compared López Obrador to leftist autocrat Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela while tens of thousands of people chanted: “Democracy, yes! Dictatorship, no!”
As is his habit when he is criticized on most any topic, López Obrador dismissed the protests as “very classist and racist,” blaming them on a wealthy establishment that he says is afraid of losing its standing as he transforms Mexico into a more equal society.
On Sunday, he held his own mega-march in the capital with tens of thousands of his supporters.
So far, López Obrador does not appear to have the congressional supermajority required to win passage of his electoral changes.
He has said that he has a “Plan B” to push many of the changes without amending the constitution. Polls show that his proposals have broad popular support.
With a 66% approval rating, López Obrador is one of the world’s most popular presidents, beloved by many for his plainspoken style and his pledge to put the poor first in a country beset by entrenched inequality. He has pumped money into welfare programs and dramatically raised the minimum wage.
Many of his supporters seem willing to back him at all costs, even if it means concentrating power in the executive and altering the institution that helped foster Mexico’s democracy.
“We are very grateful to the president,” said Patricia Salazar, an elderly woman who traveled from the state of Michoacan with her husband on Sunday to march behind López Obrador down the tree-lined Reforma Avenue. “We say we’d give our life for him.”
Newspaper columnist Jorge Zepeda Patterson said critiques of the president fail to recognize that many of his supporters have more urgent priorities than protecting the country’s electoral institute.
“They talk about the defense of democracy, but what does that mean to a hungry campesino?” he said.
López Obrador is constitutionally prohibited from running for a second term in Mexico’s next presidential election.
Some critics worry that he wants to change the electoral institute because he plans to run again, and though some of his supporters at the march Sunday toted signs urging he do just that, López Obrador says that when his term is up he will retire to his ranch in the southern state of Chiapas.
But there’s no doubt that he hopes that the political party he founded, Morena, which means “brown skin” in Spanish, will continue to dominate Mexican politics.
López Obrador says the election institute needs reforming because it is dominated by conservatives. But many have noted that his desire to change it seems due in part to a personal grudge.
In 2006, López Obrador came within 0.56% of the vote of winning the presidency, and he denounced his loss as fraudulent. He turned a large section of downtown Mexico City into a protest camp after the electoral body dismissed his claims of fraud.
Twelve years later, López Obrador won the presidency in a landslide, beating his closest challenger by 31 percentage points. The results were certified by the electoral institute.
Cecilia Sanchez and Leila Miller in The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.