Mexico - Electoral reform sparks nationwide protests
AMLO is using his usual playbook to dismiss the large protests against his INE changes, but this may finally be an issue that harms him politically.
Boz will be teaching a short course about analyzing protests in late April. The course will take about 5-7 hours of work over one week, including three one-hour Q&A sessions. You can learn more and sign up via the Maven platform (discount code HX20 gives you 20% off if you sign up early). Boz has taught a variety of courses on Latin America, political risk, sanctions, and energy to private audiences in recent years, but this is only the second time that a course has been offered publicly. Feel free to reply to this email or reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.
Angry at the government's proposed changes and budget cuts to the electoral authorities, more than 100,000 people protested in Mexico City this past Sunday, and protests occurred in dozens of other cities around the country. It was almost certainly the largest and most politically relevant protest of AMLO's four years in office (the protests by feminist movements earlier in AMLO's term may be the only serious competition to that claim).
Last week, Mexico’s legislature approved a reform package to weaken the country’s electoral authorities through ambitious budget cuts and curtailing the powers of the National Electoral Institute (INE) and the Electoral Tribunal. The approved reform package cuts the INE budget by roughly 3.5 billion pesos (about USD 190 million) and restricts INE and the Electoral Tribunal’s ability to penalize candidates and political parties who violate the country’s electoral laws. The reform has been dubbed “Plan B” by the Mexican media in reference to a previous version of the reform that failed last fall.
This weekend’s protests follow from a weeks-long campaign by current INE officials to try to reverse the course of the reform they view as an existential threat to Mexico’s democratic integrity. President Counselor of the INE Lorenzo Córdova pledged that the organization would use all resources within its reach to fight the reform, and INE plans to challenge the Plan B reform in the country’s Supreme Court. The court must validate the electoral reform by June 2 (90 days before the official campaign cycle begins) in order for the new measures to take effect in the 2024 elections.
Publicly, López Obrador isn’t backing down from his proposed reforms and is trying to regain the initiative by criticizing his opponents. While the protest volume was significant for one day, there is little reason to believe that demonstrations will be enduring or cause significant disruptions to daily life or economic activity in Mexico’s commercial centers. López Obrador is banking on his teflon-like ability to avoid long-term damage from scandals or criticism that has served him well in his presidency so far. In yesterday’s mañanera, he dismissed protesters as opposition operatives who “do not care about democracy”. This morning, AMLO criticized the Biden administration for its comments about Mexico’s electoral reform, claiming the US should spend more time focused on Peru. He also criticized the foreign media coverage of the protest.
This electoral reform could be a weak point for Morena’s otherwise strong national image. A Reforma poll from November found that 53 percent of Mexicans were satisfied with INE as an organization in its current form. The same poll found that 80 percent of Mexicans believed INE was important for protecting Mexican democracy, while only 18 percent did not.
That polling means pushing the electoral reform through following the significant display of opposition makes López Obrador look paranoid and insecure about the 2024 election, an election that many analysts agree currently favors his Morena party. Opinion polls consistently show that Morena enjoys the most popular support nationally out of any individual party or coalition, and opposition parties have higher “anti-votes”, the share of voters who say they will never support the party, than Morena. In Enkoll’s latest poll, 9 percent of respondents said they would never vote for Morena in a presidential election. In contrast, 46 percent said they would never vote for the PRI, and 14 percent said they would never vote for the PAN.
In the weeks going forward, it will be important to watch López Obrador’s polling numbers as well as those of the Morena pre-candidates. If AMLO’s approval drops even five or ten points from current levels, it would signal vulnerability on this issue. Another notable signal would be statements from other top Morena leaders - including potential 2024 candidates like Sheinbaum and Ebrard - indicating that they are backing away from full support of the reforms.
The perception that López Obrador and his allies are overstepping their authority could breathe fresh life into Mexico’s opposition parties who do not always have an easy time coordinating with one another. This protest, which was not organized by any one opposition political party, was the most serious sign of an organized opposition to AMLO seen in years. There is not a clear leader of the opposition at the moment, but this protest shows that there is space for one to emerge and grab on to the “defense of democracy” as an issue. If the opposition can successfully cast López Obrador and Morena as anti-democratic forces, López Obrador and his allies could find themselves on weaker footing for the 2024 race.