Text in which the author defends ideas and reaches conclusions based on his / her interpretation of facts and data

A chance to support Mexico’s resistance to democratic decline – before it’s too late

The U.S. needs to shift gears and offer open and unequivocal support to independent electoral and judicial institutions in Mexico that act as a check on executive power

The council of the INE during the protest of Guadalupe Taddei, on April 3 in Mexico City.INE (Cuartoscuro)

Earlier this year, tens of thousands of Mexicans took to the streets to protest newly enacted legislation gutting the country’s highly-regarded National Electoral Institute (INE) in advance of state elections this year and presidential elections in 2024. In response, the U.S. State Department observed: “Today, in Mexico, we see a great debate on electoral reforms on the independence of electoral and judicial institutions that illustrates Mexico’s vibrant democracy.” The facts, however, suggest that unless the Mexican Supreme Court steps in to save the day, Mexico’s democracy may not be so vibrant after all.

The new legislation, known in Mexico as “Plan B” and backed by President López Obrador and his ruling Morena party, came after their “Plan A” — a constitutional amendment targeting INE — narrowly failed to muster the required two-thirds majority in Congress. Passed by a simple majority, Plan B eliminates INE’s professional personnel by over 80%, severely limits its ability to monitor elections, and allows the executive branch to interfere with INE’s budget items, structure, internal decisions, as well as the electoral roll. Given INE’s key role in ensuring Mexico’s transition from seven decades of one-party rule to a country with credible elections, these changes strike at the heart of Mexico’s democracy.

On May 8, Mexico’s Supreme Court found unconstitutional one legislative decree of the package (which limited INE’s ability to police political advertising) on the grounds that it violated “legislative procedure, particularly the principle of informed and democratic deliberation.” The president responded by hurling insults at the court and announcing a constitutional reform proposal to have judges elected by popular vote. These attacks on the court follow other attempts to undermine judicial independence, which, together with the president’s constant attacks on political opponents, independent media, and civil society groups, are serious early warnings of democratic decline in the country.

The court’s judgement on the rest of Plan B is pending. The Mexican Bar Association, through Stanford Law School’s Rule of Law Impact Lab, submitted an amicus curiae brief in INE’s challenge to the constitutionality of the remaining legislation. Under international standards, Mexico has an obligation to protect citizens’ right to vote and participate in free and fair elections. These rights are also provided for under domestic law. The Supreme Court has an opportunity — and a critical role to play — to protect Mexican democracy.

Even if the court does the right thing and finds the remaining legislation unconstitutional, the battle for Mexico’s democracy is not over yet. In addition to his proposal to amend the constitution to require Supreme Court judges to be elected, the president announced a “Plan C”— he wants to ensure Morena and its allies win a super-majority in both houses of parliament so that they can amend the constitution. He appears to have no plans to stop, and the Spanish alphabet has 27 letters.

The president’s attacks on INE and the Supreme Court are not isolated attacks on democratic institutions. He has also called for eliminating the historically independent National Institute for Transparency, Access to Information, and Protection of Personal Data (INAI). He has systematically shifted control of civilian functions — running ports, airports, and customs — to the military, which is implicated in abusive immigration policies and public security strategies. He attempted to transfer the National Guard to military control, but the Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional.

Despite these ongoing efforts to undercut democracy, President López Obrador continues to have high approval ratings, in part because many people in Mexico are willing to sacrifice individual freedoms in the face of his promise to quell drug-related violence and inequality. Both remain serious concerns.

In this context, it is critically important to support — before it is too late — the Supreme Court’s efforts to put the brakes on Mexico’s democratic backslide.

Although the United States’ influence in Latin America is declining, it still has a critical role to play in certain countries, and undoubtedly, Mexico is one of them. Yet the U.S. government’s foreign policy towards Mexico is narrowly driven by domestic considerations and the Biden administration’s outsourcing of immigration enforcement to Mexico. Concerns about Mexico’s democracy have fallen by the wayside.

True, the United States has its own problem of democratic decline. Especially after the January 6 attack on the Capitol, it is hardly a role model for other democracies. But keeping quiet or issuing equivocal messages about the state of democracy in Mexico does not help the U.S.’s international legitimacy nor its objective of improving country conditions and addressing the root causes of migration.

Some may argue that the Biden administration is waiting to see what happens with the presidential elections next year, hoping damage between now and then will be limited, and that a new Mexican president would help undo the current mess. That’s a big gamble. The U.S. needs to shift gears and offer open and unequivocal support to independent electoral and judicial institutions in Mexico that act as a check on executive power, including through its embassy in Mexico City. And it should do it soon, before all the vibrancy has been drained from Mexico’s democracy.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS