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Bibi, AMLO and Freedom

On the streets of Mexico and Israel people are not just rejecting undemocratic reforms, they are in uproar facing an imminent loss of freedom

A demonstration in Jerusalem on March 2 against the government's judicial reforms.AMMAR AWAD (REUTERS)
Moisés Naím

Bibi, the prime minister of Israel, and AMLO, the president of Mexico, couldn’t be more different. At the moment, however, their political strategies could not be more similar. Both are trying to change the politics of their respective countries in profound ways, and both are doing so using profoundly undemocratic means.

Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi) and Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) personal histories as well as the countries where they were born in, live in and lead are radically different. So is the cultural, political and economic context in which they were raised. The territory of Mexico is 94 times that of Israel and its population is 14 times larger. Israel’s per capita income is now at the same level as that of France or Germany, while Mexico suffers from chronic economic anemia. Since the 1970s, Israel’s economy has been growing rapidly while Mexico’s has been growing slowly. While Bibi boasts of the high-tech boom during his tenure, AMLO is using public funds to build a railroad and an oil refinery.

Another difference is that Bibi has lived his entire life in a democratic country, while AMLO was raised in a one-party state, where the PRI monopolized power from 1929 to 2000.

For Bibi, it is imperative that his government respond aggressively to attacks by internal and external enemies such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian militants. AMLO, for his part, will be remembered for taking on the Mexican drug cartels with a strategy he called “hugs, not bullets” (no, it didn’t work).

The surprise is that, despite their many differences, Bibi and AMLO have adopted exactly the same political strategy: a frontal attack on democracy. This attack is not being waged with soldiers and tanks, but with lawyers, journalists and political cronies. Bibi is trying to push a series of reforms through the courts that would dilute laws and institutions designed to prevent the prime minister and his allies from concentrating power.

While Bibi attacks the judiciary, AMLO attacks the electoral system. The Mexican president has launched an offensive against the National Electoral Institute (INE), the public body in charge of organizing elections in Mexico and preventing fraud. The INE is recognized worldwide as an independent institution that defends democracy and – unlike many countries these days – does not give a rubber stamp to elections rigged by the resident autocrat. Similar to Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, AMLO has continually criticized the INE, calling it “rotten,” “corrupt” and biased. His most recent attack has been to slash its budget. Lorenzo Córdova, the institute’s president, told journalist Anne Applebaum that AMLO’s reforms would force them to lay off 85 percent of their staff, severely limiting INE’s ability to carry out its mission.

But the attack is not only on the electoral system. AMLO has also been attacking the media and specific journalists who criticize him or who have exposed his falsehoods (a study by the consulting firm Spin found that AMLO has made 56,000 false or misleading statements on “Mañaneras,” his daily morning news conference). Another battlefront for the Mexican president has been the judiciary. He recently lashed out at Norma Piña, the president of the Supreme Court, a woman AMLO slams as soft on crime.

The US State Department, journalists, academics, politicians and a wide range of non-governmental organizations have declared their firm opposition to AMLO’s strategy. Tens of thousands of protesters have been filling the Zócalo, the streets of Mexico City and other cities to protest against him.

It is the same in Israel. More than 100,000 Israelis have taken to the streets in major cities to protest Bibi and his coalition of radical parties and leaders. Thus, two countries that could not be more different turned out to be identical in their defense of democracy.

Isaac Herzog, the president of Israel, declared: “We are no longer in a political debate, but on the brink of constitutional and social collapse.” Veterans of Unit 8200, an elite section of Israeli military intelligence, have joined those who have publicly denounced Bibi’s attempt to concentrate power. In a letter released to the public they said, “We will not volunteer for a country that unilaterally changed the basic social contract with its citizens.”

What is happening in the streets of Mexico and Israel goes beyond a cry to stop undemocratic legal reforms and reducing the budgets of public bodies such as the INE or attacks against journalists and judges.

It is a reaction to the imminent loss of freedom.

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