Mexico weakens impartial electoral agency, a dangerous step toward one-party rule | Opinion

Three months ago, I wrote a column saying that Mexico’s democracy may be imperiled if President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador succeeds in demolishing the independent electoral agency that has ensured his country’s free and fair elections in recent decades.

Now, that threat has become a reality.

Lorenzo Cordova, president of the National Electoral Institute, or INE — the agency Lopez Obrador is trying to destroy — told me in an interview that congressional approval of a package of six government-backed laws to undermine the institution “is already inevitable.”

The Mexican Congress already has been passed two of six Lopez Obrador-backed bills to weaken the INE. The remaining four are likely to be approved soon, because Lopez Obrador has enough votes in Congress to pass them, Cordova told me.

The INE has guaranteed free and fair elections since the late 1990s, when it became an autonomous government institution. Before that, Mexico’s ruling party routinely rigged elections and stayed in power for seven consecutive decades.

Referring to the laws to weaken the INE, backed by the ruling party, Cordova told me that “a miracle would have to happen for the president to veto them. But that will obviously not happen, because they are part or a program, a project, a strategy that has been pushed by the government itself.”

Now, the only hope for the INE to be preserved as an impartial electoral agency is that the Supreme Court declares the government-backed laws unconstitutional, Cordova told me.

The two laws that have passed will, among other things, make it easier for government officials to publicly support government candidates in the 2024 presidential elections, Cordova said. Current laws prohibit government officials from campaigning for candidates.

More important, the budget cuts contained in the remaining bills would force the INE to lay off up to 85% of its professional staff. The INE would not be able to monitor voting for fraud in many of the country’s 300 electoral districts, install voting booths throughout the country or count the votes adequately, he explained.

“It leaves us without operational capacity to effectively monitor elections,” Cordova told me. “For the first time, we are facing a reform that endangers the very existence of fair elections.”

Lopez Obrador claims that the INE’s $706 million budget is too costly, and that it needs to be cut to save money for the poor. But that argument is hard to take seriously, given the INE’s importance to preserving Mexico’s fragile democracy and political stability.

The electoral agency’s budget is relatively small compared to some of Lopez Obrador’s pet projects, such his new $3.7 billion Mexico City airport that relatively few people are using because it’s too far away from the city, or the $18 billion Dos Bocas oil refinery that experts say is a waste of money at a time when the world is moving away from fossil fuels.

The INE’s annual budget is 7.4 times smaller than just the cost overruns over the past two years at the refinery, according to the independent México Evalúa think tank.

Mexico’s pro-democracy groups are planning a massive demonstration on Feb. 26 in support of the INE. Without an impartial INE that monitors campaign spending, the government will use massive state resources to favor its candidates. And it will be hard to prevent post-election crises and preserve the country’s political and economic stability, the groups rightly say.

“In today’s world, the biggest risk to democracy does not come, like in the 1960s or 1970s, from military coups,” Cordova told me. “As we’ve seen recently in the United States, Brazil and now in Mexico, it comes from within democracy.”

That’s exactly what is happening: a slow-motion legislative coup by a democratically elected president who is trying to destroy the country’s impartial electoral agency possibly to manipulate the 2024 elections. If the Supreme Court doesn’t stop him, Mexico will take a huge step back to its authoritarian past.

Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show on Sundays at 7 pm E.T. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera