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A massive protest march in Mexico City's main square, The Zocalo
Pink and white: Mexicans dressed in the colours of the nation’s election monitoring body protest against the recent reforms. AP Photo/Fernando Llano

Mexico protests: fears for democracy prompt mass demonstrations

Electoral reforms proposed by the Mexican government have sparked huge protests across the country. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in more than 100 towns and cities in opposition to legislation passed by the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The reform will slash funding to the country’s electoral authority, which critics say undermine its independence and ability to organise elections.

Most protesters were dressed in pink and white, the colours of the National Electoral Institute (INE). They are attacking the reforms as unconstitutional and designed to make electoral scrutiny less effective while also making it harder to register to vote in more remote areas. The new law passed the senate on February 22 by 72 votes to 50.

López Obrador is justifying the reforms on cost grounds. Mexico’s elections are among the most expensive in the world. The president has long criticised the INE for the size of its permanent bureaucracy and its high salaries for officials, which its supporters believe is necessary to ensure qualified and loyal staff.

The INE is seen as particularly important in Mexico where elections have previously been questioned for a perceived lack of transparency in this young democracy. It’s important to remember that Mexico had an authoritarian regime led by the Party of the Institutionalised Revolution (PRI) between 1929 and 2000.

During the authoritarian period, elections took place periodically, but were undemocratic due to fraud and coercion. The PRI controlled the presidency from 1929 until 2000 and, until the late 1980s, most elected government offices. The PRI managed its factions and the flawed and corrupt electoral system ensured that the leadership could keep elites happy by ensuring them victory.

So the establishment of a powerful, independent body to manage Mexico’s electoral system with no political interference has been central to the country’s transition to democracy. As a result, many Mexicans are fiercely protective of the INE and see López Obrador’s reforms as no less than interfering with democracy itself.

Problems with the reform

There are two issues with the reform. The first is procedural: it was not negotiated with the main opposition parties, as past reforms had been, and it was not discussed fully following the usual legislative process in Congress. The second is its content and effects on INE. The reform limits INE’s ability to perform its duties, by changing its structure and legal power to keep political parties and candidates accountable.

Since 2014 INE has been responsible of organising all elections in the country. Mexico operates a federal system including 32 states, the capital city and 2,471 municipalities. Mexicans vote at the federal, state and municipal levels. Elections take place every year at some level.

In 2024, Mexicans will vote for the president, federal deputies, senators, nine governors and legislators in 30 states. The process will require 150,000 polling stations across the country.

The structure of the INE is complex. It has 32 executive boards at state level and 300 executive boards at district level. López Obrador’s reform cuts the number of electoral civil servants in the state board from five to three, and in the local board from five to one.

These staff are responsible for organising elections: setting up polling stations and recruiting and training people to run those polling stations during elections. INE local staff must also manage and update the voting register. It has been estimated that the reforms will cut the number of INE staff by 85%.

Protesters holding up pink and white placards rejecting reform to the National Electoral Institute (INE)
After decades of corrupt and fraudulent elections, Mexicans are protective of the National Electoral Institute (INE) in high regard. EPA-EFE/Isaac Esquivel

The other major criticism of the reform is that it is these local INE boards which administer voter identification cards, which are seen by most Mexicans as their main form of identification. The reform will cut the number of offices issuing these cards and relocating them from their own offices into schools, health centres and other government buildings.

There are concerns that these venues will lack the security infrastructure to protect this information. And moving INE offices to these venues risks undermining their independence – or, equally as important, the public perception of their independence.

Mexicans living abroad (principally in the US), who previously obtained their ID through a special arrangement between the INE and the ministry for foreign affairs will now vote with their passport or consular identification. This will cut the independent INE out, further undermining the credibility of the process.

The INE also oversees campaign spending with the power to disqualify non-compliant candidates – as it did with two candidates from the president’s party, Morena in 2021. The latest reform, which also reduces the maximum penalty for irregularities to a fine, will make it more difficult for the INE to investigate and adjudicate such cases.

The legal battle to come

Opponents to the reform have asked the Supreme Court on its constitutionality. Justice Alberto Pérez Dayán has suspended its application for two state elections taking place this year. López Obrador has hit back with criticism of the judge and his ruling.

He also recently accused the supreme court’s chief justice Norma Piña – the first woman to hold the post – of presiding over a “wave of rulings in favour of criminal suspects”, in a statement that is widely seen as an attempt to undermine the court’s authority.

López Obrador currently enjoys high levels of popularity and Morena’s prospects in the 2024 election are seen as very favourable, so it seems counter-intuitive to introduce reforms which effectively undermine the electoral authority. It remains to be seen whether the public outrage over this electoral reform will affect his own approval rating.

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