In His Fight Against Democracy, Mexico’s President Is a Heavy Favorite

In His Fight Against Democracy, Mexico’s President Is a Heavy Favorite

Lorenzo Córdova is a lawyer and a scholar, a man with an office full of books. For most of the past decade, Córdova has served as president of the Mexican National Electoral Institute, an independent, nonpartisan but government-funded organization that first came into existence more than 30 years ago. The INE, as it is usually called (demonstrators chant “ee-nay, ee-nay”), has been so successful that until recently its existence was taken for granted.

Why? Because men and women like Córdova have spent the past three decades systematically creating an electoral register and voter ID cards, still the most secure form of identification in Mexico. Every time an election happens, even in the remotest corners of the country, INE sets up tens of thousands of polling booths. Citizen poll workers are recruited through a national lottery and trained to run polling stations, and INE organizes that too. Factors well outside INE’s remit—poverty, violence, clientelism—continue to undermine Mexican politics, and like any institution, INE makes mistakes. Still, most judge it by its greatest achievement: Mexico was a one-party state for most of the 20th century, where the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party fraudulently dictated electoral outcomes. Now the voters decide.

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Last Wednesday, I was sitting in Córdova’s office when that achievement suddenly seemed doomed. While we were talking, we received news that the Mexican Senate had passed a law that, if upheld by the courts, will make Mexican elections much less secure. The law, propounded by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his ruling Morena party, is described as an “electoral reform” that will save money. But by depriving INE of much of the funding it needs to actually run elections, it could render the institute ineffective. Cordova told me that the bill could force INE to fire 85 percent of its civil servants, perhaps making it impossible to recruit and train poll workers, or even to hold legitimate elections at all.

As his INE colleague, Ciro Murayama, explained, “the law establishes that if 20 percent of the polling stations in one election are not installed, that election should be annulled. It never happened in our history … the capabilities of the electoral authority to install all the polling stations is huge.” But now, an annulment is possible: “It could be the first time since the revolution in 1910 that we don’t have the Congress installed.” Americans haven’t got a national electoral body, but imagine the outcry if even the governor of Texas or California suddenly proposed drastic cuts to their state’s elections budget a year before an important vote, cuts that could jeopardize the results. This is a historical moment, I suggested to Córdova. “Yes,” he said, “and not for good reasons.”

With that Senate vote, in other words, Mexicans were suddenly catapulted into the same world of blurry constitutional uncertainty faced in the past by (among many others) Poles, Turks, Hungarians, Filipinos, and Venezuelans; more recently by Israelis; and, of course, by Americans. What do you do when a legitimate, democratically elected president or prime minister undermines the rules of the legal system, or of democracy itself? What if that president or prime minister is popular? In fact, López Obrador is not merely popular: He dominates the national conversation, and not by talking about legality or institutions or rules. On the contrary, he talks about “purifying” or transforming Mexico, variously associating himself with Jesus Christ, Our Lady of Guadalupe and Mayan forest spirits. He has given new powers and projects to the military, allegedly to make things happen faster. He imagines himself as a leader, in the words of the historian Enrique Krauze, who can “listen and channel the demands of “the people” without bureaucratic or institutional intermediaries.”

But how useful is it to shout “rule of law” back at someone who talks about woodland elves? Last Sunday, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans tried. An orderly crowd marched to the Zócalo, Mexico City’s central square, and to similar squares around the country, calling on the Supreme Court to declare the law unconstitutional. Some wore fuchsia, INE’s signature color, or carried bright-pink umbrellas. Others carried national flags. I went with Denise Dresser—a political-science professor who has often been the focus of presidential ire—and her students; we ran into a group of physicists who recognized her, as did several women who thanked Dresser for promoting women’s rights. It was that sort of crowd. A former justice of the Mexican Supreme Court (the role isn’t a lifetime appointment) was the main speaker. He made an earnest, slightly boring speech, calling on his former colleagues to block the López Obrador “reform.” Nobody rioted.

My overwhelming feeling was one of déjà vu: I’d marched in a similarly polite crowd in Warsaw in 2016, when the Polish government illegally overturned a ruling of that country’s constitutional court, and again in 2020, when the same Polish government once again twisted the rules in order to set up a body that could discipline judges its leaders dislike. The morale boost these demonstrations provide is enormous. In a country where an elected government sets out to change the rules of the system, a kind of hopelessness can set in: How do you stop the lawmakers from breaking the law? Marching, protesting, chanting the name of the electoral institute with the crowd—all of these things can help people feel more optimistic, more creative, more inclined to organize.

Less clear is how these demonstrations affect the people who don’t attend, not least because autocratic populists will go to extraordinary lengths to discredit anyone present. In Poland, a politician from the ruling party mocked the marchers on state television as wealthy elitists, wearing “fur coats made of chinchilla or some other animal.” In Israel, where the government has also launched an assault on the judiciary, and where repeated mass protests have also ensued, a member of Parliament from the ruling Likud party jeered at demonstrators last month using similar language. “I saw at the protest many shiny things, I later understood it was the Rolex watches of the protesters there. Look how many Mercedes cars there are,” he said (while wearing a $7,000 Cartier watch himself). On Monday, López Obrador conformed to the same pattern. “There was an increase in the number of pickpockets stealing wallets here in the Zócalo,” he declared, “but what do you want, with so many white-collar criminals in one place?”

Advocates for the rule of law fight back, of course. In Poland, protesters have waved the national flag to defeat the caricature of them as “traitors” or “foreigners.” In Israel, army reservists with the same intention have staged their own marches. On Sunday, the Mexicans gathered in the Zócalo sang the national anthem. But nobody who gets their news from López Obrador’s daily, hours-long press conferences will have heard them.

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Belatedly, Mexicans who care about the electoral institute have also been scrambling to explain its importance to those who do not. Córdova and Murayama have written a paperback book, La Democracia No Se Toca (“Don’t Touch Democracy”), filled with cartoons, simple explanations, and a cover photograph from a previous demonstration last November, showing a massive crowd. Their publisher, they told me, kept telling them to make the book less academic. But this too is difficult, because the language of law is simply not as exciting as the language of spirituality, nostalgia, and magic. More to the point, this fight is by definition unequal: Law-abiding citizens are pitted against an autocratic leader who could not care less about the law. The former keep trying to play within the rules. The latter does not.

If López Obrador wins this battle, the decline could come very fast. Mexico has presidential and congressional elections in July 2024. Although he can’t run again—Mexican presidents are limited to one term—López Obrador can name a successor who would run as his proxy, and keep trying to govern the country behind the scenes.  The manipulation of INE might ensure that successor “wins,” or help Morena, which has been slipping in the polls, maintain control of the legislature. In the most frightening (though still very far-fetched) scenario, an annulled or spoiled election could create a constitutional crisis, one that could allow López Obrador, perhaps with the help of the military, to announce his return.

At the very least, the chaos will insert a powerful element of distrust into the system, enough to convince many Mexicans that the winner, whoever it is, got there by cheating. The breakdown of consensus, already fragile in Mexico, would then become permanent, the constitutional crisis endemic. Where there is a vacuum, the possibilities for violence expand. And all of the problems that trustworthy elections and undisputed transitions were supposed to eliminate will be back for good.

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