Mexico's people power

Mass protests in favor of civic integrity may help end a president’s attempt to change the way elections are run.

A woman in Ciudad Juarez shouts during a Nov. 13 mass protest against the electoral changes proposed by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and in support of the National Electoral Institute (INA).

Over the past four years, proponents of democracy have grown increasingly alarmed as Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has gained outsize influence over Congress, the judiciary, and the military. But on Sunday, the people drew a red line. In some 50 cities across Mexico, tens of thousands poured into the streets in coordinated protests over the president’s proposal to replace the National Electoral Institute.

The marches were the largest single public expression of dissatisfaction that Mr. López Obrador has faced since he took office, for good reason. The INE, as it is known by its Spanish acronym, is one of the most trusted government institutions in Mexico and the guardian of the public’s desire for self-government. Critics worry that the president’s reforms would render the institute a tool of the ruling party and jeopardize the country’s fragile renewal of democracy since 2000 after 71 years of one-party rule. “I defend the INE,” protesters chanted. “The INE defends my voice.”

“Today, we reaffirm our deep commitment to democracy,” José Woldenberg, the institute’s former president, told marchers in Mexico City. “We defend an electoral system that ... allows the coexistence of diversity and the replacement of governments through peaceful and participatory means.”

The protests are a response to a set of government reforms proposed by Mr. López Obrador, a populist and one of the first in a wave of leftist leaders that has spread across Latin America in recent years. Those measures, first floated in April and now being debated in Congress, would cut 200 (out of 500) legislative seats, eliminate public funding and media to political parties, and replace the INE with a new body composed of candidates named by the president, Congress, and Supreme Court.

The proposals have almost no chance of passing since the ruling party lacks the votes to enact constitutional amendments. But critics say they reflect an ongoing effort by Mr. López Obrador to consolidate power in the ruling party and “gut the institutions that have guaranteed democratic practices for a generation,” as Pamela K. Starr, a professor at the University of Southern California, told The Dialogue. The president, critics note, still harbors resentment against election officials from his failed bids in 2006 and 2012.

Mr. López Obrador reiterated his claims of widespread electoral fraud yesterday, dismissing the protests without explanation as “a false flag” in favor of corruption, racism, classism, and discrimination.

Watchdogs of democratic wellness use a range of indicators such as free speech and political competition to measure the openness of societies. If those factors focus too much scrutiny on what governments are doing, however, they may miss underlying currents of civic strength – particularly in places where populist or autocratic regimes seem to be flourishing. In Mexico, the people’s defense of a trustworthy democratic institution offers a rebuke to Mr. López Obrador’s tilt toward one-party rule dominated by a singular personality.

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