Mexican democracy hangs in the balance

If you are concerned by the fate of American democracy, now almost 250 years old, imagine the restless nights experienced by those of us witnessing the straits in which Mexico’s fledgling democracy, only founded in 2000, finds itself.

The causes for concern are strikingly similar. Mexico’s outgoing leader, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, and Donald Trump, who could return to office in the US in November, may differ ideologically, but their populist tendencies are eerily alike. Both are experts at sowing division and both show contempt for the rule of law.

The US presidential election takes place in November, while Mexicans will go to the polls this June. Trump, the Republican nominee, will be on the ballot; López Obrador will not. But the latter’s chosen successor, Claudia Sheinbaum, will, and she has promised to follow his programme to the letter. Sheinbaum benefits from López Obrador’s popularity, based on boosting welfare programmes and doubling the minimum wage. He has also benefited from daily three-hour press conferences, which the mainstream media often reports without much in the way of critique or context.

Continuing López Obrador’s programme would entail some immediate consequences. In the face of organised crime and criminality, Sheinbaum would follow the strategy of “hugs not bullets”, which has resulted in an unprecedented 180,000 violent deaths since his six-year term began. And she would approve the package of reforms that López Obrador has submitted to the Mexican Congress, the aim of which is to end the autonomy of the judiciary and affect the two main autonomous institutions to have so far resisted the outgoing president’s attentions. The plan is to severely weaken the National Electoral Institute and dissolve the National Institute for Transparency, Access to Information and Personal Data Protection.

If, as now seems probable, Sheinbaum goes on to win the presidential election but the parties that support her (including Morena, López Obrador’s party) do not reach a qualified majority in Congress, her room for manoeuvre will be reduced. If she is determined to stick to the populist script, she will have to negotiate with Congress, in an atmosphere of permanent tension, with the Supreme Court playing arbitrator. Mexican democracy will be able to breathe, but not rest.

But if the traditional machinery for buying and attracting votes, together with the intervention of organised crime (a feature of previous elections), were to result in a landslide for the incumbent party, Mexico would then be in danger of transitioning to a Russian model, with Sheinbaum playing the role of Dmitry Medvedev, who succeeded Vladimir Putin as president. The result could be the suffocation of democracy.

Fortunately, there are other possible outcomes. The opposition has a strong candidate in Xóchitl Gálvez. She may be trailing in the polls, but the margin could narrow as the election nears.

Of humble and partially indigenous origins, Gálvez is a self-made woman who studied engineering, founded a company specialising in smart buildings, and joined the public sector as a civil servant concerned about social problems. She is straight-talking and proactive, qualities that came to the fore in the pre-election debate that took place on April 28. There is one more debate to come, on May 19. 

In the unlikely event of a decisive victory for Gálvez, she would force something unprecedented upon López Obrador: the acceptance of defeat. If she wins by a small margin, it is a virtual certainty that Morena and its allies, with the outgoing president in the lead, will cry fraud and take to the streets demanding the election be annulled. But the so-called pink wave of citizens who have marched for democracy across the country several times would defend the result. Days of uncertainty and turbulence would no doubt ensue, as the Electoral Tribunal considers its verdict under intense pressure. Democracy would be in the balance.

Mexican democracy is young and relatively untested. In the 200 years since independence, the country has only tried it out twice previously: in the liberal era of Benito Juárez in the 1860s and ‘70s, and again during the 15-month tenure as president of Francisco I Madero, known as the “apostle of democracy”, from 1911-13.

That first experiment ended in a dictatorship; the second gave way to revolutionary violence. This is the third opportunity for democracy in Mexico, and it is crucial that it does not meet the same fate as the previous attempts. If it succeeds, it might even set an example for the US, which in November has chance to put an end to its own authoritarian episode once and for all.

Publicado en Financial Times el 7 de mayo de 2024.

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Conoce la obra e ideas de Enrique Krauze en su tiempo.