The suffocation of Mexico’s democracy

The result of Mexico’s presidential election came as a surprise to many in the country –not because Claudia Sheinbaum won, but because she secured 60 percent of the vote. In Congress, her Morena party and its allies will have an absolute majority. But while the vote itself may seem like a triumph of democracy, the election’s outcome represents a major step backward.

To understand the significance of Sheinbaum’s victory requires looking back a century. After a 20-year revolution that left around a million dead, Mexico reached a political settlement in 1929 that lasted until the end of the twentieth century. That system called for government-run elections, but freedom of expression was severely curtailed, and Mexican presidents’ power was akin to that of an absolute monarch.

Mexican presidents had to follow only a few rules. For starters, they could not antagonize the United States. The president was also limited to a six-year term, and while the outgoing president appointed his successor, he was not to interfere in the new administration – a rule that has been respected since 1934.

Moreover, the president did not “own” the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which never faced a serious challenge from an opposition party, and had to negotiate with its various factions, including powerful peasant, worker, and bureaucratic federations. They were all subsumed by the state apparatus, which distributed posts and perks.

In the mid-1980s, Mexico began to open its economy, culminating with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. At the same time, Mexicans began to question the PRI’s political monopoly. As Eastern European and Latin American countries underwent democratic transitions, Mexico’s hegemonic party, which Mario Vargas Llosa christened “the perfect dictatorship,” seemed increasingly anachronistic.

Political reform eventually came from within. Between 1994 and 2000, then-President Ernesto Zedillo strengthened the independence of the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), opened the political system to greater competition, gave autonomy to the Supreme Court, respected freedom of expression, and, ultimately, refused to appoint his successor. In 2000, Mexico launched its own transition from authoritarian rule.

Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón, both of the National Action Party (PAN), won the 2000 and 2006 presidential elections, respectively. But Calderón’s victory against the popular leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador was so narrow that López Obrador (known as AMLO) declared himself the victim of fraud. Enrique Peña Nieto, the PRI’s frivolous candidate, was elected in 2012, but his administration was tainted by corruption. So, in 2018, 53 percent of voters chose AMLO as president.

After coming to power, AMLO followed the populist playbook by fueling polarization, clamping down on freedom of expression, discrediting the National Electoral Institute (INE, formerly the IFE), seeking to undo the separation of powers, and flouting various legal conventions. But one trait that sets AMLO apart from most other populists: his messianic aura. He has often compared himself to Jesus Christ. Thus began the distribution of the loaves: a series of ambitious “social programs” – cash transfers chief among them – reached tens of millions of households through the “Servants of the Nation,” a street-level organization comprising party members and sympathizers.

Like any redeemer, AMLO has been omnipresent, appearing every weekday on La Mañanera, a three-hour televised press conference in which he decrees the official truth, slanders his critics, stigmatizes the opposition, and systematically lies. And yet, for the most part the dominant news channels do not criticize or challenge him, for fear that he will retaliate.

And yet there is much to criticize about AMLO’s tenure. He ordered the army to administer roads and customs, and to construct railways, airports, and refineries (all highly unproductive). The Mayan Train project, in particular, destroyed around ten million trees. His policy of “hugs, not bullets” to avoid clashes with the drug cartels resulted in an unprecedented 187,000 violent deaths during his six-year term.

AMLO’s health policies were equally negligent. Twenty million people lost their insurance coverage when the government abandoned its successful Seguro Popular program. According to an expert report, his poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic caused 224,000 deaths (from an official total of around 335,000, although the actual tally is estimated to exceed 600,000).

These outcomes led many, including me, to believe that while Sheinbaum – AMLO’s chosen successor – would win, the race would be tight. In the event of a landslide victory, I believed that Sheinbaum would follow (or be forced to follow) AMLO’s post-election script. The result would be the suffocation of Mexico’s democracy.

Unfortunately, that outcome seems likely. Morena legislators and their allies, who have a large enough majority in Congress to pass laws without debate, will take office a month before Sheinbaum. That means they will have enough time to approve AMLO’s proposed package of constitutional reforms, which would restrict the independence of the judiciary and the INE, and destroy the National Institute of Transparency, Access to Information, and Personal Data Protection (INAI).

So, when Sheinbaum takes office on October 1, the damage may already have been done, in which case there will be no checks on presidential power. And even if Sheinbaum respects freedom of expression, as she has promised, the few remaining critical voices would carry little weight. The US, along with the financial markets, would be the last barriers to an authoritarian turn.

To make matters worse, AMLO will try to exert power over his successor. And, according to the constitution, the president’s mandate could be revoked in three years if Congress so decides. Will Sheinbaum manage to steer a violent, polarized country with impoverished health and education systems and weak public finances toward better outcomes, while appeasing a man whom tens of millions see as a savior? Hope dies last.

Publicado por Project Syndicate el 10 de junio de 2024.

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