voice for democracy

Mexico’s president will continue to damage the country’s democracy – The Economist

by Sarah Birke: Mexico City bureau chief, The Economist, Mexico City
OVER THE past two decades Mexico has provided an important example of democratic transition. Its democracy is a flawed one, marred by corruption, violence and poor governance. But it is recognisably a democracy all the same, with a history of successful elections and peaceful transfers of power between parties, a fairly good separation of powers and a set of independent, though imperfect, institutions. The question in 2022 will be how much President Andrés Manuel López Obrador continues to undermine that system.
Mr López Obrador swept to power in 2018 at the head of his populist Morena party, voted in by people attracted by his promise to make Mexico more democratic and to work for the majority long neglected by the elite. That was, and is, a laudable aim. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) governed Mexico for 71 uninterrupted years until 2000, and again from 2012 to 2018, with two terms for the conservative National Action Party (PAN) in between. The PRI in particular ran things to suit itself, empowering the army and in some cases trying to pack autonomous institutions with loyalists.
But Mr López Obrador’s rule is undermining Mexico’s democracy rather than bolstering it. In his first three years he has favoured a highly personalistic and centralised style of governing. He has prioritised pet projects over institutionalised schemes, for example by scrapping a hugely successful cash-transfer programme in favour of badly targeted handouts that are billed as personal gifts from the president.
The key is whether the country’s institutions can retain their independence
He speaks directly to his supporters in daily conferences, denouncing those who do not support him, including journalists and NGOs. He likes to decide issues using public (and often legally questionable) “consultations” and referendums, such as whether to cancel a half-built airport in Mexico City (it was) and whether to prosecute his five predecessors (turnout was too low to be binding). He has threatened to get rid of some institutions or degrade them by reducing their funding, or by packing them with loyalists, as with the courts.
Mr López Obrador, whose term ends in 2024, is unlikely to soften his attacks in 2022. Journalists and intellectuals will continue to find themselves on the receiving end of his denunciations. One of the most important institutions to watch will be INE, the electoral agency, which he has pledged to reform. It has been a repeated target of his ire, despite having successfully run Mexico’s biggest ever mid-term elections in 2021 during the pandemic. INE is also in charge of a recall referendum (the president’s own idea), which will take place in the first half of 2022, on whether he should serve to the end of his term. The president has also put pressure on INAI, the national body in charge of freedom of information, which has brought increased transparency. He says it is too costly and is unnecessary in his “corruption-free” administration.
Another area of concern is how much more power Mr López Obrador gives to the armed forces. In the past three years he has drastically expanded their role, despite a lack of transparency and accountability, and previous pledges that he would rein them in. They are now even more involved in the fight against crime, in addition to controlling the border with the United States and building infrastructure projects, such as an airport in Mexico City to replace the scrapped one.
The problem is that few voters are enamoured with the opposition parties, which have no new ideas for ruling differently from the past. So, in spite of all his faults, the president is likely to remain popular and win the recall referendum. The key is whether the country’s institutions can retain their independence. Many Mexicans support the INE, which polls show to be the most trusted civilian institution in Mexico (the army is still the most trusted of all, but most people do not want troops on the streets). Mexico may be an imperfect democracy but support for its institutions is strong.
Sarah Birke: Mexico City bureau chief, The Economist, Mexico City
This article appeared in the Americas section of the print edition of The World Ahead 2022 under the headline “Mexico’s imperilled democracy”
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