March 4. 2024. 11:24

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Mexico reduces powers of election watchdog

Mexico has passed a law to reduce the powers and slash the budget of the country’s independent election watchdog in what critics say is the biggest threat to democracy since the end of one-party rule in 2000.

The changes, championed by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the country’s populist president, are set to gut the National Electoral Institute (INE), the watchdog historians say played a vital role in establishing democracy in a country plagued for decades by electoral fraud.

The law was given final approval by Mexico’s Senate on Wednesday by 72 to 50 ahead of presidential and congressional elections next year, in which Mr López Obrador’s left-wing Morena alliance is seeking to extend its rule.

Opposition politicians identify the INE’s fate as the most critical test of Mexico’s institutions during his presidency.

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“López Obrador’s regressive, toxic, perverted, anti-democratic reform is coming from the top down,” said Dante Delgado, leader of the opposition Movimiento Ciudadano party. “He is destroying the work and fight of millions of Mexicans to create a democratic, impartial system.”

INE monitors campaign funding, oversees electoral rolls and issues voter identification cards to Mexico’s 94.5 million adult citizens.

But funding cuts in the new legislation would mean an 85 per cent reduction in technical staff for the electoral service, which oversees votes. The reforms also compress the time frame for organising elections, loosen rules on public officials campaigning while in office and reduce penalties for violations of campaign-funding rules.

In a parallel move to the reforms, a committee mostly designated by members of Mr López Obrador’s Morena party will soon choose four new commissioners for INE’s 11-member board.

Despite INE’s key role in the peaceful transition to multiparty democracy in 2000 after 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary party, Mr López Obrador says the watchdog is corrupt, captured by conservatives and too expensive, with an annual budget this year of $765 million.

“Why are they afraid of the people?” he asked late last year, adding that he did not understand why Mexico spent so much on elections “when it has so many needs”.

López Obrador’s campaign against INE also comes in the wake of attacks on electoral authorities and vote counts by populist leaders elsewhere, such as former US president Donald Trump or Brazil’s ex-leader Jair Bolsonaro

The president retains approval ratings of more than 60 per cent and dominates Mexico’s daily news agenda with morning news conferences in which he vilifies opponents and independent media. He has had INE in his sights since he narrowly lost a presidential election in 2006 – even though it certified his 2018 election victory.

Mr López Obrador’s campaign against INE also comes in the wake of attacks on electoral authorities and vote counts by populist leaders elsewhere, such as former US president Donald Trump or Brazil’s ex-leader Jair Bolsonaro.

“These legal changes put Mexicans’ right to vote in free, fair and credible elections at risk,” said Tyler Mattiace, Mexico researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It will make it easier for the party in power to stay in power and harder for the INE to ensure a level playing field in the 2024 elections.”

The INE has said the changes were drafted without proper analysis and put the integrity of Mexico’s elections at risk.

The opposition now plans to challenge the measure as unconstitutional in the supreme court, which itself has been the target of criticism by Mr López Obrador after decisions that went against him.

The court recently appointed a new chief justice, Norma Piña Hernández, who is seen as more independent than her predecessor. To strike down the changes, at least eight of the 11 justices must vote against them.

Opposition critics have also called for a mass protest in Mexico City on Sunday. A similar protest last November, when the lower house was considering the election measure, drew an estimated 250,000 people.

“Today the freedom of elections, a precious freedom in any democracy, is threatened by the imminent mutilation of the National Electoral Institute,” said historian Enrique Krauze in a video shared on Twitter. “Let’s not allow this. Mexico is the home of everyone ... not of one party or one president.”

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023