Mexican Democracy Under the Gun


Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Mexico City this week to protest changes to Mexico’s electoral laws promoted by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. They say the reform – which introduces new limits on the oversight and sanctioning powers of the nonpartisan National Electoral Institute as well as cuts down its size and funding – is a direct attack on the fragile institutions which hold Mexican democracy together. López Obrador, who is commonly referred to as AMLO, argues that the legislation will take supervisory power out of the hands of the country’s elites as well as save money that can be spent on the poor. The electoral reform, which passed the Senate last week, is already on its way to the president’s desk for approval, though it will likely face a challenge in the Supreme Court.

Although Mexico has free, fair, and competitive elections, many of its democratic institutions are relatively young and fragile, including its National Electoral Institute, the successor to the Federal Electoral Institute founded in 1990. Until 2000, Mexico was under single-party rule for 71 years. López Obrador has been focused on weakening the power of electoral watchdogs since at least 2006, when his very narrow loss to Felipe Calderón was confirmed with the arbitration of the Institute; López Obrador rejected the certification and staged protests for months.

Even this legislation is a weaker version of his November attempt to pass a constitutional amendment replacing the National Electoral Institute’s nonpartisan leadership with elected officials, which many predicted would give his party, MORENA, effective control over the institution. Meanwhile, López Obrador continues to focus on weakening Mexico’s judiciary; transferring responsibility from civilian to military authorities; and other reforms which undermine institutions that challenge his power.

Although López Obrador is constitutionally bound from seeking re-election, Mexican democracy is likely to face tests in the coming years, especially as the 2024 general elections grow near. It remains to be seen how the United States – which has a host of common interests with Mexico, including trade and manufacturing, counter-narcotics and security, and most infamously, immigration control – will handle López Obrador’s growing efforts to reshape the Mexican state.

Questions and Background

  • What is the United States’s relationship with Mexico?
  • How should the United States respond to López Obrador’s electoral reforms?
  • What is the best approach to maintaining stability in Mexico moving forward?
  • How can the United States balance its support for Mexican democracy with its need to cooperate with the Mexican government on key policy issues?

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