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AMLO Power Grab: Mexico's Electoral Reform Would Make Machiavelli Proud

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, aka AMLO, says his plans to reform the electoral system are a way to save taxpayer money. A closer look tells a different story.

Photo of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico voting​

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico votes

Luis Rubio


MEXICO CITY — For supporters of Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) the goal is clear: to keep power beyond the 2024 general election, at any price. Finally, the engineers of the much-touted Fourth Transformation, ALMO's 2018 campaign promise to do away with the privileged abuses that have plagued Mexican politics for decades, are showing their colors.

Current electoral laws date back to the 1990s, when unending electoral disputes were a constant of every voting round and impeded effective governance in numerous states and districts. The National Electoral Institute (INE) and its predecessor, the IFE, were created to solve once and for all those endemic disputes.

Their promoters hoped Mexico could expect a more honest future, with the electoral question resolved. The 2006 presidential elections, which included AMLO as a recalcitrant loser, showed this was hoping for too much. That election is also, remotely, at the source of the president's new electoral initiative.

His proposed reforms are intended to make the electoral system less costly, reducing the number of legislators in both chambers, eliminating existing electoral institutions and changing the representative structure at the state and municipal levels, again with an eye on costs. But really, its spirit suggests it also has purely self-serving political goals.

European model

Two areas constitute the heart of the budget issue in elections. One is cash transfers to political parties (to function, but also for campaigns), and the other is the structure of the electoral apparatus.

The initiative is peculiar as state funding of parties was an express demand of the PRD — the leftist party AMLO used to lead — during negotiations in 1996. The argument used was that it would stop parties from being used to launder money and assure parties equal access to electoral conditions and competitiveness.

Essentially, the idea was to adopt the European model for our elections, instead of the American model wherein the parties must finance themselves. It wasn't a bad argument, and it is ironic that a government with roots in the leftist PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) now wants to dismantle the setup.

Photo of a man casting his ballot during local elections in Mexico

A man casts his ballot during local elections in Mexico

Keith Dannemiller/ZUMA

Political patronage

Regarding the electoral apparatus, National Electoral Institute is undoubtedly an awkward institution, being permanent but only working intensively in electoral periods: before, during and after voting dates. Most nations do not maintain a permanent electoral bureaucracy, but ours exists for the disputes that originally led to the creation of its predecessor, the IFE. The level of distrust was such that the parties agreed on a costly though reliable body to ensure scrupulous respect for the popular mandate.

Evidently it could shed many of its costs, but one must first ask two questions. Are there guarantees the electoral disputes and rampant distrust will not return in the new system, seeing as the governing party now is the one that would always dispute results? And where will the savings go?

It is back to the old system.

AMLO's proposed reform also wants to cut down on legislators to save money. Notably in his proposals, there is no initiative showing concern for public representation in congress, the ability of lawmakers to properly perform their duties or the effects fewer legislators would have on the separation of powers. In other words, it cares nothing for checks and balances.

And these reforms omit discussing such issues because this president does not see the legislative power as part of a system of checks and balances, but as an instrument to ratify presidential decisions.

So, it is back to the old system, where the institutions answered to one person and citizens were without rights and absent in public life. This is about centralizing power, eliminating checks on the presidential power and assuring the ruling gang's hold on power.

The pertinent question would be, what are the consequences of implementing the president's proposed system? Time would tell but one can still imagine its implications: Firstly the people as a mass of zombies that quietly align themselves with the president's wishes. Secondly, opposition parties must be curbed or shunted aside. Finally, the enormous savings of fewer electoral officials, bodies and legislators would inevitably go to pay for political patronage, making Mexico's aging population increasingly dependent on presidential generosity.

It's a plan fit for Machiavelli, or better still Stalin, who once observed that it's not how people vote, it's who is counting the votes, that matters.

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