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Will Mexican Democracy Survive?

March 06, 2023
Kate Bruhn

Talking Policy Podcast

On February 26, for the second time in less than a year, tens of thousands of Mexicans filled Mexico City’s main public square to protest the president’s attempts to weaken Mexico’s independent elections agency. Is Mexican democracy at a tipping point? In the latest episode in Talking Policy’s Future of Democracy series, host Lindsay Morgan talks with longtime Mexico expert, Kate Bruhn, a professor of political science at UC Santa Barbara, about the state of Mexican democracy. This interview was conducted on February 28, 2023, and has been edited for length and clarity.

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Sunday’s protests were aimed at changes to Mexico’s electoral laws made by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who is known by his initials AMLO, which many say threaten Mexico’s democracy and could mark a return to Mexico’s past. Can you give us a bit of context about politics and democracy in Mexico for listeners who are unfamiliar?

Mexico had a system of one-party rule for over 70 years after the Mexican Revolution of 1917. And it rigged elections routinely, so that the ruling party, the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), never lost a significant election for almost 70 years. This system began to break down in the 1970s and 1980s, as opposition challengers grew more confident and demanded changes to electoral laws.

Complaints about election fraud color what’s happening today. They resulted eventually in the gradual reformation of Mexico’s electoral system, and ultimately in the creation of what is today called Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE, the National Electoral Institute), which is a centralized national agency, unlike what we have in the United States, where election administration is very decentralized and local. INE administers not only national elections, but also state elections. So, it’s a professional bureaucracy that arranges elections, prints the ballots, monitors electoral rolls, etc. And up until this latest reform, it has also had the ability to monitor the finances of political parties and assess fines when they are in violation of, for example, campaign spending laws. That is what President López Obrador is trying to undo. He’s trying to cut back on the funding of the institute to the point where it may not be able to carry out elections that are perceived as fair. And it may not be able to sanction parties to the same extent that it has been able to up to now.

This electoral institute is widely credited among international experts for helping to assure the transition from the one-party system to a more democratic and competitive electoral system. So many people worry that undoing this institute is an attempt by the president to restore that old system of in which one party had all the advantages in elections.

Who is President López Obrador and what’s driving these so-called reforms? Moreover, why would he want to weaken an institution that confirmed his own election and presidency in 2018, particularly since he will not run again, since Mexican presidents serve one six-year term?

He was originally a member of the PRI. In 1988, when Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas broke with the PRI and ran an independent campaign, he was part of Cárdenas’ movement. He (López Obrador) ran for mayor and was successful. And then in 2006, he ran for president under the name of Cárdenas’ party, Partido Revolucionario Democratico (PRD, the Democratic Revolutionary Party). He lost, but by less than one percentage point. And he lost under circumstances where the PRD had not had a say in the naming of the official counselors of the electoral institute. So he claimed that there had been fraud—that the electoral institute had cheated him out of the election, that it had illegally, in violation of electoral law, favored the candidate of the eventual winner of the election, the Partido de Accion Nacional (PAN, National Action Party). He has never forgotten or forgiven that. He demanded that there be a total recount, which was denied by the electoral institute. And he claimed that he was the legitimate president of Mexico and refused to acknowledge Calderon as the legitimate president.

He even had his own inauguration, right?

He had his own inauguration. He occupied the Zocalo for weeks, he blocked major streets, he demanded unsuccessfully that his party members not take their seats in Congress. His distrust of INE goes back probably to 1988, when Cárdenas was legitimately defrauded of the election, but also to 2006, when most experts think that he did actually lose. But he’s always claimed that he didn’t. Even when he won in 2018, his argument was ‘I won despite the fact that the National Electoral Institute is biased against me and doesn’t want me to govern.’ His demands for reform of the INE are based on that, as well as his own desire to cut government agencies. He’s tried to cut the judiciary, he’s tried to cut research institutes, he’s tried to cut daycare centers, all so that he can transfer that money to what he describes as his mission of helping the poor in Mexico. He says the National Electoral Institute is simply too expensive.

AMLO came to office with big promises to help the poor. He railed against elites and their expensive homes in the fancy neighborhoods of Mexico City. He called himself a friend of Donald Trump. AMLO did win in a landslide in 2018. Why are Mexicans attracted to him and is his rise part of a broader global phenomenon of populist nationalists rising to power?

He is part of this broader phenomenon of populism, although he’s not very much like Donald Trump; there’s very little racial component to what he’s promising. He is making the same kind of broad claim that government is corrupt, and that elites are secretly running the country against the wishes of “the people,” which in Mexico—which is a deeply unequal country—means to him the poor.

The most credible thing he has said is that Mexicans believe that previous governments have not done very much. And they haven’t, at least in recent decades, done much to address the needs and the demands of the poor. He came to power on a promise to undo corruption, increase social programs directed at the poor, and govern Mexico in a nationalist way—and that is the link that he had with Trump, this sense of nationalism. He understood Trump’s desire to put America first because he wants to put Mexico first.

You are a part of a UC research team that includes faculty from Santa Barbara, San Diego, and Merced that conducted a public opinion survey on support for and satisfaction with democracy in Mexico. What did you find?

That survey was unique in that it surveyed about 2,000 ordinary Mexicans around the country and 130 or so experts in Mexico about their opinions about Mexico’s democratic institutions. About 61 percent of Mexicans think Mexico is a democracy, but only 48 percent are satisfied with the functioning of democracy. Experts are more likely to think Mexico is a democracy and less likely to be satisfied with the way that it was working. Those are important findings: that elites in Mexico do feel targeted by AMLO and feel less satisfied with AMLO’s treatment of representative democratic institutions.

The people who support AMLO are more satisfied now with the way that democracy works than they were in previous elections (there were polls done in 2012 and 2006), because they’re in charge. He remains broadly popular among that group of people.

Where you find polarization occurring in Mexico, as it has in the United States, is that those who don’t support AMLO, who support one of the other significant parties in Mexico, are less and less inclined to think that Mexico is a democracy or that it’s headed in the right direction.

So this mirrors what we see elsewhere, which is that election winners have stronger faith in the elections and election losers have less faith.

Except for one peculiar thing. People who support AMLO and Morena [his political party] had the lowest satisfaction with INE—with the electoral institute itself. People who voted for the opposition parties have more confidence in the INE. And you see that in these demonstrations: they’re wearing pink and white, the colors of the INE. They’re talking about support for the INE because they actually trust it more than the people who support the president, because the people who support the president believe him when he says that the electoral Institute is flawed and it’s biased against him.

What is the state of trust and institutions in Mexico and how are those levels of trust changing under AMLO?

One of the goals of our project is to take the temperature of trust in Mexico’s democratic institutions at different points in AMLO’s career. What we find is that trust in most democratic institutions is relatively low. In Mexico, almost 80 percent think that public functionaries are corrupt, that they use their positions for private benefits and face no consequences. Most people do not believe that the legislature effectively checks the power of the president. They have somewhat more faith in the judiciary. They think the judiciary does act as an effective check on the power of the president, but they have zero faith in the judiciary as an instrument of ordinary criminal justice. They don’t believe that it works well. And in fact, it doesn’t. There’s a high level of impunity in Mexico. They trust the army and the navy more. They believe that the military is marginally less corrupt. But still, over half the population thinks the army has a pact with cartels, which is rather shocking. But that’s less than the 64 percent who believe that the cartels have bought politicians.

There’s broad public acceptance for increasing the military’s role in a variety of areas where the military traditionally would not be involved—and arguably should not be involved—such as social programs. Seventy-five percent would prefer the army to be in charge of social programs like vaccination because they just don’t trust the public bureaucracy. This opens the door to a real militarization of Mexico, which is already underway. The Mexican military is roughly twice the size now that it was at any previous point in the country’s history. It is deeply involved in the war against crime and the war on cartels. And yet, half of Mexicans don’t think that the military is obeying the civilian authorities, but they don’t care because they still trust the military more than they trust the rest of the government.

The public’s willingness to allow the military to carry out civilian functions seems like a worrying trend.

It surprised me, because Mexico was pretty unique in Latin America for a very long time, in the degree to which the military was subordinate to the civil authorities. They have not had a coup. At a time when the rest of Latin America was having coups, there were military governments, there were all kinds of terrible things going on, and Mexico seemed immune to those problems. And yet now we have a militarization of a country that wasn’t traditionally militarized, and a public that seems to be willing to accept that.

What’s the role of drug trafficking and violent crime in Mexico and the erosion of democracy and rule of law?

It’s playing a really, really important role in undermining trust in public institutions. It’s clear at all levels—the local, the state, and the national level—that the cartels have successfully infiltrated politics in order to protect their operations. They try to buy off politicians and now also military officers. Mexico has the highest homicide rate in the region, something like 35,000 a year—it’s really shocking. And as I said, 64 percent think the cartels have bought politicians, and 52 percent think the army has been bought. So it’s not that Mexicans are unaware that these things are happening. But nobody seems to be able to fix the violence. In fact, our survey found that 40 percent of Mexicans who live in conflict zones where the cartels are strong feel safer under cartel control than they do under state control. How I interpret that is that it’s better for Mexicans not to have the military and the cartels fighting over control in the territory; they would rather be in a situation where just the cartel controls it, or just the government controls it, and not in the crossfire between the military and the cartels.

Prior to 2006, there wasn’t a lot of conflict between the military and the cartels. The violence rate was significantly lower. The cartels operated with impunity. There wasn’t this kind of public confrontation that has resulted in so much death and kidnappings. Now people go missing every year—we don’t know what happened to them. A colleague at UC San Diego, Cecilia Farfan, is starting a project to use satellite imagery to detect mass graves. I mean, these are things that did not happen in the Mexico that I started studying close to 30 years ago.

Going back to the recent changes around the National Election Institute, some hope that the Supreme Court might overturn all or some of the changes. Do you think that’s likely?

The Supreme Court has shown itself willing to stand up to López Obrador. It’s not clear, though, that the Mexican Constitution actually guarantees funding for INE. I don’t know whether the Supreme Court will, in fact, rule against it, but what is happening is the construction of a conflict between the nation’s highest courts and the nation’s president. It’s a really risky situation. Even if the highest court declares that portions of this law are unconstitutional, it sets up a confrontation that will encourage AMLO to try to undermine the Supreme Court, as he has tried to undermine INE.

Are we seeing dynamics similar to what’s happening in Mexico in other countries? Or is what’s happening in Mexico unique or an outlier in the region?

Both. What is not uncommon in Latin America, or for that matter in the United States, is a declining faith in government institutions, a declining satisfaction with democracy, and declining commitment to representative democratic institutions. That is broadly parallel in virtually every country in the region. It’s gone from about 60 percent approval of institutions and democracy to about 30 percent today. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to see coups all over the place. I don’t think we will. But it does mean that the quality of democracy is eroding in various countries around the region, and arguably in the United States as well.

Polarization is a second trend that we’re seeing in a variety of countries: polarization in Brazil, polarization in Mexico, and polarization in the United States. What makes Mexico somewhat unique is the extent to which violence, and drug violence in particular, is affecting people’s evaluations of democratic institutions. Any recovery of trust in institutions is going to have to find a solution to the problem of security. It’s one of the top concerns of Mexicans in virtually every poll that’s been done, outpacing the economy and outpacing COVID.

Does the survey reveal anything about how the government could help restore public trust in Mexico’s democracy?

Well, it probably requires a change in who’s in charge. But what it suggests is that there is more public trust in the judiciary’s ability to act as a check on presidential power. What should be done is to invest more in the judiciary in Mexico, in the rule of law, at all levels, including the criminal courts. One of the reasons violence is so high is because successful prosecution of murder is so low. There are virtually no consequences. To improve that situation, you have to invest in the court system, you have to invest in the legal system. I don’t see AMLO doing that.

That may be a place where the United States could play a significant positive role. The United States and other interested partners might also need to help by monitoring elections. I know it sounds ironic, given concerns about the quality of elections in the United States, that we would volunteer to monitor somebody else’s elections. But it has proven successful in countries where it has been tried and could help bolster claims by the INE, even if it’s not able to sustain the same level of monitoring that it has in the past, that the results of the elections were fair. Finally, improvements in public services like education, the delivery of water, the delivery of electricity. People are not happy with public services, and improving the performance of the state could improve trust in public institutions.

President Biden has largely not publicly addressed the issue of democratic backsliding in Mexico. U.S.─Mexico cooperation has been heavily skewed towards dealing with drug trafficking issues and the cartels, but what can you tell us about U.S. engagement with Mexico in strengthening democracy?

The United States has a historical record of ignoring Mexico except in cases of crisis. And the Biden administration is no different from many administrations that have come before it. Biden’s plate is overwhelmingly full right now. He is more worried about Ukraine than he is about Mexico and probably justifiably so. Behind the scenes, not just at the national level but also at the local levels, in terms of state-to-state relations, we are in fact engaging with Mexico on issues like immigration and cartel enforcement.

I would really love to see us pay a little bit less attention to cartel enforcement and a little more attention to these other issues. It’s not in anybody’s interest to have Mexico become a nondemocratic border country. It would have significant negative effects on drug enforcement, immigration, and even trade. But the window of opportunity for us to have an important influence may be closing. If in the 2024 presidential election, the president’s party wins reelection, as it is projected to do, a lot will depend on whether the United States can persuade the new president to pull back on some of these efforts to undermine institutions in Mexico.

As you said, Mexico has a strict prohibition on reelection of the president. It’s one of its strongest historical strengths. In many other Latin American countries, we’ve seen efforts to modify the constitution to allow a populist to remain in power. AMLO, to his credit, has not done this, and does not appear ready to do this, so Mexico has a chance to transition to another president, even if it’s of the president’s party. I’m hopeful about that.

As a long-time Mexico watcher, what will you be watching most closely over the next year and a half in the lead up to the presidential election? What will provide the strongest clues about where Mexico’s democracy is going?

Well first of all, what happens with the INE, and whether there are challenges in the Supreme Court. I’m also going to be watching the nomination campaigns for candidates within the different political parties. In Mexico, candidates often run in coalition with other candidates. Some parties have primaries to select candidates, and others do not. A lot depends on whether Morena, the president’s party, splits over its nomination, in which case that opens the field wide for candidates from other parties, or whether it is able to remain united under its own candidate, and if so, whether that candidate is the one that the president prefers, which would indicate a willingness to intervene in politics beyond his presidential term and would be a fairly negative sign.

I will also be paying a lot of attention to how the situation evolves with respect to violence in the country. In the 2021 election, over one hundred candidates were killed, mostly at the state and local levels. That’s a really negative trend. We don’t want to see that happening again in the 2024 presidential election. But so far, we’re not seeing any indications that there are plans to protect local candidates.

Learn more about the Survey of the Quality of Democracy in Mexico

Thumbnail credit: Wikimedia Commons