Mexico’s president defends controversial electoral reform bill

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador says he expects court challenges against measure to cut the budget of the electoral agency.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador gestures during a news conference after nearly 92% of voters backed him to stay in office in a recall election with a low turnout, according to results from Mexico's electoral institute, at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has promised to sign into law a newly-passed bill expected to weaken the country’s electoral authority [File: Gustavo Graf/Reuters]

Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has defended a controversial bill that would cut the budget of the country’s electoral agency and weaken oversight of campaign spending.

“All of this is part of normal politics in a democracy,” Lopez Obrador said of the legislation on Thursday.

Lopez Obrador said he expects court challenges to the bill, like those previously filed against many of his administration’s reforms. But he added that the legislation would survive them because none of it was “outside the law”.

The president, who has long criticised the agency for costing taxpayers too much and paying high salaries, said he will sign the new bill into law even though electoral authorities say it could weaken democracy in Mexico.

The bill was approved late on Wednesday by Mexico’s Senate in a 72-50 vote.

The new law would cut salaries and funding for local election offices and reduce training for citizens who operate and oversee polling stations. It would also lessen sanctions for candidates who fail to report campaign spending.

Mexico will hold its presidential election next year, but Mexican presidents are limited to a single, six-year term by the country’s constitution, so Lopez Obrador will not be running.

While Lopez Obrador was nonchalant about the court challenges, in the past he has frequently attacked Mexico’s judiciary and claimed that judges are part of a conservative conspiracy against his administration.

Elections in Mexico are expensive by international standards, in part because almost all legal campaign financing is, by law, supplied by the government.

The electoral institute also issues the secure voter ID cards that are the most commonly accepted form of identification in Mexico, and oversees balloting in remote and often dangerous corners of the country.

Protests are already planned against the reform in multiple cities in Mexico, encouraged by the electoral institute itself.

Federico Estevez, a retired political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, said the opposition’s claims that Lopez Obrador is “dismantling democracy” are exaggerated.

“It’s not about undoing democracy. It’s a different conception of democracy,” Estevez told the Associated Press news agency. “It’s more majoritarian, and less dependent on inadequate, unproductive and mistaken elites.”

Lopez Obrador remains highly popular in Mexico, with approval ratings of about 60 percent. Part of his popular appeal comes from railing against high-paid government bureaucrats, and he has been angered by the fact that some top electoral officials are paid more than the president.

Lopez Obrador proposed his legislative initiative, known as “Plan B”, in December after he did not obtain enough votes in Congress for even deeper electoral changes that would have altered the size and makeup of Congress.

The president has repeatedly denied that the reform package could put elections in Mexico at risk.

Lopez Obrador and his supporters have been critical of the electoral institute since 2006, when he lost the presidency by 0.56 percent of the vote. He denounced his defeat as fraudulent, and he and his supporters launched a mass protest movement in response.

“This is still driven by his grievances from those years,” Estevez noted.

Lopez Obrador later won the presidency by a wide margin in 2018.

Many in Mexico see the electoral institute as a key pillar of the country’s modern democracy since 2000.

Lopez Obrador’s ruling Morena party is favoured in next year’s national elections and the opposition is in disarray, which would seem to give the president little incentive to attack the electoral institute.

Lorenzo Cordova, the institute’s leader, has been a frequent target of Lopez Obrador and has aggressively defended the agency.

Before Wednesday’s vote, Cordova wrote on his Twitter account that the reforms “seek to cut thousands of people who work every day to guarantee trustworthy elections, something that will of course pose a risk for future elections”.

Source: Al Jazeera, The Associated Press