Over the weekend, tens of thousands of people gathered in the main plaza in Mexico City, chanting, “out with López, out with López” to protest changes that Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador – also known as AMLO – has made to the country’s electoral laws.
Last week, Atlantic columnist David Frum spoke with the Texas Standard, warning of what he called the “Autocrat Next Door” and detailing AMLO’s move to defund a commission for election oversight in the run-up Mexico’s next election cycle in 2024. The president’s critics claim it’s a bold move by AMLO to try to keep his party in power.
Kenneth Greene, an associate professor of government at the University of Texas whose research focuses on Mexico, joined the Standard to talk about the protests and what they mean for Mexico.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: How does AMLO explain his decision to undercut this election oversight body?
Kenneth Greene: Well, he thinks that it costs too much. He thinks that the institute should be able to do what they do with less.
AMLO’s critics say that he’s trying to undermine election integrity. How realistic is that for you?
I think they have a point. If the final law goes through, [if it] survives Supreme Court scrutiny, then it will force the institute to do a lot less than they currently do to make elections fair in Mexico.
This is a reform that was instituted fairly recently, right – having this election commission to oversee free and fair elections in Mexico?
Well, an election commission dates back to 1990, and it was a key element in making elections fair in Mexico and ushering in its democracy starting in 2000.
When I say fairly recently, of course, we know that the PRI, which was the Institutional Revolutionary Party of Mexico, held sway for decades and decades. And it wasn’t until this commission was seated that we actually saw substantial change in electoral politics there, right?
That’s exactly correct, yes. It’s been a key element in creating fair elections in Mexico. And the reforms will force it to lose about 85% of its staff, principally the staff that is involved in training people to be poll workers. And so it could have major effects on thousands and thousands of local precincts.
I want to understand something, though: Isn’t AMLO prohibited from running for a second term?
He is, but this could help his party remain in power. They hold the plurality of votes, sympathies, and in the run-up to the 2024 presidential elections when AMLO’s hand-picked successor will run in for his party, this could really help them.
To my understanding, these funding cuts – and you mentioned this, in fact – still have to be approved by the Mexican Supreme Court. And of course, here in the United States, the Supreme Court operates independently of the president, although lots of people see political machinations in the background, certainly in the nomination process. Do Mexican Supreme Court justices have a similar arrangement, or is there a more direct political connection to AMLO?
Well, the Supreme Court is technically independent of the executive, just like it is in the U.S. But there has been a lot of political pressure that AMLO has exerted on the Supreme Court. It’s not at all clear to me how they will rule in this particular case.
Well, as we mentioned, tens of thousands of people gathered in Mexico City this weekend. Do you get the sense that there will be more public demonstrations? I mean, this hardly seems like a settled matter.
I don’t think it’s settled, and we’ll see where it goes from here. I’m not optimistic, I have to say.
Let’s talk about realistic outcomes. How much of a threat does AMLO pose if pretty soon he’s going to be out of office?
Well, just because he’s out of office doesn’t mean that his political influence will wane. He could have substantial influence over the new president. We have to see what happens in the upcoming state of Mexico elections later this year. It could be that the opposition parties are knocked back so far on their heels that there’s a cakewalk for AMLO’s Morena party in the 2024 presidential elections. And if that happens, then we’re on the road to a new version – a slightly modified version, but a new version – of a dominant-party system.