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Mexican protesters see electoral overhaul as a threat to democracy

A crowd waves Mexico's green, white and red flag along with flags and signs in deep pink
Huge crowds protested on Feb. 26, 2023, in Mexico City against the passage of reforms last week that drastically downsizes the country’s electoral institute.
(Fernando Llano / Associated Press)
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Juan Manuel Martinez remembers the days when he would vote in Mexico’s elections with no confidence that they were being run fairly.

For decades, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, remained in power by buying votes or stuffing ballot boxes. Election after election, the same story repeated itself.

“No election was clean, democracy didn’t exist, the government both controlled the elections and was the referee, which isn’t right,” said Martinez, a retired 70-year-old accountant. “We always knew that they were tricking us, that the candidate that was always going to win was from the PRI.”

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A person wearing a pink long-sleeved shirt and standing in a crowd holds up a sign near a larger poster in pink
Demonstrators in Mexico City wore pink, the color of the nation’s electoral institute, and chanted, “You don’t touch the INE.”
(Alejandro Cegarra / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

That history motivated Martinez and more than 100,000 others in Mexico City to march Sunday against the major downsizing last week of the agency that oversees Mexico’s elections, a measure that they say jeopardizes the country’s democracy and could harm the 2024 presidential race.

Crowds of people wearing pink — the color of the National Electoral Institute, known as the INE — tightly packed the main square downtown. “You don’t touch the INE,” they chanted. One man carried a poster — wrapped in transparent pink cloth — of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Other protests took place across Mexico.

Mexican lawmakers on Wednesday approved the overhaul of the electoral institute, an independent agency that helped Mexico transition from one-party rule a few decades ago. The changes, backed by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, drastically reduce the institute’s staff and autonomy and are expected to result in a challenge before the nation’s Supreme Court.

The electoral institute says that the downsizing — known as “Plan B” because it follows an earlier, failed attempt at an overhaul — will eliminate the jobs of thousands of staffers who organize elections across the country, including identifying spots for polling stations, verifying voting credentials and overseeing the tally. The changes also limit the agency’s ability to discipline political candidates who violate campaign spending rules.

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Feb. 26, 2023

The downsizing “diminishes accountability for politicians, which threatens the equity and transparency of the elections,” the electoral institute said in a Twitter post.

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Passage of the measure has raised bipartisan concerns in the United States. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Rob Menendez (D-N.J.) released a statement warning that “returning Mexico to its dark past of presidentially controlled elections not only sets the clock back on its democracy, but also U.S.-Mexico relations.”

“In spite of his hope to be remembered as a democrat and champion for the country’s most vulnerable, President López Obrador’s ongoing efforts to undermine INE’s autonomy and independence will assuredly cement his legacy as just the opposite,” they said.

A man holds chains in one hand and a sign in Spanish in the other
A demonstrator dressed as independence hero Miguel Hidalgo held a sign that reads “You don’t touch the INE” during the Mexico City march on Feb. 26, 2023.
(Fernando Llano / Associated Press)

The electoral institute has been credited with facilitating fair elections in Mexico and allowing the country to move away from 71 years of one-party rule under the PRI.

A 1996 reform that shielded the agency — known then as the Federal Electoral Institute — from political interference created the conditions for opposition party candidate Vicente Fox to win the presidency in 2000.

López Obrador, leader of his Morena party, has long attacked the electoral institute even though it oversaw the election that in 2018 swept him into office in a landslide. After he first ran for president in 2006 and lost by less than 1% of the vote, he accused the agency of being complicit in voter fraud.

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The president, who took power promising a radical transformation to combat corruption and inequality and has enjoyed high approval ratings, denies that the reforms will put elections at risk. In December he said that the agency needs a more austere budget “so that it can do more with less, like everyone.”

He sought to cast doubt on the motives of Sunday’s protesters, saying that they are people who “in one way or another benefited from corruption.” He also tried to tie them to Genaro García Luna, Mexico’s former top law enforcement official who last week was convicted of taking millions of dollars in bribes from drug traffickers.

Huge crowds waving Mexico's green, white and red flag and pink banners are seen against a backdrop of buildings
Tens of thousands of protesters tightly packed the Zócalo, or central square, in downtown Mexico City.
(Fernando Llano / Associated Press)

“They are coming to say, ‘You can’t touch the INE,’ but also ‘you can’t touch Garcia Luna,’ and ultimately it’s ‘you can’t touch the corrupt and conservative regime,’” he told reporters at a recent news conference. #Marchofthenarcos later trended on Twitter.

The protest in Mexico City’s central square, or Zócalo, included a speech by a former Mexican Supreme Court justice who said he was confident that the current justices expected to hear challenges to the reform will “preserve the democratic life of the country.”

Much of the crowd was made up of senior citizens who recalled elections under one-party rule. When asked why she attended, an 81-year-old woman simply waved her hand: “I’m a democrat,” she said.

Many said that López Obrador — who cannot run again — is weakening the electoral institute in an attempt to keep his party in power past his six-year term as president. An election can be jeopardized if the institute lacks the infrastructure to count votes.

“He wants to destroy the freedom Mexico has to decide who votes. We are coming to defend democracy,” said Fernando Hernandez Martinez, 45, a gym teacher who voted for López Obrador in 2018. “He brainwashed us, he said that he’s the messiah Mexico is waiting for and he tricked us.”

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Sánchez is a special correspondent.

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