At stake in Mexico's midterm elections, writes Vanda Felbab-Brown, is not just President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s free hand to rule for his remaining three years, but also key elements of Mexican democracy and the very rule of law. This piece was originally published by Mexico Today.
On June 6, the Mexican people will vote in the country’s midterm elections. Midterms frequently draw less attention than voting for the president. But far more is up for grabs than the country’s Chamber of Deputies, 15 of the 32 state governorships, 30 state congresses and some 1,900 municipal governments. At stake is not just President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s free hand to rule for his remaining three years but also key elements of the Mexican democracy and the very rule of law.
When López Obrador won a landslide victory in the 2018 elections, many wondered whether he would rule the country as a populist leader (whose political tactics for decades featured disruption, street power, and disregard for rule of law) or as the pragmatist mayor of Mexico City he had also been. His anti-establishment agenda — what he calls the Fourth Revolution to counter “the mafia of power” —all along raised concerns that he would attempt to usher in a counterproductive de-institutionalization of Mexico. Distressingly, those fears have proven correct and López Obrador has clearly revealed his hand: Not just as a populist leader, but also one with strong tendencies against political pluralism.
If Mexican voters again give his MORENA party and its allies an absolute majority in the Chamber of Deputies, compounding the simple majority López Obrador and MORENA enjoy in the Senate, he will have a much freer hand to continue dismantling Mexico’s institutional checks and balances and attacking any critics even though many of his policies are deeply troubling.
The president’s core agenda for addressing Mexico’s profound inequalities and countering widespread corruption are critically important for Mexico. Even before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, almost 40% of Mexicans lived in poverty and social marginalization, despite the fact that Mexico is a middle-income G-20 country. However, the means by which López Obrador has chosen to prosecute both goals are as dangerous as the ills he seeks to cure.
Since coming to office, President López Obrador accomplished some of his redistribution promises: He has secured pensions for all elderly Mexicans and doubled its rate (a policy initiative he also successfully undertook as the mayor of Mexico City). And he has increased the minimum wage. He has also handed out scholarships and technical training stipends to Mexico’s young who had dropped out of school but remained unemployed.
Yet many of his policy moves are highly problematic. His response to COVID-19 has been deeply inadequate — negligently underplaying the severity of the illness and failing to take both appropriate public health measures as well as economic stimulus policies. By some accounts, Mexico’s COVID-19 toll has been over 477,000, one of the worst in the world. Mexico lost 3.2% of its regular jobs in 2020 and at least 16.2% of Mexican people had to work fewer hours than they would prefer. The country’s GDP shrank by 8.5%, yet the president’s economic stimulus response has been feeble.
This meager non-response is all the more striking in that López Obrador has otherwise exhibited statist centralist tendencies. For example, he has sought to get private market aspects out of Mexico’s healthcare system, without his reforms clearly expanding either the scope of the number of people covered or the benefits they receive.
He has similarly sought to eliminate privatization from Mexico’s energy markets, something a country highly dependent on oil income but with a moribund hydrocarbon infrastructure badly needs. In seeking to rid Mexico’s energy markets of private investments, he has violated contracts, and has empowered dirty, climate-disastrous, inefficient, expensive, and under-delivering providers, hoping to resurrect the country’s long-defunct state oil monopoly. However, López Obrador’s calls for Mexico’s energy independence and divestment of foreign presence in Mexico’s energy sector ignore the fact that Mexico’s hydrocarbon assets that its state oil company PEMEX is capable of extracting on its own are severely depleted. Indeed, it was the realization that PEMEX’s dated technologies and crumbling infrastructure do not permit exploration of new oil and gas fields and are divorced from global thrust on green energy and climate that led the Enrique Peña Nieto administration to permit foreign investment in energy.
President López Obrador’s environmental policies have been equally troubling. His Maya Train for cutting through Mexico’s pristine biodiversity hotspots was pushed through without any meaningful environmental assessment, being based instead on a referendum with very low turnout but stuffed with MORENA supporters. López Obrador has used such orchestrated referenda as a decisionmaking tool to bypass the Mexican Congress and institutional and technocratic processes when he is uncertain of favorable outcomes from them. The Maya Train, for the construction of which López Obrador problematically hired the Mexican military, is highly unlikely to stimulate beneficial ecotourism and can easily enabling extractive industries, such as logging and mining, as well as wildlife trafficking. Yet the COVID-19 lesson should have been to keep primary biodiversity areas, particularly in the tropics, free of habitat destruction. Nor has the government paid attention to burgeoning illegal fishing in Mexico, even when its impact on species extinction, such as of the porpoise vaquita marina, has led to a slate of painful economic sanctions on Mexico. Deforestation in Mexico is also rampant. Tragically, the López Obrador government’s biggest environmental and job creation plan, ill-conceived in its poor design of plantation monocropping and insufficient diversity of native species, backfired further: Some farmers cut down old trees to get paid for planting new ones. Overall, environmental concerns remain very low on López Obrador’s policy agenda, and many environmental government institutions have seen their budgets severely decimated and their functionality in regulation, oversight, and enforcement gravely diminished.
López Obrador has imposed aggressive budget reductions on many Mexican institutions, beyond the environmental ones. While eviscerating administrative capacities of ministries, the de-institutionalization drive has re-centralized power in the office of the president. Salary cuts also drove accomplished technocrats out of office, allowing López Obrador to staff many ministries, including at top levels, with often inexperienced supporters who dare not challenge him. He frequently formulates policy directives on the spot during his daily morning press conferences to a rapt audience, with little systematic institutional input.
López Obrador has also directly targeted institutions that are supposed to be independent and that have been proud achievements of Mexico’s democratization: In April, his allies threatened the country’s electoral body — Instituto Nacional Electoral. He intends to nominate a politically suggestible official as the head of the Central Bank, one who, according to López Obrador, will promote a “moral economy.” He seeks to abolish the National Institute for Access to Information (INAI). Established after the end of Mexico’s one-party authoritarian rule, INAI was created to help reduce the power of Mexico’s imperial presidency, monitor government spending and policy implementation, and investigate human rights abuses. The president sees anyone who does not praise his administration, let alone who criticizes it, as an enemy: He has lashed out against NGOs, media outlets, and even universities. His supporters are highly mobilized to pillory any critic.
His extension of the term of Supreme Court chief, who is also the president of the Federal Judiciary Council that appoints and dismisses judges, allows the López Obrador administration to influence how courts rule in cases regarding the executive branch. His other moves to bend the justice system to his will include a salary reform that lowered wages of judges but did not improve the quality of prosecutors and his unwillingness to allow an independent apolitical selection of the attorney general. A decade and a half after Mexico initiated its justice system reforms, 95% of federal cases still go unpunished. The attorney general’s office has proven weak, unwilling to take up key cases such as against the suspects in the brazen attack on Mexico City’s Security Minister Omar García Harfuch in 2020 — an event that symbolized the impunity with which Mexican criminal groups operate. Mexico’s justice system showed itself equally meek and disappointing in handling the alleged complicity of Mexico’s former Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos with Mexico’s highly violent drug trafficking organizations, one of the most significant cases of corruption and criminal collusion charges against a high Mexican official in two decades.
Instead of robustly investigating the infiltration of organized crime groups into Mexico’s law enforcement and security institutions and the corruption inside them, López Obrador has set off on a dangerous path, handing rich government contracts to the Mexican military for matters for which the military is a highly inappropriate tool. Its favorite institutional actor — the Army (SEDENA) — has seen an astounding 40% (!) increase in its budget since 2018. With the promise that the military is fast and efficient, López Obrador has tasked its branches with building the country’s new primary airport and the Maya Train, operating ports, and even handling luxury apartment construction and sales. Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Egypt provide potent lessons about the immense risks of transforming militaries into powerful economic agents. Moreover, many of the contracts handed out to the Mexican military have not been subject to diligent contract competition, even though López Obrador’s political career has centered on railing against corruption.
Mexico’s institutions and politics do indeed remain woefully corrupt; and countering that corruption and expanding rule of law are crucial for increasing public safety and social inclusion. But López Obrador’s anti-corruption moves, including his use of financial intelligence units, seem directed predominantly against his political rivals and former presidents, while his key supporters and constituents do not appear to be receiving appropriate scrutiny. Two and half years into his rule, no fewer ordinary Mexicans report being asked for bribes from government officials than before the López Obrador administration.
Violent crime in Mexico remains at extraordinarily high levels, with over 30,000 Mexicans dying per year. Those intolerable crime rates began well before the López Obrador administration. However, its strategy of “hugs, not bullets” that seeks to fight crime through nebulous social inclusion and redistribution programs has essentially given up on law enforcement. The López Obrador administration also tore apart and abolished the Federal Police, the most effective, if highly imperfect, law enforcement tool Mexico had. The National Guard, drawn mostly from the military, continues to fall short in recruitment, strategy, tactics, and effectiveness. Giving them free reign, the López Obrador administration basically gave up countering violent organized crime groups. Even after violent takeovers of towns by organized crime groups, such as most notoriously by the Sinaloa Cartel in Culiacán in October 2019, or attacks by criminal groups on police stations, President López Obrador praised military and police non-action.
Yet the criminal groups actively seek to influence Mexico’s elections. Between September 2020 when campaigning began and May 2021, at least 82 Mexican politicians have been killed. Assassinations of politicians are not new in Mexico, and sometimes political rivals hire criminal groups for such hits. However, for the past two decades, criminal groups have increasingly sought to dictate to politicians and, through illicit money and coercion, to promote the politicians who advance their agendas and eliminate their rivals. Particularly at the municipal level in regions of Mexico with scant government presence and strong criminal rule, such as the Tierra Caliente in the central part of the country, they also coerce elected officials into diverting law enforcement efforts away from them and to handover to them parts of municipal budgets.
Whatever the outcome of Mexico’s midterms, President López Obrador gives every indication that he intends to double down on his existing policies after the midterms. Mexican voters face the choice as to whether to enable his deeply troubling direction for Mexico or constrain him and strengthen political and institutional checks and balances in the country.