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A Blow to Mexico’s Democracy . . . And Our Own

A new law weakening Mexico’s national election agency shows that no country can take democracy for granted.

This article was originally published in Spanish in La Opinión.

The Mexican Senate just passed a law effectively gutting the nation’s esteemed election agency, the National Electoral Institute (INE). President Andrés Manuel López Obrador pushed for the law and will sign it. Unless invalidated by a court, it will be the most significant legal blow to Mexican democracy since the end of one-party rule in 2000.

The attack on the INE is a Mexican political story, but it also represents a new chapter in the ongoing global backlash against free and fair elections. Americans should pay attention — not only is Mexico our close neighbor, but its challenges both mirror and have the potential to exacerbate our own.

The end of the Cold War saw a flourishing of liberal democracy around the world. Mexico was a beacon of progress but now risks being a leading example of retreat.

The INE, established in 1990 (when it was known as the Federal Electoral Institute, or IFE), played an essential role in Mexico’s transition from more than 70 years of one-party rule under the Institutional Revolutionary Party. Today it is responsible for conducting all federal, state, and local elections and overseeing Mexico’s strict political financing rules. It is widely regarded as one of the most competent electoral bodies in the world, with much to teach other countries, including the United States.

But upholding democracy earned the INE powerful enemies. In its previous incarnation as the IFE, the body clashed with López Obrador after he narrowly lost the 2006 presidential election and alleged widespread fraud (the international community deemed the election fundamentally fair). The future president encouraged massive protests in Mexico City that lasted months, foreshadowing in some respects Donald Trump’s response to his 2020 election loss. López Obrador has continued to denounce Mexico’s election referee ever since, calling it “rotten,” claiming that it is biased in favor of his political opponents on the right, and accusing its staff of “cheat[ing].”

The law passed by the Senate on Wednesday would drastically cut the election body’s budget and eliminate 40 local branches, potentially compelling it to lay off thousands of staff. The law also undercuts the INE’s power to enforce electoral laws, reducing penalties for violating transparency rules for election spending, which will increase the risk of illicit money entering a political system already plagued by corruption.

López Obrador and his allies claim they just want to save money. But these funding cuts will save less than 0.1 percent of the federal budget. Of course, no electoral body is perfect, and some reforms may be warranted. However, even many of the president’s own supporters on the left have recognized the new law as an attempt to weaken a pillar of Mexican democracy.

Yes, this is a continuation of López Obrador’s tumultuous, norm-breaking career. But it is also part of a global trend of authoritarian leaders from across the ideological spectrum seeking to undermine free and fair elections and related institutions even in seemingly well-established democracies. Last year, Brazil’s outgoing President Jair Bolsonaro questioned the integrity of voting systems and accused election authorities of planning to manipulate the results in his country’s October presidential election, which he narrowly lost. Bolsonaro’s supporters later stormed the nation’s Congress in Brasilia.

The attack on the Brazilian Congress brings to mind another attack on a national legislature — the January 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol by a mob seeking to overturn President Donald Trump’s 2020 loss. Like López Obrador and Bolsonaro, Trump baselessly attributed his loss to fraud — his “Big Lie.” Like these other leaders, Trump also targeted election officials — from state leaders who refused to alter vote counts, including members of his own party like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Arizona Senate President Rusty Bowers, to ordinary election workers.

These attacks failed to overturn the 2020 election, but they have spawned an election denial movement that remains a potent force in American politics. Across the United States, baseless allegations of fraud continue to fuel attacks on election officials — a survey of thousands of local election officials released last year by the Brennan Center found that almost one in six had faced threats just for doing their jobs; many plan to quit before the 2024 presidential election.

Unfounded claims of fraud also continue to spur legal efforts across the country to create additional barriers to voting, which especially affect Black, Latino, and other communities of color and make it easier for partisans to interfere in how elections are run.

American democracy does not exist in isolation from the rest of the world. It is embedded in a global community based on shared values. Our institutions have benefited from many years of productive exchanges between U.S. election officials and their counterparts in other countries, including staff at the INE. But bad ideas also travel across borders — like the conspiracy theories Trump acolytes propagated to stoke the rage of the Bolsonaro supporters who stormed Brazil’s Congress.

While Trump and Bolsonaro are right-wing figures, the attack by a leftist president on Mexico’s independent electoral body is a reminder that resurgent authoritarianism can come from both the right and the left.  And what happens in Mexico hits particularly close to home, a country with which millions of Americans have close and enduring ties.

In neither country can we take democracy for granted.