Mexico’s Democracy Is Crumbling Under AMLO
From the start of his presidency, AMLO has displayed little regard for democratic norms. At the podium in hours-long press conferences every morning, he attacks journalists and columnists not toeing his line. He lashes out at non-governmental organizations and civil society movements investigating corruption, supporting women’s rights, or defending human rights. And he has questioned the value of independent public agencies such as the national electoral institute (INE), the antitrust commission (COFECE), the freedom of information agency (INAI), and the national commission on human rights (CNDH).
His push to silence critics and erode democratic checks and balances has gone beyond words. AMLO has used his power in the legislature to cut the budgets of many technically autonomous agencies, making it harder for them to do their jobs as regulators and watchdogs. He has emptied the coffers of more than 100 state-controlled trust funds, or fideicomisos, set up by past governments to safeguard dedicated public support for artists, academics, scientists, journalists and human rights defenders.
Recently, his attacks have taken a more sinister and legally sketchy turn. In the public dust-up over revelations of his son’s luxurious living accommodations in Houston, AMLO revealed the personal income data of Carlos Loret de Mola, the journalist who broke the story, in violation of Article 16 of the Constitution, Article 69 of the Federation fiscal code, and Article 6 of the general law on the protection of personal data, among others.
He has seemingly broken electoral laws by shilling for his political party in his morning press conferences (a sitting president isn’t allowed to campaign for others) in the lead-up to last year’s midterm elections, and he is now campaigning for himself before a recall referendum set for April, which also violates electoral laws.
Freedom House has rated Mexico quite poorly on press freedom, especially for violence against journalists.
In recent weeks, different indices of democracy in the world were released, which allow us to see where Mexico is located and how it has varied in recent years. Let’s see what they say and, above all, how they compare with the opinion and feelings of Mexicans.
An index is published by the American organization Freedom House, which ranks countries on a scale of freedom. Mexico’s position has changed little in recent years, but the change has been downward. The study has classified Mexico as a “partially free” country for several years, with a score of 60 out of 100 in 2021. As a comparative reference, the United States had a score of 83, Ukraine 61, and Venezuela 14 that same year.
Mexico’s score in 2021 is the lowest in the last five years: in 2017 a score of 65 points was recorded, in 2018 62, in 2019 63, and in 2020 62. The net loss in that period has been barely five points, not very forceful, but down. The Freedom House study has rated Mexico quite poorly in press freedom, especially for violence against journalists, which will surely have a negative impact this year. From the FH metric, Mexican democracy has deteriorated somewhat.
Another recently published democracy index was that of the British magazine The Economist, which also shows a downward trend, especially in 2021, when Mexico obtained a score below six points on a scale of 1 to 10 for the first time since 2006 when the follow-up began. In addition, Mexico changed its conceptual category, going from “ flawed democracy ” to a hybrid regime.
The highest scores since 2006 were seen in 2010 and 2011, at 6.93 in each year. Then the score went down from 2014 to 2020, gradually going from 6.68 to 6.07, and finally to 5.57 in 2021. According to the criteria of that study, democracy in Mexico is decomposing.
The best evaluated of Mexico in the Democracy Index in 2021 were the electoral processes and political participation, that is, the INE and the voters, to put it simply. The worst evaluated was the functioning of the government and the political culture that prevails in the country, which does not necessarily refer to the culture of society as a whole, but also that of the political class.
Another index is the Bertelsmann Transformation Index, carried out in Germany, which places Mexico in 57th place out of 137 countries on a scale of political transformation. Our country is classified by that organization as a “highly defective democracy”, and gives us a score of 5.95 on a scale of 10. The report contains several indicators of democracy on the decline in recent years in Mexico, very notoriously freedom of expression and the separation of powers, as well as something they call “commitment to democratic institutions.”
Each one with its methodology, the three indices are very interesting and contribute a lot to the discussion about the state of democracy.
We measured the issue of the separation of powers this month in the national survey of EL FINANCIERO. 36 percent of Mexicans believe that the separation of powers in the country has been strengthened in the last three years, while 54 percent, the majority, believe that power has been centralized in the President. The data confirms the trend recorded by the Bertelsmann index in this area.
These positions have a certain partisan tint: oppositionists and nonpartisans are mostly inclined to believe that power has been centralized in the figure of the President. But the Morenistas are divided: one half sees a strengthening of the separation of powers and the other half sees a centralization of power in the Executive.
In the national survey of last February, we also asked if they believe that Mexico is a democracy or not. 64 percent said yes, and 28 percent said no, with the remaining 8 percent having no opinion. Although the morenistas are the ones that give the most affirmative answers, the oppositionists and nonpartisans also affirm it for the most part. There is not yet a generalized perception that Mexican democracy is in decline, although the indices are already pointing to it. We will have to be aware of whether that perception changes. For now, the trend towards centralization is already clear in public opinion measures.
LÓPEZ OBRADOR: THE PERFECT DICTATORSHIP OR THE SOFT DICTATORSHIP?
“THIS ARTICLE IS DEDICATED TO THE YOUNG PEOPLE WHOSE HISTORICAL MEMORY WE ARE OBLIGED TO NURTURE, BECAUSE THOSE WHO DO NOT KNOW THEIR HISTORY ARE IN DANGER OF REPEATING IT.” THE AUTHOR.
Recently the playwright and journalist Sabina Berman ( El narco speaks with God, among other works), wrote an article in the newspaper El Universal where she mainly argues that it is false that the Mexican president is acting like a dictator and for this she uses an understandable analogy: in it he refers that AMLO is playing on the board of democracy with the pieces and the rules that political chess provides him and that if he were really a dictator, what the Tabascan would do is throw away the board with all his “democratic” pieces ”.
Berman’s article avoids referring to the new political categories used by populist and autocratic governments, of constitutional dictatorships, pardon the oxymoron or contradiction of concepts, which have come to power from democratic elections, examples are:
The Venezuela of Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro, the populist government of Rafael Correa in Ecuador, the government of Turkey with Recep Erdogan and the Prime Minister of Hungary Victor Orbán, among other satraps representing retropopulism with alloys of fascism.
One of the most emblematic cases of the democratic assault on power happened in 1933 in the Germany of the Weimar Republic, with the rise to power of the National Socialist Party headed by the infernal Adolf Hitler and the imposition of a totalitarian political model, police and criminal The open door of democracy sometimes leads to the hell of aristocratic totalitarianism or to ochlocracy or the rule of crowds thirsty for revenge.
It is true that López Obrador has not abruptly thrown away the democratic institutions as Fujimori did in Peru in the 90’s, when he dissolved the legislative power and the courts, however, the tactic of colonizing the institutions of the nation-state on the one hand and on the other destroying those that he cannot dominate, brings him closer to the definition of an aspiring dictator, in any of its modalities.
AMLO ‘s work is gradual but consistent: take over the national state and sub-nationals (federal entities).
At the beginning of the 90’s, the late Mexican poet and intellectual Octavio Paz convened a meeting in CDMX with European, gringo and Latin American intellectuals to discuss commitments to democracy and freedoms, called The 20th century: the experience of freedom.
In the colloquium the writer, intellectual and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature Mario Vargas Llosa put the cowbell that does not rattle) the cat, the Peruvian lashed out at the Mexican political system, saying, before the astonished gaze of all the guests, Paz included: “ Mexico is a perfect dictatorship. The perfect dictatorship is not communism. It is not the USSR. It is not Fidel Castro. The perfect dictatorship is Mexico.”
And it continued (according to the chronicle of El País on August 30, 1990). “ It is the camouflaged dictatorship ”.
“ It has the characteristics of a dictatorship: the permanence not of a man, but of a party that is immovable ”.
Visibly irritated, the author of The Labyrinth of Solitude entered the room to try to clarify the blow of the author of Pantaleón and the visitors, Paz replied:
“ That as a writer and intellectual, I prefer precision ”. “First” he said, “ Mexico is not a dictatorship, it is a hegemonic system of domination where there have been no military dictatorships . We have suffered from a hegemonic denomination of a party .”
He then spoke about the good that the PRI has done. He explained that he has not suppressed freedom, “ although he has manipulated it”, that he has preserved civil society and that it is not a conservative party like that of Francisco Franco (the former Spanish dictator).
What meaning could these reflections have when brought to present value and considering the latest events that we Mexicans have witnessed during the AMLO government?
From my point of view, they have an undeniable historical alarm value, because the elements of the 4T government adjust to the expressions and points of view of both intellectuals:
1.- The presidential initiative to extend the mandate of the President of the SCJN, Arturo Zaldivar, by itself unconstitutional, is a strategic move by AMLO in a two or three-way carom: colonize the SCJN to prevent the process or the slowdown of more of 20 appeals of unconstitutionality that could stop almost all the revisionist reforms of the president for a change of democratic regime to an autocratic one, and of concentration of power in his person.
And on the other hand, lay the psychological foundations in the community, that if for the reform of the judiciary a person (Arturo Zaldívar) is indispensably required for the long-term establishment of the new 4T regime, with much more reason it would be required of the permanence in power of his person as the anointed one to carry out the regime change, all due to his providential and immaculate character. Redirecting his presidency in a popular and “democratic” way, as did Chávez, Maduro, Correa, Erdogan et al.
2.- In the event that López Obrador’s re-election encounters obstacles, he would reissue the strategy of the old PRI system of hegemonic party with a view to the long term, to “normalize” the new conditions of a camouflaged democracy, imposing a candidate (a ) to suit your purposes.
The contempt of every dictator for the rule of law and institutions is a genetic condition of totalitarianism even when it is intended to dress in the finery of a democracy.
Mass politics and omnipresent divisive and polarizing propaganda is the new semantics in which meanings and signifiers are amalgamated to produce a confusing language, where economic involution would be development, the president’s opinions indubitable facts, the rule of law a construct of the conservatives and neoliberals and our Magna Carta a pamphlet from which you can tear leaves, concepts, and categories to the content of the strong man of Mexico.
All of this as Varguitas, the character from Luis Estrada’s film, The Perfect Dictatorship, played by Damián Alcázar, who resolved any difficulty in his exercise of government by tearing leaves from the Constitution.
Perfect dictatorship, soft dictatorship, single and hegemonic party, it is the same, nuances included, with technical coups like the ones AMLO intends or with military coups like the Latin American dictatorships, all lead to a government painted with authoritarian overtones where democracy and society as a whole will be the losers in absolute terms. Brutality also has nuances, but it looks as bad as the red one.
U.S. support for Mexico’s democracy should go beyond words and meetings. USAID and other government organizations should continue to support non-governmental organizations dedicated to transparency, accountability, and citizen rights. U.S.-based civil society organizations, NGOs, and foundations should follow, refocusing on Mexico after years of declining attention, as greater cross-border connections and resources raise the visibility, resources, and leverage of local NGOs and organizations seeking to hold the democratic line.
On the security front, the U.S. will keep working with the Mexican government to improve safety on both sides of the border. But the U.S. should also act on its intelligence to take down drug trafficking rings that span the border and use its legal system to investigate and prosecute illegal doings currently being ignored in Mexico. Targets should include the “senior Mexican government officials” affiliated with or influenced by organized crime mentioned in the State Department’s latest International Narcotics Control Strategy report, as well as investigating potential breaches of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and other U.S. laws in a growing number of complaints of alleged corruption.
In the short term, such pressure will not be comfortable or cost-free for the U.S. to apply. A case in point: After Secretary Blinken tweeted in support of Mexico’s beleaguered journalists, AMLO not only bristled that “Mexico is not a colony or a protectorate of the United States,” but then demanded to know why the U.S. was supporting the non-profit organization that surfaced the news about his son’s living arrangements.
AMLO can ignore calls from abroad for transparency, accountability, and institutional checks and balances. Yet as a good neighbor affected by what happens in the neighborhood it shares, the U.S. cannot afford to ignore or abandon the tens of millions of Mexicans who have worked for decades to build democratic institutions, create functioning political parties, and support watchdogs in the press and civil society.
They are now standing up to defend the increasingly fragile democratic structures still in place. The U.S. should lend them a hand.
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