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Mexico's new election reform is a blow to its young democracy

EYDER PERALTA, HOST:

Mexico is at a crossroads. I'm on Paseo de la Reforma, the huge boulevard at the heart of Mexico City. And over the past few months, this street has been flooded with dueling protests. Another big rally is expected today, and it's all about one thing - who will control the country's elections? And this week, Mexico's Senate passed a law that gutted the country's electoral commission. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador says the law reins in a bloated and corrupt government agency, but critics say it is a stunning blow to Mexico's young democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PERALTA: But on the streets we hear apathy.

DOMINGO GRANADOS: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: Domingo Granados (ph) is 20, a college student and says he doesn't believe either side because, with or without a clean electoral commission, elections are still dirty.

GRANADOS: (Through interpreter) Truth is, political parties offer you money for your vote.

PERALTA: There is wide agreement that the INE, the National Electoral Institute, helped pull Mexico out of one-party rule in the year 2000. Indeed, they have run elections that international observers have lauded. But on these streets, we hear what polls have found - vast support for defunding the institute. We hear that the commission hasn't made a difference - that the top commissioners are rolling in money while Mexicans struggle to make ends meet. Juventino Gonzalez (ph), who is 52, says what worries him is that this new law fires career civil servants.

JUVENTINO GONZALEZ: (Through interpreter) That means they're going to bring random workers to run elections, and they will be partisan.

PERALTA: Mexico's two decades of democracy have been imperfect, he says.

GONZALEZ: (Through interpreter) And now even that peculiar democracy is in peril.

LUIS CARLOS UGALDE: The goal is not to save money. The goal should be to have clean elections and to build trust and to have elections being accepted by all parties.

PERALTA: Luis Carlos Ugalde knows what it takes to run elections. He's the former president of Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute, the organization that, among other things, sets up and monitors polling stations around Mexico. Ugalde told me that, with these new reforms, INE's offices would be downsized to potentially save money. But he said that would be a disaster for running elections smoothly.

UGALDE: Mr. Lopez Obrador, our president in Mexico, is a populist - like Mr. Trump in the U.S., like Mr. Bolsonaro in Brazil. These three guys have something in common, which is that when they lose elections, they call fraud. And if you have a weakened institution, then that call may be stronger. If you have a strong INE - if you have capacity to run nice elections, then these allegations lose weight.

PERALTA: So this is going to be challenged in - at the Supreme Court, but are you worried at this point about Mexico's democracy?

UGALDE: Yes, I am worried that Mexico's democracy is in danger, not immediate danger. But you have seen other episodes in other countries in which populist administrations have come into power, and many of them have become authoritarian regimes. INE is not Mexico democracy. INE is part of Mexico's democracy, but it is a very relevant element of that. If you allow that to happen, then - the Mexican Congress is already very weakened because there is a hegemonic force in charge of the Mexican Congress - the MORENA party. And the Mexican Supreme Court is being pressured by the Mexican president. So a system of checks and balances is in danger at this moment, and INE is part of that.

PERALTA: So President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is very popular in Mexico. There's a case to be made that he doesn't need to change the electoral system for his party to win next year's presidential election. Why do you think he is making these changes right now? Why is he pushing these changes now?

UGALDE: So why should he do that at this moment? I think there are many elements. One is simply because of political resentment. He lost the presidency in 2006. I was president of the electoral commission at the time. And instead of abiding by the results, he claimed a fraud that he never proved anything about that supposed fraud in that year. Then in 2012, again, he lost, and then he claimed fraud again. Second, it is about the narrative. Populist politicians need to build an idea that they are fighting the bad guys, the elites, the experts, the institutions of the past. So for Lopez Obrador, INE is that type of institution, liberal institution that he wants to fight at, even if he is president of the republic. Then, I think that, genuinely, Lopez Obrador thinks that INE is very expensive. For a populist like Lopez Obrador, the institutions can be cheap, and the money of the government has to be used to make transfers to the poor people. So for him, this is very expensive. Finally, I think, it is the political idea that if he claims that - he talks about INE being part of the problem, then in 2024, MORENA loses the presidency - unlikely today, but at some point, the election can become competitive - then he has the argument to say, I said to you INE made a fraud on us and then make that argument.

PERALTA: So - I mean, but it does sound like what you're saying is that these agencies are vulnerable to whatever politicians want.

UGALDE: Yes, absolutely. There is a point of no return. We are not there yet, but yes, of course, any institution in any democratic system, even in the U.S., and if you had Trump back in 2024 and he continued to fight the electoral system and questioning of the electoral mechanisms and questioning the parties and attacking the adversaries and doing - the U.S. can become an autocracy by the end of the decade. I mean, there is no way to be safe from that, especially presidents that are popular. I mean, Lopez Obrador is popular, and he knows that. So yes, INE is vulnerable. I think INE is going to survive, but if in 2024, another populist person comes to the president and continues attacking INE, and if that president is popular, then INE can suffer and die in the coming years.

PERALTA: Luis Carlos Ugalde is the former president of Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute. Luis, thank you very much for being here.

UGALDE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.