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Mexico under AMLO: a disrupted democracy

Mexico under AMLO: a disrupted democracy
Alejandro García Magos | July 2019

¿En qué momento se había jodido el Perú?” wonders the main character in the opening lines of Mario Vargas Llosa’s 1969 novel Conversation in the Cathedral. The same could largely be said with respect to Mexico today: when did things go wrong for an otherwise promising young democracy? How come a country that heavily invested in building trustworthy electoral authorities, at arm’s length from the executive branch, now sees these same authorities going on the defensive against the incumbent president? When was it that the National Electoral Institute (INE) went from being the darling of the government —feted as one of the best outcomes of the democratic transition (1977-1997)— to being portrayed now by officials as a bloated, unreliable bureaucratic apparatus? When was the precise moment that the tide turned for the INE and by extension also for Mexican democracy? 

How come a country that 
heavily invested in building 
trustworthy electoral authorities,
 at arm’s length from the executive 
branch, now sees these same 
authorities going on the defensive 
against the incumbent president?

Answer: during the early hours of July 3rd, 2006, in the immediate aftermath of that year’s presidential election. That was the moment when the then candidate and now president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (aka AMLO), decided to reject the INE’s official results and to question the honour of its board members. (1) Despite AMLO being the front-runner for months, in the weeks before the election the polls tightened between him and the second-place candidate, Felipe Calderón. This was confirmed by the INE that early morning when it declared the election too close to call —albeit with Calderón slightly ahead. Eventually, in what has to be one of the biggest upsets in electoral history, a few months later the electoral tribunal declared Calderón president-elect with the smallest of margins: 0.58 percent.

AMLO reacted furiously to this chain of events. He lashed out against his opponents and critics for what he considered to be a fraud. Still, though, that was not the problem. The problem was that he directed his grievances to the INE, whose board members he sued and whose president Luis Carlos Ugalde he vilified to the point of putting him in risk of physical harm. In his memoir of the election Ugalde denounces this when he states that “I became the public face of an alleged electoral fraud. In the eyes of AMLO’s supporters, I was one of those that manipulated the election to protect a world of privileges. An obstacle for them to access a better life. Had someone recognized me at that moment, altercation and lynching could have been inevitable.” (2)

Up to that point, the government and the opposition had embarked on a decades-long process of building trustworthy electoral authorities. Beginning in 1977, the formal electoral authorities were gradually granted more autonomy from the executive branch, culminating in 1996 with the creation of the INE. (3) Several rounds of meaningful electoral reform were carried out during the 1980s and 1990s. The first presidential election organized by the INE without the interference of the executive branch was in 2000. On that occasion, the opposition’s victory put an end to 71 years of uninterrupted rule by the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI). The then president of the INE, José Woldenberg, announced the results at 11 pm on July 2nd, 2000, and minutes later, President Ernesto Zedillo acknowledged the results —and the historic defeat of his party. (4)

The thrust behind the creation of the 
INE was to elicit confidence among 
political actors —its predecessor, the 
Federal Electoral Commission (CFE), 
chaired by the Minister of Interior 
clearly did not.

The 2000 elections were regarded by the international press and foreign observers as exemplary. But the fact is that they were not. To wit, the Zedillo government transferred US$53 million from Mexico's national oil company Pemex to the PRI presidential campaign —a political scandal later labelled Pemexgate. And this is just one notable example of how the PRI manipulated that election. But if the INE was unable to prevent electoral manipulation, then what was its contribution? What was different this time around compared to other presidential elections? The difference was that in 2000 the electoral authority was universally acknowledged as trustworthy. This was by design: the thrust behind the creation of the INE was to elicit confidence among political actors —its predecessor, the Federal Electoral Commission (CFE), chaired by the Minister of Interior clearly did not. Through that confidence, the INE’s main asset, it achieved two key feats in the year 2000. First, it increased the cost for the PRI government to cancel the electoral results or attempt to manipulate them post facto. Second, it gave assurance to the PRI that it could compete its way back to power in a levelled playing field —which they did in 2012 under the leadership of Enrique Peña Nieto.

Now the confidence on the INE is long gone. The blow it received in 2006 was definitive and is only getting worse now that the government’s official version of events is that the INE participated in a fraud that year. This can be read in AMLO’s official biography on the Mexican government’s website. President AMLO is not letting go of this narrative: it has proven to be a profitable electoral strategy, and an appropriate mantra for someone who portrays himself as an embattled man of the people in a fight against powerful elites.

The sad thing is that it did not have to be this way. Had AMLO in 2006 limited his feud to his opponents this story would have been different. He could have, as he did, legitimately accused Fox’s government of manipulating the election by levelling criminal charges against him in a clumsy attempt to disqualify him from running for office. What is more, he could even have legitimately blamed the INE for its incapacity to prevent Fox’s activism in favour of Calderón. But he went much further. He instead decided to question the legitimacy of the INE and the honour of its board members, accusing them of actively and surreptitiously being part of a plot against him and his cause. One thing is to call the adversary a cheater and the referee a disgrace, another thing is accusing them all to be a gang of thieves.

Ironically, AMLO’s landslide victory
in last year’s presidential election
did not help to reduce his animosity
against the INE.

Ironically, AMLO’s landslide victory in last year’s presidential election did not help to reduce his animosity against the INE. In his inauguration speech, he did not have a single word of recognition for it despite having organized the largest election in the country’s history without major incidents —no small feat given Mexico’s size and security problems. This was not an oversight. He did have some words for the INE weeks after his election, though, when its board decided to fine AMLO’s party the Movement of National Regeneration (MORENA) for illegal financing. AMLO responded by again going on the offensive and accusing the INE of taking revenge against him for having won the election. The problem here of course is that in this occasion he was not a sore losing candidate, but the President-elect of the Republic.

The INE is now beyond help: AMLO will likely reduce its autonomy and financial resources, further eroding the confidence the INE elicits among the opposition and neutral observers. If that comes to pass, we Mexicans will have learned two lessons. The first is that an institution is as effective as the actors that it regulates stick to the rules. Specifically, the INE was effective while all political parties acknowledged its legitimacy and respected its role as a referee. The second lesson is that the referee also plays a role in electoral match-ups. As in sports, in democratic elections the referee shapes the game and the outcome. Even if sometimes a referee can make mistakes, disavowing its legitimacy —the possibility of it being able to make any decisions—makes it impossible to play the game. AMLO’s challenge to the INE makes authoritarian regression a very real possibility for Mexico today.


(1) Ugalde, Luis, Así lo viví (Grijalbo, 2008), 197.

(2) Ugalde, Luis, Así lo viví (Grijalbo, 2008), 343-348

(3) Source: Woldenberg, José, Historia mínima de la transición democrática en México (El Colegio de México, 2012), 13-16.

(4) Source: Woldenberg, José, Historia mínima de la transición democrática en México (El Colegio de México, 2012), 132-133.

Alejandro García Magos holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Toronto. He is the author of “López Obrador in Democratic Mexico,” featured in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. He has previous degrees from the Universidad Iberoamericana, in Mexico City, and the University of Calgary.