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Mexico’s AMLO: Democratic deconsolidation in sight?

Mexico’s AMLO: Democratic deconsolidation in sight?
Alejandro García Magos | September 2017

The next president of Mexico may well be Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO as he is popularly known. If you are not yet acquainted with his name or initials, this would be a good time to learn about him, for his victory in the upcoming 2018 presidential elections will send shockwaves across the Americas.

With less than twelve months before election day next July 1st, every poll in Mexico puts him ahead in the race. (1) Not only do the polls predict his victory, but so do recent electoral results. In July, the State of Mexico, known as Edomex, held gubernatorial elections, which in the Mexican political calendar are seen as a dress rehearsal for the presidential race. In 2011, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) won the state’s governorship with a landslide of over 60 percent of the vote, heralding their return to the national presidency in 2012 with Enrique Peña Nieto.

This year, however, there was a virtual tie at 30 percent between the PRI and AMLO’s new party, the Movement of National Regeneration, whose acronym – MORENA – is a double entendre that also means “brown skinned woman” in Spanish. Formally registered in 2014, MORENA is essentially a one-man party whose electoral support clearly reflects AMLO’s popularity. The closeness of the vote shocked the Mexican political system for two reasons. First, because Edomex is a key battleground state, as the most heavily and densely populated of the 31 that make up the country. Second, because the state is also a PRI stronghold – one of a handful of states where the party has ruled without interruption since its creation in 1929.

What will be the consequences of AMLO’s victory for democratic rule? Judging by his style of campaigning and reaction to electoral defeat, not very promising. He twice ran unsuccessfully for the presidency, in 2006 and 2012, and on both occasions, gave ample evidence of his disregard for the most basic norms and institutions of democracy. Particularly worrisome is the fact that, before and after the elections, he aggressively attacked the legitimacy of the electoral authorities. This type of invective coming from a candidate is problematic enough. Coming from a president, it may contribute to what Foa and Mounk describe as the deconsolidation of democracy. (2) What might this process look like? To answer this question, we have to look back at how democracy emerged in Mexico in the first place.

By most accounts the Mexican transition to democracy ended in 2000. Before then, the country was ruled by the PRI without interruption for more than seven decades. And for most of this time as a hegemonic party – one that “neither allows a formal nor a de facto competition for power.” (3) Changing this state of affairs took a long time. The transition arguably began in 1977, when Congress passed a mild political reform that allowed opposition parties to gain representation. The reform was not intended to change the hegemonic character of the PRI, but to obscure it behind a veil of democracy. Nonetheless, it had the unexpected effect of increasing electoral competition across the country, which, in turn, pushed the PRI to resort more frequently and blatantly to fraudulent means, igniting opposition protests that were only settled with true electoral reform in between 1986 and 1996. (4)

The story of Mexico’s democratic transition is a decades-long series of “constant iterations of electoral fraud, opposition protest, and electoral reform.” (5) At every turn in this protracted process the main dispute between the PRI government and the opposition parties was the autonomy of the electoral authorities. In 1977, elections were organized and sanctioned by the Ministry of the Interior, whose incumbent was appointed by the president. By 2000, when the transition ended, elections were organized by an independent agency, the National Electoral Institute (INE), and sanctioned by a specially created electoral tribunal subordinated to the federal judiciary. (6) The executive branch has had no say in the configuration of the INE board since 1996. Board members are citizens nominated by the parties represented in Congress, and their appointment requires two-thirds of the vote in order to guarantee their neutrality.

If AMLO becomes president, this could change. At least if he shows the same disregard for the norms and institutions of democracy as president as he has shown as candidate. Take, for instance, the fact that after his 2006 failed presidential bid he and his partisans sued all the INE’s board members, lashed out against the electoral tribunal for allowing what they called a “coup d'état”, and declared himself the “legitimate president of Mexico.” Or consider the fact that after his failed 2012 bid, he wrote a book accusing the INE board members of being weak-kneed and “acting without dignity and decorum”, called them “thieves of the hope and happiness of the people”, and suggested that they had been bribed into supporting a different candidate. (7)

These expressions and actions might be dismissed as political rhetoric or even demagoguery, but according to scholars of democratic deconsolidation, politicizing and bullying independent state institutions is precisely one of the preferred strategies of elected autocrats. These leaders “… have a powerful incentive to purge career civil servants and other independent-minded officials and replace them with partisans. Agencies that cannot be easily purged, such as the judiciary, may be politicized in other ways. Judges, for instance, may be bribed, bullied, or blackmailed into compliance, or be publicly vilified as incompetent, corrupt, or unpatriotic.” (8)

As worrisome as they are, AMLO’s antics are not surprising when we consider a simple fact: he does not believe that Mexico is a democracy. He has said as much on many occasions. He repeated it in a recent visit to Santiago de Chile, when standing in front of a portrait of Salvador Allende, declared that “we are fighting to establish an authentic and true democracy in our country.” 

The problem is that for AMLO democracy is not based on the simple act of voting, but on the revolutionary notion of the existence of a general will. (9) The risk is that for an “authentic and true” democracy to emerge, the INE and the rest of the current electoral institutional framework, carefully built over decades of negotiations, will lose its autonomy. This is by no means a far-fetched scenario. A brand-new and belligerent president AMLO will likely have little problem reuniting the four registered parties in the left around him, and likely also the most nationalist factions of the PRI. A center-left coalition of that breadth will likely control the Congress, and therefore the board of the INE. At that point, the return to authoritarianism is entirely possible, with MORENA or a different outfit as the new hegemonic party, and AMLO as the unopposed leader of Mexico.

Democracies are not necessarily born in spectacular fashion. The protracted Mexican democratic transition spanning almost three decades is a case in point. The same can be said about democratic deconsolidation. As Mickey et al. point out, “the experience of most contemporary autocracies suggests that it would take place through a series of little-noticed, incremental steps, most of which are legal and many of which appear innocuous. Taken together, however, they would tilt the playing field in favor of the ruling party.” (10) All signs suggest that Mexico is heading in this direction, with terrible consequences for the consolidation of democracy in the hemisphere.

(1) Redacción (2017, April 5). “AMLO y Zavala suben; Osorio baja.” El Universal. Retrieved from http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/articulo/nacion/politica/2017/04/5/amlo-y-zavala-suben-osorio-baja Moreno, Alejandro (2017, July 2). “AMLO, con ligera ventaja de cara a 2018.” El Financiero. Retrieved from http://www.elfinanciero.com.mx/nacional/amlo-aventaja-por-dos-puntos-a-margarita-entre-presidenciables.html Redacción (2017, July 23). “Se consolida AMLO.” Reforma. Retrieved from http://gruporeforma-blogs.com/encuestas/?page_id=2635 

(2) Foa, Roberto Stefan, and Yascha Mounk. "The signs of deconsolidation." Journal of Democracy 28.1 (2017): 5-15.

(3) Sartori, Giovanni. Parties and Party Systems: A Framework of Analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976. Pp. 230.

(4) Woldenberg, José. “El cambio político en México.” Serie Cuadernos de Divulgación del Tribunal Electoral del Estado de Hidalgo 1 (2007): 4-42.

(5) Beer, Caroline C. Electoral competition and institutional change in Mexico. University of Notre Dame Press, 2003. Pp. 10.

(6) Formerly known as the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE). Incidentally, Elections Canada collaborated in the institutional design of the INE. Redacción (2006, September 10). “Discurso íntegro de Andrés Manuel López Obrador.” El Universal. Retrived from http://archivo.eluniversal.com.mx/notas/374344.html

(7) López Obrador, Andrés Manuel. No decir adiós a la esperanza. Editorial Grijalbo, 2012, pp. 94-101. 

(8) Mickey, Robert, Steven Levitsky, and Lucan Ahmad Way. "Is America Still Safe for Democracy: Why the United States Is in Danger of Backsliding." Foreign Affairs. 96 (2017): 2.

(9) “I come now to the doctrine of the general will, which is both important and obscure. The general will is not identical with the will of the majority, or even with the will of all the citizens. It seems to be conceived as the will belonging to the body politic as such” —in Russell, Bertrand. History of Western Philosophy. Taylor and Francis, 2004. Pp. 634. “Bertrand Russell warned that the Social Contract’s “doctrine of the general will… made possible the mystic identification of a leader with his people, which has no need of confirmation by so mundane an apparatus as the ballot-box”” —in Williams, David Lay. Rousseau’s Social Contract: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. 1-2.

(10) Mickey at al. (2017) 1.

Alejandro García Magos is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He has previous degrees from the Universidad Iberoamericana, in Mexico City, and the University of Calgary. His research focuses on how political parties react to high levels of electoral competition. He regularly blogs in Spanish for Global Brief magazine at http://globalbrief.ca/alejandrogarciamagos/