Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) dislikes independent government agencies. According to him, these bodies are corrupt and should disappear. If the mere suspicion of corruption were enough reason to disappear things, AMLO could start with his own political party (MORENA). The party’s acting president, Alfonso Ramírez Cuéllar, has accused his predecessor, Yeidckol Polevnsky, of making payments to shell companies for the equivalent of US $17.5 million. The other singsong routinely used by AMLO against independent agencies is their high cost. Following this logic, AMLO should not continue with his own whims like a program to promote baseball in Mexico or the construction of an expensive and useless oil refinery in Tabasco.
AMLO dislikes independent agencies because they are independent.
In AMLO’s mind, institutions must be at his service. AMLO sees any criticism coming from them as defiance. Last week, a complaint by AMLO’s wife was enough for the head of Mexico’s anti-discrimination body (CONAPRED) to resign. She had been named to the post only in November.
One independent agency AMLO particularly dislikes is Mexico’s respected National Elections Institute (INE). Last week, AMLO said INE is the “most expensive electoral body in the world”. AMLO has also accused INE of “turning a blind eye to electoral fraud.” Perhaps, AMLO’s broadside against INE seeks for it to be absorbed by Mexico’s Ministry of the Interior (just as he proposed to do with for CONAPRED). However, I do not think AMLO has the votes in Congress to reform Mexico’s Constitution if he wanted to that with INE.
There seem to be two purposes behind AMLO’s attacks on INE.
The first purpose would be to reduce drastically its budget and leave INE strangled. With less money, INE’s ability to function effectively would be greatly diminished. Yes, INE is an expensive institution. However, this is largely due to the many responsibilities that have been assigned to it during the past decades because of the Mexican opposition mistrust of government. Mexico’s opposition parties routinely denounced the government’s abuse of power including things like vote theft and influencing the voting process or the results themselves. Today, AMLO is no longer in the opposition. Now he wants room for maneuver.
Last week, AMLO said that he will keep an eye on state Governors as Mexico’s 2021 midterm elections approach. AMLO said he will be vigilant and would not allow state Governors to engage in supposed vote buying, handing out gifts or providing transportation to the polls. AMLO sounded like the thief who screams “thief!”, “thief!”, “thief!”. At the same time, AMLO’s government seems to be preparing budgetary space to be able to spend enough public resources during the 2021 midterms. AMLO is attempting to retain monies contained in public trusts originally allocated to finance specific and key tasks such as supporting the state governments in the event of natural disasters.
AMLO’s tool to meddle in the midterm election already exists: the so-called Servants of the Nation. They are the network of MORENA activists that in 2018 conducted an illegal nationwide survey on behalf of AMLO to identify potential recipients of his future government’s cash transfer programs. To this day, it is still not known what methodology was used to conduct the 2018 survey nor how the information collected has been used. The so-called Servants of the Nation are now employees of Mexico’s Secretariat of Welfare and could be a powerful weapon to use for electoral mobilization when the time comes.
Like in other parts of the world, midterm elections in Mexico require extra-effort by political parties to motivate voters to go to the polls. Usually, midterm elections have lower turnout levels. In 2015, turnout in Mexico’s midterm congressional elections was 48%. Three years later turnout increased to 62% during the Presidential election of 2018 where AMLO was elected. The Mexican government’s mobilization machinery tends to have more weight during midterms
The second purpose of AMLO’s attacks against the INE is to smear the institution itself along with its independent board members. INE’s greatest strength is its credibility. The greater INE’s credibility, the more powerful are INE’s warnings and admonishments particularly against any excesses by the executive branch. In 2019, Mexicans trust of INE was 6.5 within a scale of 0 to 10. Meanwhile, the Presidency by itself had 7.0 of trust
President AMLO has swung into campaign mode or, to be more precise, he has never turned it off. To boost his base turnout during the midterms, AMLO tried unsuccessfully for a referendum to be called to decide whether he completed his six-year term or not. By the way, AMLO’s coalition has expanded and now includes Mexico’s so-called Green Party, a party that has no problem with supporting a government that promotes the use of fossil fuels. AMLO needs a discredited and weakened INE to try to get away using his daily presidential press conferences as a campaign pulpit and government spending as an electoral tool.
Nowadays, AMLO is only thinking of the 2021 midterm elections and he spends his time and energy in electioneering. It does not matter to him that Mexico is the country in the world with the second highest rate of daily coronavirus deaths per million. The only time AMLO has cared recently about the coronavirus pandemic was last week when he posed for a picture dressed in suit visiting a fake patient at a Mexican hospital.
* Carlos Elizondo Mayer-Serra is professor at the School of Government and Public Transformation at Tec de Monterrey, in Mexico City. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @carloselizondom