The political strategy to discredit the democratic process for one’s own benefit has proven to work in contemporary societies. You do not have to go far to find proof of this: almost 75 percent of Republican voters in the U.S. believe former president Donald Trump’s allegations that he was a victim of electoral fraud in last year’s presidential election.
South of the border, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has beaten Trump to the punch on this strategy: he does not believe he has legitimately lost a single election in his life. Not even in his first attempt to reach the governorship of Tabasco in 1988, when he obtained 20.9 percent of the vote compared to the winner’s 78.2 percent.
AMLO claims he has always lost to fraud. When he lost his first bid for president of Mexico in 2006 against Felipe Calderón (margin of loss: 233,831 votes), AMLO alleged that the tally was wrong. When he lost a second time in 2012 against Enrique Peña Nieto (margin of loss: 3.3 million votes), AMLO said that his opponent’s party bought the people’s conscience. AMLO has never produced hard facts to argue his allegations. Instead, he throws out “alternative facts” and trashes whoever denies his purported victories.
AMLO believes that none of his critics should enjoy any credibility, particularly among his devout followers. That is why he lashed out against Mexico City’s Reforma newspaper when it ran a front-page story about the videos of his brother Pío López Obrador receiving envelopes stuffed with cash. But when the same newspaper exposed one of AMLO’s political opponents -like scandal surrounding the current governor of Tamaulipas- and the storyline was convenient to him, his position changed. At that point, AMLO’s followers spread these stories with the following rationale: if even Reforma is publishing it, it is because the evidence is so overwhelming that the scandal cannot be hidden. That was AMLO’s exact same logic that he applied when he won Mexico’s 2018 presidential election: “We won because it was a wave, it was impossible to commit fraud”. At that time, AMLO insisted one again that Mexico’s respected independent electoral authority (INE, by its Spanish acronym) had allowed fraud to happen in previous presidential contests where he competed.
As Mexico’s key midterm election approaches this year, AMLO has decided that his utmost urgency is to discredit INE. AMLO wants to maintain his ample majority in Mexico’s Lower House. According to a recent survey by national statistics agency (INEGI), 59.6 percent of all Mexicans trust the INE, compared to 52.5 percent trusting the presidency.
AMLO’s INE bashing is taking place as the institute is trying to enforce an article in the Mexican Constitution which states that a political party’s combined representation in Congress cannot exceed in eight points the percentage of the vote they obtained at the ballot box. In Mexico, voters elect members of Congress through a system that combines direct and proportional representation. In 2018, AMLO’s party (MORENA) won 37.16 percent of the Congress vote at the polls. Following the Constitution, the maximum share of Congress’ seats that MORENA could have was 45.16 percent. However, the president’s party maneuvered to hold a combined share of 51.4 percent of members in the Lower House. Likewise, the larger coalition of parties under which AMLO formally run obtained 43.5 percent of the votes for Congress in 2018. The maximum share of members of Congress could not exceed 51.5 percent. However, the coalition now holds 64 percent of the Mexican Lower House seats.
In strict sense, INE could be considered a “conservative” institution as AMLO likes to claim. INE is seeking to safeguard the Constitution. It is simply seeking to enforce a provision in the law that affects any political party attempting to breach it.
You can already hear AMLO’s post-election claims. If his current governing coalition loses its majority in the Lower House of Congress in the coming midterm election, it will not be because it did not get enough votes but “because INE cheated” by trying to uphold the Constitution.
I fear that Mexico’s Electoral Tribunal (TEPJF) will do whatever is necessary to side with AMLO in the dispute. The TEPJF has done so in practically all its rulings since AMLO became president. In the end, AMLO would have sown discord, something that could help him appoint future members of INE’s board loyal to him.
Today, there are very few checks and balances in Mexico to reign in on AMLO. That is the reason why AMLO has been able to do unprecedented things. He shamelessly engages in political campaigning during his daily presidential press conferences. He opted to give his political operatives with priority access to the Covid-19 vaccine ahead of a large swath of medical personnel that is still waiting to be inoculated. AMLO’s political operatives not only supervise the vaccine rollout throughout the country but also distribute government cash and engage in political propaganda.
AMLO does not want to lose his majority in Congress. That is why he has pulled out all the stops, from lowering the age of universal pensions (while also promising to increase them), to using any available instrument, legal or otherwise, to continue having Mexico’s Lower House at his beck and call.
* 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