Mexico’s young democracy is facing its sternest test yet

Electoral carnival.
Electoral carnival.
Image: AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa
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Mexicans today face the monumental decision of choosing their next president. Whoever is elected—and all polls point to leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO—will have to shepherd the country through a brutal violence epidemic, a potentially disastrous fight with its most important trading partner, and the growing divide (paywall) between poor and rich Mexicans.

But perhaps at higher stake is the future of Mexican democracy. A variety of powerful forces, from voter apathy to armed strongmen, are buffeting the country’s democratic apparatus. They are putting Mexico’s hard-earned spot among the ranks of the world’s democracies at risk. It wasn’t that long ago—less than two decades—that the nation’s top leader was chosen by the ruling party, not voters.

Will Sunday’s election propel Mexico’s young democracy forward, or slide it back towards the corrupt practices of the past?

Electoral revolution

Mexico’s elections are run by the National Electoral Institute, or INE for its Spanish acronym. Its bureaucratic title belies its revolutionary origins.

The institute was created in 1990 in response to mounting public pressure to dismantle the system that kept the same party, the Institutional Revolutionary party, or PRI, in power for more than 70 years.

The original version of the  INE combatted widespread electoral cheating with a simple, transparent system. For example, low-tech innovations such as rubbing indelible ink on voters’ fingers and voting cards with pictures largely put an end to carrousel voting—when a single person cast multiple votes at different polling places—and the voting dead. But perhaps the new system’s most powerful safeguard was the citizen volunteers who were assigned to run the polls. Under their watchful eye, manipulation techniques such as “pregnant” ballot boxes stuffed with fake votes became more difficult to carry out.

It took until 2000 for Mexicans to see the benefits of an independent election authority. That year, they elected the first non-PRI president in the country’s modern history, Vicente Fox, a loquacious former Coca-Cola executive. At that point, the electoral agency was broadly respected; only 7% of the population distrusted it, according to public opinion polling from that time.

Political interference

These days, more than 60% of the public distrusts electoral institutions in the country, which also include the court that rules on fraud allegations, according to a 2017 poll (link in Spanish) by the federal statistics agency.

The court, whose members are political appointees, has made a series of controversial decisions (link in Spanish) that favor the PRI, the party of current president Enrique Peña Nieto. Earlier this year, for example, four of its seven justices allowed independent candidate Jaime Rodríguez Calderón, a.k.a. “El Bronco” to be on the ballot, even though many of the signatures he had gathered to qualify were deemed invalid by the INE. The move was widely criticized as a veiled attempt to redirect votes for AMLO to Rodríguez, who was also running on a platform of change.

“The Electoral Tribunal granted a safeguard to violate the vote,” said a respected legal expert from Mexico’s National Autonomous University of the decision.

In December, the Tribunal overruled (link in Spanish) INE’s decision to prevent the PRI and other parties from promising gift cards to voters if their candidate won.

A discredited INE

The INE is also having trouble making inroads with the citizens that underpin Mexico’s electoral system. Recruiting volunteer poll workers has become harder. The agency normally selects a random pool of citizens from where to draw those volunteers. In recent years, more and more have been declining to participate. A study (pdf) of elections in four major states by Mexican consulting firm Integralia found the average rejection rate jumped to 17% in 2017 from 5% in 2006.

In some cases, volunteers had to be pulled the day of the election from the line of voters outside polling places to fill missing spots. The company’s prediction for 2018 elections, based on the study: “Citizen frustration with the electoral system and low satisfaction with democracy.”

Reports from around the country suggest that the INE was again met with resistance ahead of Sunday’s election. In a federal district in the central state of Querétaro, 35% of those selected (link in Spanish) to participate refused; in the southern state of Yucatán, electoral authorities had to broaden the volunteer pool  (link in Spanish) due to high rejection rates in some areas.

In the end, INE was able to convince enough people (link in Spanish) to man the nearly 160,000 polling stations.

Dead candidates

The most troubling and tragic threat to Mexico’s democracy is violence. Since campaigning began in September 2017, 132 politicians (jpg), including 48 official and aspiring candidates, have been killed, according to Ellekt, a consulting firm.

The most recent murder happened on June 25 in the southern state of Oaxaca. Emigdio López Avendaño, a candidate for local representative from AMLO’s party, MORENA, was gunned down along with four of his supporters.

The level of violence represents a huge spike from the run-up to last presidential election, in 2012, when less than a dozen politicians were killed, according to Ellekt. The firm’s director, Rubén Salazar, attributes the increase to state governors’ waning control over municipalities. Thanks to free elections, voters have been kicking out incumbents from governor’s offices around the country—a step forward for democracy. But at the municipal level, it’s had the perverse result of clearing the way for local strongmen to hijack the election process, sometimes at gunpoint.

“These changes have happened faster than the transformation of the political and democratic culture at the local level ,” he said in an interview in Artistegui Noticias (link in Spanish).

No excuses

Voter turnout on Sunday will provide a reading of how democratic and civic culture is faring nationwide. In the last congressional election, in 2015, less than half of registered voters showed up at the polls. Turnout for the 2012 presidential election was higher—63%.

One good omen is that the Mexican national soccer team’s next World Cup game will be on tomorrow, a day after the election. Mexicans thus have no good excuse to avoid going to the polls.