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The electoral reform is López Obrador’s next big bet. He presented it before the Chamber of Deputies on April 28, 2022, just a few days after his energy initiative crashed against the opposition wall, which handed the Mexican president the first major political defeat so far in his administration.
Another head of state would have acknowledged receipt of the opposition’s message and would have held back on new initiatives for constitutional changes, but Obrador opted for the opposite strategy: to gamble his remaining prestige and power in a bid to radically transform Mexico’s system of government.
If he fails, he will lose leadership and room for maneuver within his own ruling alliance, where the waters are becoming increasingly turbulent as the moment to define his presidential candidate for the 2024 elections approaches.
If successful, Obrador could consolidate his control over electoral institutions and have a system in place to ensure that the regime he inaugurated in 2018 is maintained in the long term, almost irreversibly transforming (and in his favor) the game of incentives and balances in the basis of which politics is “played” in Mexico.
What is his proposal? Centralization of power and removal of elected officials
Unlike the energy reform initiative, which was an absolute disaster with no possible redemption, the electoral reform mixes some good ideas with others that are frankly poisonous. In general terms, it proposes 4 major changes.
The National Electoral Institute (INE) would become the “National Institute of Elections and Consultations” (INEC) and both its councilors and the magistrates of the Superior Chamber of the Electoral Tribunal of the Federal Judiciary would be elected by popular vote, having lists of dozens of candidates, a recipe for the pro-worker regime to take advantage of its mobilization advantages and gaining control of both institutions, which are the key to elections.
200 of the 500 deputies and 32 of the 128 senators would be eliminated, leaving the chambers with 300 and 96 seats, respectively, all of them elected based on the lists of candidates presented by the parties, one for each state. In other words, no legislator would be “uninominal” (single-member district).
The reduction in the number of legislators is a trick to increase the specific weight of the ruling party’s caucus, but the system of voting by list is a good idea. It works quite well in countries such as Spain, Italy, Portugal, or New Zealand, and it would allow leaving behind the simulation that legislators “represent their district”, when in fact they represent their parties.
In direct aggression to the federal system, elections would be completely centralized, as the proposal eliminates the local bodies and laws in charge of organizing and regulating them. There would be a single institute and a single electoral law. Furthermore, the Obrador government intends to take away from the states the ability to decide how many deputies their local congresses will have and how many councilors their municipalities will have.
The new scheme contemplates between 1 and 9 aldermen, depending on the population of each municipality, as well as a range of between 15 and 45 local deputies, calculated based on the population of the state and elected based on lists, just like their counterparts in the Congress of the Union.
Finally, it drastically weakens political parties, because it eliminates public financing for their “ordinary activities” (read: payroll, building rent, etc.), which theoretically would allow parties to finance themselves with donations from their militants; but in practice it means that the ruling party will have an enormous advantage to use public resources and disguise them as “donations”, while the opposition would be left without offices…or leadership.
Electoral Reform, a Proposal for Authoritarian Centralism
When analyzed as a whole, this electoral reform initiative presents the outlines of a new political system, controlled by the López Obrador regime. If implemented as is, the presence of political parties would be drastically reduced and the governments (especially the federal government) would have much greater influence over the electoral processes. In short, we would be back to a dominant party system, in the style of the old PRI before the democratic transition process.
That is why López Obrador is betting on proposing these changes, even though he has not yet finished cleaning the wounds of his failure with the electricity reform: because the mere discussion of the initiative provides him with political benefits with his base, and because if he manages to obtain at least a part of what he proposed, he will have the room for maneuver to guarantee that his own presidential succession will be in the hands of an ally.
How urgent is the reform for López Obrador?
Much, considering that the transitory articles of the reform initiative state that in September 2022 the call for the elections of the new INE councilors and the magistrates of the Electoral Tribunal would be issued. The reform would have to be approved within the next four months and its secondary legislation should be approved by the beginning of June 2023 at the latest, since the federal electoral process begins in September of that same year.
Will he succeed?
From the outset, it seems practically impossible, especially regarding the destruction of the INE and its replacement by the INEC, which has been openly and absolutely rejected by the opposition bloc. The doubt is whether the opposition will manage to score another great victory and reject outright its proposal to López Obrador, or whether the President will manage to negotiate a consensual reform, which may not give him everything he wants, but will give him enough.
After all, if the story of Snow White taught us anything, it is that it is not necessary to eat the whole poisoned apple, one bite is enough to fall into a deep paralysis, and that paralysis can last for decades.
Gerardo Garibay Camarena, is a doctor of law, writer and political analyst with experience in the public and private sectors. His new book is "How to Play Chess Without Craps: A Guide to Reading Politics and Understanding Politicians" // Gerardo Garibay Camarena es doctor en derecho, escritor y analista político con experiencia en el sector público y privado. Su nuevo libro es “Cómo jugar al ajedrez Sin dados: Una guía para leer la política y entender a los políticos”