On February 23, an electoral reform bill received its final approval in the Mexican Senate en route to being signed into law. The day before, New York Times bureau chief Natalie Kitroeff, demonstrating an ongoing inability to distinguish between a news article and an opinion piece, declared that the law was “the most significant in a series of moves by the Mexican president to undermine the country’s fragile institutions — part of a challenges to democratic norms across the entire Western Hemisphere.” If the reforms stand, she warned menacingly, “it will become difficult to carry out free and fair elections — including in a crucial presidential contest next year.”
For his part, David Frum — who, together with his editor at the Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg, were the key purveyors of the lies that justified the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq — took to the pages of the magazine to warn the world that “liberal democracy in Mexico is under assault” by Mexico’s “erratic and authoritarian president.”
“In Mexico last week, I found virtual unanimity among academics, businesspeople and political commentators that the country’s democracy is now in real danger,” wrote the Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman, undoubtedly tapping into an extremely unrepresentative sample of the nation. And not to be left out, NPR warned that the new law “gutted” the country’s electoral commission — yes, “gutted” — constituting “a blow to its young democracy.”
The Mundane Reality
In contrast to the lurid sensationalism of the Anglo-American establishment press, the actual law itself is quite mundane. The National Electoral Institute (INE) is widely recognized to be riddled with excess expenditure and a top-heavy bureaucracy. The new law simply mandates similar cost-saving measures to those that the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has applied to other governmental departments. It eliminates duplicate functions at the local and district level, and fuses certain higher-level job descriptions. It also reins in eye-catching top salaries. By means of comparison, in a country where the minimum wage is approximately US$10 per day, the head of the institute makes the pretax equivalent of some US$13,000 per month, plus benefits, bonuses, a vehicle, a private insurance plan, generous phone and food stipends, and a battery of eleven advisors, four of whom earn more than the president.
The law also facilitates voting rights for the disabled, those held in pretrial detention, and the millions of migrants living abroad. It provides tougher sanctions for the endemic practice of vote-buying and enshrines in law the inclusion of minorities and members of vulnerable groups on candidate lists. It establishes a commission to study the application of electronic voting. And, in light of a series of incidents in which the INE sought to ban people from running for office for actions as innocuous as tweeting, the law reduces its ability to interfere arbitrarily with citizens’ political rights.
The legislation does have its debatable points. Questions exist as to how the Foreign Relations Secretary — an arm of the government — is going to administer international voting in the absence of the INE. Conservatives are particularly up in arms about provisions to allow foreign voters to vote with their passports instead of the voter ID cards that are obligatory within Mexico.
There are concerns that an excess of flexibility may allow parties to play fast and loose in applying gender and minority candidacy quotas. Others worry that a clause prohibiting slander in political advertising could have an inhibiting effect on free speech. All of these are valid observations — but far from the apocalyptic hysteria of the English-language press.
A Perfect Storm?
Of course, nothing could be further from the interests of Frum, Kitroeff, & Co. than to engage in a good-faith discussion of the ins-and-outs of Mexico’s electoral intricacies. The objective here is to utilize their positions in major media outlets both to bludgeon and caricaturize AMLO and the campaign promises of his Fourth Transformation (4T). In so doing, they are fulfilling the historical role of Western corporate media throughout Latin America: to provide an international mouthpiece to an upper-class caste of elites in order to head off the possibility of even moderate reform to profoundly unjust and unequal societal structures.
In the process, and with gross irresponsibility, this media scrum is clearly attempting to goad the Biden administration — already up to its neck in Ukraine while rattling sabers with China — into a reckless response with Mexico that could escalate just as easily. The copy has already been written and the target duly demonized: Democracy under attack by erratic autocrat! Failed narco-state requires intervention! Already Republicans in the House are introducing resolutions to authorize the use of force against cartels while Democrats like Bob Menendez provide the bipartisan cover necessary to turn such ideas from far-fetched to plausible. In Mexico, in short, there is something for everyone: an enemy for conservatives to attack and a “cause” for liberal interventionists to save. All the elements for a perfect storm.
Democracy Despite the INE
In addition to the expediency of the electoral issue as a political club, the New York Times/Atlantic-style fetishization of the INE is not hard to understand. In the liberal imagination, democracy can only be generated from above, by well-paid elites in suits at respectable institutions. Thus, it was the INE (in its earlier incarnation, the Federal Electoral Institute) that bestowed democracy upon the ignorant masses, and it is the INE that has safeguarded it against all attacks, including the most recent.
History, however, tells a different story. In his 2012 campaign for president, Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) spent some thirteen times the legal campaign spending limit, according to a congressional analysis, including cash-for-favors money from the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht. In Operation Safiro, PRI governors from seven states diverted some Mex$650 million (US$35.8 million) into their party’s 2016 electoral campaigns.
In the 2018 presidential campaign, a cabal of businesspeople and intellectuals illegally spent millions in online campaigns out of an operations center in what became known as Operation Berlin, for the Mexico City street where the center was named. In the recently concluded trial of Genaro García Luna (the former secretary of public security in the administration of Felipe Calderón who was found guilty in US federal court of colluding with the Sinaloa cartel), a former finance minister for the state of Coahuila testified to diverting millions from state coffers into campaigns and the purchase of favorable media coverage, including the triangulation of funds for García Luna himself. In all these cases — and many more — the INE, together with the rest of Mexico’s electoral machinery, saw no evil, heard no evil, or applied slaps on the wrist that did nothing to undo the underlying crimes. Democracy in Mexico has not come from the INE, but, in a laundry list of cases, despite it.
And it is this democracy that must be defended now: not, as media outlets would have you believe, from AMLO, but from those who would weaponize the electoral issue to justify a disastrous foreign intervention, in whatever form it might ultimately take. Although the 4T has not fulfilled everyone’s expectations, it has, in four years, created a governing movement that is taking control of its energy resources (including the nationalization of lithium) and is adopting a role of regional leadership in Latin America: two sins the United States has not historically forgiven anywhere.