Mexico’s Congress approves López Obrador’s cuts to electoral authority

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Mexico’s Congress has approved a reform pushed by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to slash funding from the country’s electoral authority — cuts that the opposition warns will undermine its independence and ability to organise elections.

Lower-house lawmakers voted along party lines late on Thursday to pass the “Plan B” bill after an earlier reform proposed by the populist president failed to receive the two-thirds majority necessary for changing the constitution.

“This is the first time an electoral reform has been pushed forward without the consent of opposition,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a political analyst. “This is a regression in terms of legitimacy and in terms of efficacy.”

The reform cuts the budget of the Federal Electoral Institute (INE), which convenes elections and regulates political activity. It eliminates much of its professional bureaucracy, scraps a system for communicating early electoral results transparently and limits the INE’s ability to sanction parties and candidates. It also closes regional offices where staff issue voter ID cards — the country’s preferred form of identification — maintain voter rolls and assist with counting ballots.

“[We were not able] to reform the constitution because anti-democratic, corrupt conservatives impeded it,” said López Obrador in his daily press conference on Friday. “[But] it was an important advance that the reform was approved, even with its limits.”

“The reform could put the technical quality of elections at risk and with it the democratic governance we have achieved,” INE president Lorenzo Córdova said before the vote. “It damages the foundation of professionalism . . . which characterises the organising of clean, transparent, trustworthy and legitimate elections.” 

Córdova estimated that the reform would lead to the loss of nearly 85 per cent of the agency’s career civil servants.

The INE and its predecessor body the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) have played a fundamental role in Mexico’s transition from one-party rule to a multi-party democracy, which culminated with the defeat of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary party in 2000. It was created after the 1988 election, when a mysterious computer failure in the interior ministry wiped out early results favouring the opposition.

López Obrador still accuses the IFE of overseeing a rigged election he narrowly lost in 2006 — a contest international observers considered free and fair.

“It is a shame what electoral fraud has meant in our country. Mexico has been one of the countries with the most frauds in the world,” López Obrador said in response to senators in the upper house approving the electoral reform earlier on Thursday.

He earlier threatened to veto the reform over concessions his Morena party made to two small allies, which would have allowed them to more easily surpass the 3 per cent vote threshold for retaining their registrations. The lower house subsequently removed those concessions.

However, Ricardo Monreal, Morena’s house leader in the Senate, voted against the overall bill, saying, “I only want the constitution respected.”

López Obrador, who has pushed punishing austerity as president, has long taken issue with the INE’s large bureaucracy, which he has blasted as bloated and overpaid. Analysts say the bureaucracy was created to provide permanent staff, who would be loyal to the institute rather than officials aligned with political parties.

“The INE should be functionally unable to run the elections” after the reform, said Jeffrey Weldon, political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

Weldon said “money” was probably one of the president’s motives for the reform, as he had long coveted the INE budget and had a history of cutting costs and liquidating public trusts to find funding for his spending priorities, such as state oil company Pemex and a train circling the Yucatán Peninsula.

The move came after weeks of protests over the reforms to the INE, which remains one of the country’s trusted institutions, according to polls. An opposition protest in November drew an estimated 250,000 people on to the streets of Mexico City.

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