David Raby writes: At the beginning of April Mexico began the official two-month campaign period for the mid-term elections due on June 6th, which include 15 of the 32 state governorships, all 500 members of the lower house of Congress, all members of state assemblies in 30 of 32 states, and mayors and councillors in over 1,900 municipalities (roughly equivalent to US counties) throughout the country.
These elections are of vital importance for the future of AMLO’s 4T Transformation of the country’s affairs, and opinion polls indicate that his Morena party is likely to win a large majority of the positions being contested.
But the opposition, or to be more precise the old guard which has controlled Mexico for decades, is determined to prevent such a victory and is using every trick in the book to prevent free and honest elections.
A corrupt election referee
In common with most countries, Mexico has an official body to supervise elections, like the Electoral Commission in the UK: the National Electoral Institute (INE by its Spanish initials). Indeed, INE is larger and has greater powers than similar bodies in many other countries.
But this is far from guaranteeing free and fair elections, indeed the country is notorious for ballot-rigging and corruption of all kinds. AMLO and Morena only won the 2018 elections by a massive popular movement coupled with unprecedented organisation and vigilance at the polls.
The reason for this is that for decades INE has been stacked with placemen whose only purpose is to guarantee continued domination by the establishment PRI and PAN parties and the corrupt elite they represent.
The current Chair of INE, Lorenzo Córdova, has a salary of 178,000 pesos ($8,900 US) per month, roughly 60% more than AMLO. This despite a law passed by the Mexican Congress after AMLO slashed his own salary by 50%, which also specifies that no public official can earn more than the President. Both Córdova and Ciro Murayama, one of his main pals at INE, obtained injunctions to prevent the salary cap being applied to them.
With its bloated and overpaid staff, INE is probably – according to AMLO – the most expensive electoral commission in the world.1 It is without doubt one of the least impartial.
In recent months INE, led by Córdova and Murayama, has tried to silence AMLO´s morning press conferences. These hugely popular events are the President’s main vehicle of publicity in the face of an overwhelmingly hostile media. INE was unable to shut them down, but they did succeed in imposing a gagging order which forbids AMLO from expressing partisan opinions or promoting governmental programmes during the official two-month campaign period.
While some restriction on executive intervention in election campaigns is normal, what INE has imposed on AMLO is clearly excessive and has produced rather comic results in which the President not only refuses to comment on partisan disputes (even in his own party), but carries out routine visits to public institutions in semi-clandestine fashion without publicity.
When publicly attacked by the opposition, AMLO now responds by criticising “the conservatives”, avoiding INE’s ban on partisan comments since there is no party with that name officially registered in Mexico.
Arbitrary disqualification of progressive candidates
While this shadow-boxing has its comic side, the right-wing agenda of the INE directors is deadly serious. In recent weeks they have disqualified quite a number of Morena candidates (49 at last count), including gubernatorial candidates in two key states, Guerrero and Michoacán, for failing to file expense reports for their primary campaigns.
Morena does not have formal primaries but selects candidates on the basis of opinion polls, and in any case the expenses involved were very small. Fines might conceivably be in order, but disqualification is totally unjustified, especially since no such penalty has been applied to any other party’s candidates who seem to have been guilty of similar infractions.
INE’s past record makes even more of a mockery of its claim to be an impartial monitor: under its previous name as IFE (“Federal” as opposed to “National”) it ratified the notorious fraud against AMLO in the 2006 presidential election, and in the 2012 election of Enrique Peña Nieto it ignored his blatant violation of expense limits in which it is estimated that the PRI leader exceeded the permitted amount by a factor of 13.
There is one theoretical check on INE, which is the possibility of appeal to a higher institution, the Electoral Tribunal of the Federal Judicial Power (TEPJF). This higher court can and occasionally does overrule INE, and in the case of the Morena candidates it did initially rule that disqualification was an excessive punishment. However, INE rejected this ruling and reiterated its decision to disqualify, and remarkably, the supposedly superior Tribunal then ratified the disqualification.
Questioned on these arbitrary decisions, AMLO has become more and more categorical in condemnation of INE (and now TEPJF) for making undemocratic and unconstitutional decisions, and has now (in his press conferences of 28 and 29 April) made it clear that he intends (after the elections) to propose an Administrative Reform Bill to eliminate or restructure these and several other institutions which in his view were only created as smokescreens to conceal corrupt practices.2
Strange as it may seem, he argues, organisations like INE and the Mexican Institute for Transparency were created for the purpose of simulation: to give an appearance of electoral integrity and open and honest administration while in fact ensuring the opposite.
As always, the President takes a clear stand on vital issues, but seeks to avoid open conflict. On the electoral disqualifications, while condemning the decisions and expressing sympathy with popular protests against them, he called on people to avoid provocation and accept the need for Morena to obey INE and propose alternative candidates.
As on previous occasions, AMLO’s patience and astute tactics may well prove to be his opponents’ undoing. The two most important positions at stake were Morena’s candidates for State Governors in Guerrero and Michoacán, key states where support for AMLO´s Transformation is massive.
The candidates now disqualified are Felix Salgado Macedonio for Guerrero and Raúl Morón for Michoacán. Salgado Macedonio, a Morena Senator, is a controversial figure, but the relevant point is that he is very popular in Guerrero (a state with a vigorous revolutionary tradition), and Morena’s response to his disqualification was (1) to announce that its new candidate would be a woman, and (2) that of three possible female candidates, the one chosen on the basis of opinion polls was Evelyn Salgado, the former candidate’s daughter.3
In Michoacán Raúl Morón was Mayor of the state capital Morelia before becoming a candidate, and Morena has chosen as his replacement a younger man, Alfredo Ramírez Bedolla, a former member of the State Assembly.
Interestingly, when on May 4th INE announced its intention of disqualifying a third Morena gubernatorial candidate – Mónica Rangel in San Luis Potosí – the reaction was so strong, especially since only one month remained before the elections, that INE backed down two days later and limited itself to imposing fines. Nevertheless, the fines – both on the party and on Rangel personally – are very substantial and surely disproportionate.
The crisis of the opposition
The context of INE´s machinations is the crisis of the Mexican opposition. The PRI, which ran the country as a virtual one-party state for much of the 20th century, and the right-wing PAN which was allowed to alternate with PRI from 2000 onwards to give an appearance of pluralism, had made a cosy arrangement to share the fruits of neoliberal corruption, until in 2018 they could no longer prevent the victory of a popular movement for real democracy with AMLO and Morena.
PRI and PAN lack any alternative programme except defence of privilege and corruption, and despite overwhelming media dominance they have been unable to undermine AMLO’s popularity and the people’s desire for change. Despite sometimes fighting each other like rats in a sack, PRI, PAN and a couple of smaller parties have finally – as AMLO predicted – come together in an unholy alliance to oppose the 4T Transformation.
AMLO now lumps them together as “PRIAN” or indeed “PRIANRD” with reference to the small PRD (Revolutionary Democratic Party) which in the 1990s was a left-wing force for change in which AMLO participated, but which later degenerated and was incorporated into the system.
Given the flagrant bias of INE and TEPJF, it is interesting to note that other institutions have begun to take action to prevent electoral infractions. The Attorney-General’s office (FGR) can investigate allegations of electoral fraud, which is now (thanks to a law passed under AMLO) classified as a serious crime with no right to bail.
The Financial Intelligence Unit (UIF) of the Finance Ministry, run by Santiago Nieto, has also been very active on the anti-corruption front investigating fraudulent transactions and money laundering, and is now devoting its attention to suspicious transactions related to the elections.
In recent weeks both the FGR and the UIF have begun to investigate allegations of electoral fraud by right-wing candidates, allegations studiously ignored by INE. Thus the PRI candidate for Governor of Nuevo León, Adrián de la Garza, was discovered to be distributing cards promising payments to women voters, in other words vote-buying; the case is now under investigation by the FGR and the UIF.4
Similar evidence has now emerged of cards pledging payments in return for votes being used by candidates of the Citizens’ Movement (MC) which is dominant in Jalisco State; this is also under investigation by the FGR.
Right-wing candidates and their allies are also more than willing to resort to threats and violence if it suits them. The outgoing PRD Governor of Michoacán, Silvano Aureoles, has a well-earned reputation for crude insults and threats, sending very offensive text messages to Morena candidate Ramírez Bedolla and others: Morena has reported him to the FGR.5
Overt threats and violence point to the most serious underlying problem for Mexican democracy in areas still dominated by the old regime: links to organised crime. This above all is why judicial reform is so important, along with the new security apparatus of the National Guard.
Never lacking in barefaced effrontery, some right-wing candidates and their INE allies are now claiming persecution. Adrián de la Garza actually went to the OAS (Organisation of American States) for a personal interview with its notorious Secretary-General Luis Almagro (the same Almagro who helped promote the coup in Bolivia in 2019) to request help in “defending Mexican democracy”.6
When this appeal to the OAS was raised with AMLO, he responded that all electoral observers are welcome including the OAS, although “it reminds me of a song by the late Carlos Puebla”, the Cuban troubador (“Como no me voy a reír de la OEA, que es una cosa tan fea” – “How can I stop laughing about the OAS, when it is so ugly”), an anti-imperialist classic from the 1970s.7
There is a growing movement for fundamental reform of INE, but it will not lead to change in time to avoid conflict over the current elections; only mass popular pressure and vigilance will guarantee reasonably fair elections this June. But the INE controversy is closely linked to another key issue which has now come to a head, that of judicial reform.
Judicial reform: a crucial matter
Although AMLO has been scrupulous in respecting the constitutional division of powers, it has been obvious for decades that judicial corruption is one of the foundations of inequality, injustice, political fraud and endemic corruption in Mexico.
Time and again notorious criminals on remand or condemned for fraud, money-laundering, violence and murder have been released on legal technicalities by corrupt judges, a practice which AMLO has tried to reduce but which still continues, and will only end if there is root and branch reform.
A notorious case hit the headlines early in May when a judge ordered the release of Héctor Palma, nicknamed “El Guero” (“Blondie”) and linked to the Sinaloa cartel. The judge made the order in the early hours of Saturday May 1st, a classic device using the weekend to avoid scrutiny. Fortunately the Fiscalía (Attorney-General’s office) was alert to this and had agents ready to re-arrest him on another charge minutes after his release.8
This did not prevent the right-wing media from absurdly trying to blame AMLO for the release, when the truth is quite the opposite: the President commented on the matter in his press conferences on May 4th and 5th as an example of a judicial decision which was an insult against the Mexican state. What price “judicial independence” when it is used to aid and abet criminals?
An equally pernicious pattern is the abuse of legal devices (“amparos”, injunctions) originally intended to safeguard individuals, in order to protect commercial privileges and prevent implementation of progressive legislation.
A case in point is AMLO’s re-nationalisation of electricity, or to be more precise, his reassertion of national control over electric power generation and distribution. The legislation, passed in late February this year, guarantees primacy for the CFE (Federal Electricity Commission) and for public enterprise, while allowing private investment only subject to strict norms protecting the public interest and workers’ rights.
No sooner had the law been passed than Juan Pablo Gómez Fierro, judge of the Second District Court in Administrative Affairs relating to Competition, Broadcasting & Telecommunications, granted an injunction to five companies against application of the law, and “in order to guarantee fair competition” to others, decreed a general suspension of the law.9
That a relatively minor judge in a specialised tribunal should be able to override both Congress and the President in this way is remarkable, and it is no accident that the very same judge granted injunctions to companies seeking immunity from the Hydrocarbon (oil and gas) Law and the Mobile Telephone Law, also both recently proposed by AMLO and passed by Congress.
Gómez Fierro is the most diligent judge in defending corporate privilege but he is not alone: his colleague Rodrigo de la Peza of the First District Court also granted injunctions to 11 companies against the electric power law.
As AMLO commented, it’s open to speculation whether such judges are motivated by conservative ideology or by money, but impartial administration of justice is clearly not their priority.10
In order to overcome such flagrant abuse of the judicial power, AMLO is reliant on two key figures: Attorney-General (Fiscal General) Alejandro Gertz Maneiro, and Chief Justice Arturo Zaldívar. The Attorney-General has been busy investigating and prosecuting individual cases of corruption and human rights abuses, working to end impunity. But Zaldívar’s role is arguably even more important since it is he above all who is promoting root-and-branch reform of the judicial system as such.
Zaldívar’s four-year term as Chief Justice is due to end next year, but in view of his importance AMLO has proposed extending his term for another two years. On April 15 the Morena majority in the Senate passed an amendment to this effect as part of the Judicial Reform Bill then under discussion.11
Not surprisingly, the right-wing opposition immediately objected, as did an Association of District Judges.12 Along with reform of INE, this has become a key issue in the elections. Indeed, AMLO has been remarkably frank on the issue, declaring in his April 26 press conference that Zaldívar is an unusual example of the historic importance of key individuals such as Father Hidalgo in the Independence struggle, Benito Juárez in the great liberal Reform, and Francisco Madero in the 1910 Revolution: individual leadership (caudillismo) is not necessarily bad, he argued.
The problem with conservatives defending judicial independence, he declared, is not that judges are independent of the executive (as they should be), but that they are independent from the people and dominated by powerful private interests.
Relations with the United States
Relations with the United States are not an electoral issue as such, and both the President and Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard have insisted throughout on their success in maintaining relations of respect and cooperation with Washington under both Trump and Biden.
However a serious source of tension arose early in May when a progressive journalist produced evidence that two notorious opposition organisations, “Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity” and “Article 19”, receive significant funding through the US Embassy (from the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID).13
A formal Diplomatic Note was immediately issued demanding an explanation and pointing out that this amounts to intervention in Mexico’s internal affairs and violates the country’s Constitution. AMLO pointed out that this is virtually promoting a coup: that coups are not just carried out by the military but can be promoted by the media and foreign interests, as happened with revolutionary President Francisco I Madero in February 1913 (whose overthrow and murder were incited by the press and the US Embassy).
However, AMLO explained that he does not think the US is promoting a coup against him, simply that they have a “mistaken practice” of financing such groups in many countries, and Mexico will not accept it: “Mexico is not a colony, it’s an independent, free and sovereign country!”14
Despite such bold and unwavering defence of sovereignty, AMLO continues to seek cooperative and productive relations on other matters. Thus on migration and refugees he has had a respectful video conference with President Biden and more recently with Vice-President Kamala Harris. In particular, both countries agree in principle that Central American migration cannot be halted or controlled by force or administrative barriers, and that promotion of development and better conditions in the region is crucial.
The Mexican President has made a specific and ambitious proposal on the subject: that his very successful agro-forestry programme Sembrando Vida (“Sowing Life”), which has brought support and hope to over 400,000 peasant families and has reforested over 1 million hectares of land in Mexico, should be extended to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Mexico has already signed an agreement with Guatemala to implement the programme there on a limited scale; but what is now proposed is that the US should finance Sembrando Vida on a massive scale, to benefit 1,200,000 peasant farmers in Central America.
Cooperation with the US also continues in other areas: since the Trade Treaty with the US and Canada now includes labour rights, Mexico accepted a US complaint about a corrupt union election at a GM motor plant, and also lodged a complaint about agricultural migrant workers’ treatment in the US.15
The Transformation continues
Despite the restrictions imposed on AMLO by the Electoral Institute, his transformative programme continues and INE cannot prevent announcement of important decisions or agreements which were under negotiation long before the election period.
Thus on April 23 a major agreement between the government and the private sector on Subcontracting and Labour Rights was formally announced. Difficult negotiations went on for more than six months, and now Labour Secretary Luisa Alcalde and employers’ representative Carlos Salazar were able to announce the agreement which bans false subcontracting used only to deprive workers of their rights.
Companies cannot legally contract out their own employees, only specialised services which are not their main activities; any subcontractors must be registered with the Ministries of Labour and Finance within 90 days; taxes and benefits are guaranteed; there must be prompt response to any workers’ grievances; subcontracting is banned in the public sector; and profit-sharing is increased from 2.8% to 7.7%.16
Equally, diplomatic exchanges and symbolic public actions commemorating historic events are doing much to reinforce public awareness of the 4T Transformation. The visit of Bolivian President Luis Arce on March 24-25 had great significance and included his attendance at the re-enactment of the Battle of Chakan-Putum in 1517, where Mayan Indians inflicted a serious defeat on the invading Spaniards. Then on May 12-13 Dilma Roussef, ex-president of Brazil, was guest of honour and attended the commemoration of 700 years since the foundation of México-Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital which is now Mexico City.
What is at stake in the June 6 elections could not be clearer: either you are for AMLO’s 4T Transformation or you are against it. If Morena wins a clear majority in the lower house of Congress, if it wins most of the 15 State Governorships being contested and most of the hundreds of state assembly and municipal positions, then the transformation process will be accelerated.
Indeed, INE’s blatant efforts to impose censorship on AMLO and to hamstring Morena’s election campaign seems to have backfired spectacularly. But as the President never tires of repeating, only the people can guarantee democracy, and popular vigilance will be essential to ensure free and fair elections on June 6th.
David L Raby is a writer, political activist and retired academic living in Norwich (UK). Professor Emeritus in Latin American History, University of Toronto; former Senior Fellow in Latin American Studies, University of Liverpool; former City Councillor in Norwich; executive member, Venezuela Solidarity Campaign; Chair, Norwich-El Viejo (Nicaragua) Twinning Link. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @DLRaby.
6 @AdrianDeLaGarza Twitter, 2021/05/12