Monday, June 3, 2024

Opinion: A former US ambassador sees high stakes in Mexico’s elections

On June 2, Mexicans will choose a new president, a new congress and many thousands of state and local officials in Mexico’s largest elections ever.

At present, polls show a large advantage to Claudia Sheinbaum, the presidential candidate supported by incumbent President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), over her principal rival, Xóchitl Gálvez, who heads the opposition coalition ticket in Mexico’s presidential elections.

Beyond the presidential race, the outcomes in congressional and state elections will have big implications for the political clout of Mexico’s new president, the temperature of political debates, and the potential for approving major reforms of Mexico’s institutions, championed by AMLO to further his vision of Mexico’s transformation.

As elections approach, analysts in Mexico, the U.S., and internationally have expressed serious concern about the strength of Mexico’s democracy and the potential negative impact of AMLO’s proposed reforms.  

Given the closely interconnected relationship between Mexico and the United States, Americans must pay close attention to the outcomes of Mexico’s elections and what follows. The U.S. needs good working relations with its southern neighbor to deal with migration, crime and trade issues.

AMLO is hoping that his allies will win a super majority in both houses of Congress in June, allowing his party to pass proposed constitutional and legal reforms when lawmakers take office in September, and before he leaves office on Oct. 1.

The proposals would significantly alter the workings of Mexico’s electoral authorities, Congress, judiciary, and independent regulatory institutions, among others. The thrust of the reforms as proposed would centralize more power in the executive branch and the presidency. However, there is significant opposition to several proposals, including some that previously spurred mass protests. It is far from clear what may result.

What happens in Mexico is vital for the United States. Mexico is the U.S.’s largest trade and co-production partner, supporting some 5 million U.S. jobs. Most irregular migration crosses the US-Mexican border. Mexico remains the largest single source of U.S. immigrants and the source of family and cultural ties for over 35 million U.S. citizens. Also, the vast majority of the deadly fentanyl fueling U.S. overdose deaths comes in through Mexico.

The U.S.-Mexico relationship is simultaneously domestic and international for both countries. There is much to gain by cooperation, but the policies and politics of both countries often spur tensions and discord. It takes strong political commitment and skillful management to sustain good collaboration.

Of great concern is that the quality of Mexico’s democracy and governance has been declining, according to a variety of reports that compare countries around the world. This alarming trend gets too little attention.

Mexico faces daunting challenges in building prosperity and assuring rule of law. Regular news reports of criminal violence and thriving cartel power underscore this. Mexico has had more homicides during the current presidential administration than during any other presidential term in recent decades. Mexico is ranked as having the third worst criminality score globally, with extortion and other crimes worsening. A key study notes that despite improvements over the past four consecutive years, Mexico was less peaceful in 2023 than it was in 2015. Significant violence has marred the election season and many worry about organized crime shaping local elections.

There are respected international studies that put Mexico’s democracy in a broader perspective, which I summarize below.

The Bertelsmann Transformation Index, covering some 130 countries, shows Mexico dropping in its scores between 2016 to 2024. It argues that Mexico is “currently on a path of de-democratization.”  It cites attacks on independent institutions and a significant decline in Mexico’s rule of law and governance scores, among other concerns. 

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2023 ranks Mexico 90th out of the 167 countries it studied. This index categorizes Mexico as a “hybrid” democracy, which falls below a “full” or a “flawed” democracy. It finds Mexico’s ranking dropped 15% since 2018 and highlights the numbers of civilian deaths related to criminal violence.

International IDEA’s Global State of Democracy Indices, which cover 173 countries, finds that since 2018 Mexico has declined in 12 of the 22 indicators it uses for assessing countries. The biggest declines are in parliamentary effectiveness, freedom of speech, press freedom, judicial independence, predictable enforcement, and strength of civil society.

The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Democracy Reports, which cover 202 countries, find a notable decline in Mexico’s ratings for all of its indexes, and shows particularly large drops in Mexico’s scores for “deliberative democracy,” “liberal democracy,”  and “electoral democracy”. V-Dem cites attacks on judiciary and electoral institutions, false government information, and increased polarization, among other issues.

Freedom House’s latest Freedom in the World report, rating some 195 countries, characterizes Mexico as “partly free.” It describes a decline in freedoms beginning after 2017 and flags concerns with organized crime and violence, corruption, lack of government transparency, poor rule of law, and civil liberties more broadly.

The World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index finds that Mexico’s rule of law scores declined notably between 2018 and 2023 among the 100 plus countries analyzed, with particularly bad ratings on corruption, security, and criminal justice performance.

The World Bank prepares Worldwide Governance Indicators covering over 200 countries and territories.  The data from 2012, 2017 and 2022 show Mexico’s percentile rank declined in every category over the ten years, with the largest drops in government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law, and control of corruption.

Finally, a 2023 Pew survey of 24 countries also flashed a warning on Mexico’s democracy.  The Pew survey showed that support for a leader making decisions without interference from a parliament or court had grown more in Mexico than in any other country studied (rising 23% to 50% of those polled).

The key point: it is essential to understand Mexico’s current election cycle in the context of the serious concerns raised by expert studies examining democracy and governance around the globe. These echo Mexico-focused analyses by media and organizations about the violation of human rights and civil liberties, attacks on individuals and NGOs that criticize the government, and violence against journalists and activists.

Mexicans of course have the most at stake, but next in line is the United States. The U.S. is invested heavily in ties with Mexico, including a major trade agreement and a massive presence of U.S. companies.

The U.S. will be better off with a strong, democratic Mexican partner to help fortify prosperity and security, just as Mexico needs a strong partner in the United States. Both countries need to understand the trends shaping electoral outcomes on the other side of the border, and engage each other to forge as constructive a partnership as possible. This will bring better outcomes for Americans and Mexicans.

Earl Anthony Wayne is currently teaching as a Distinguished Diplomat in Residence and Professorial Lecturer at American University’s School of International Service. He is a Public Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars and Co-Chair of the Advisory Board of its Mexico Institute. Wayne is a former Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and to Argentina and a former Deputy Ambassador in Afghanistan.


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