Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
MEXICO CITY — Populists who fashion themselves as tribunes of the people have never met institutional checks and balances they can happily abide. Seeing themselves and their parties as embodiments of the majority will, any constraint on their power is portrayed as a contrivance by elites or suspect minorities to keep the masses down.
This narrative has readily gained traction in recent years because there is enough truth in its claims to make it convincing. Electoral democracy has indeed decayed, too often captured by organized special interests of an insider establishment that fail to address the concerns of the average citizen. The resultant populist insurgency against a moribund political class then adds danger to decay by throwing out the baby with the bathwater, transmuting into a revolt against the foundations of republican governance itself by eroding the separation of powers and rule of law that guarantees its existence.
Mexico today exemplifies this recurrent cycle that has made weak institutions the Achilles’ heel of democracy across Latin America.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, colloquially known as AMLO, retains a popularity rating of around 60% after years in office for the simple reason that, unlike so many in government, he is not corrupt. The problem is that he is leveraging this reputation for personal rectitude to attack the legitimacy of the impartial National Electoral Institute (INE), which organizes and certifies the fair outcome of elections, and even the Supreme Court.
The Mexican Congress last week passed legislation promoted by AMLO that would gut the operational capacity of the INE, cutting its staff by 85% and instituting a process by which the governing party could stack the body with its own partisans. The Supreme Court, which must soon decide on the constitutionality of the measure, is also under pressure to side with the powers that be.
The irony of the situation is that AMLO is seeking to enfeeble the very checks on executive authority put in place by President Ernesto Zedillo in the late 1990s that ended 71 years of one-party rule, enabled the transition to democracy and ultimately led to the rise of AMLO and his party to power.
Critics of the current Mexican president’s move thus consider it “authoritarian regression” that would open the way once again to the kind of rigged one-party rule under different management that the country cast off only two decades ago. Last Sunday, an estimated sea of 100,000 people marched in the main zocalo to protest the measures and call on the Supreme Court to declare them an unconstitutional assault on democracy.
Not missing a demagogic beat, AMLO has sought to associate his opponents with the corrupt elite exemplified by the likes of Genaro García Luna, the former national security chief in charge of executing the drug war under the conservative presidency of Felipe Calderón from 2006 to 2012. García Luna was recently convicted in U.S. courts of being on the payroll of the Sinaloa drug cartel he was tasked with suppressing.
Impartial institutions that assure peaceful electoral competition for the transfer of power and fair judicial review are the bedrock of legitimate self-governing political systems. Diminishing their independence from the governing authority lays the ground for illiberal regimes that aim to perpetuate their rule in the name of “the people,” whether in Mexico or elsewhere from Poland to Israel, not to mention during the Trump years in the U.S.
In the end, the battle cannot just be waged on procedural, but also on substantive, grounds. A serious defense of the institutions of liberal democracy entails not only resisting attempts to subvert their integrity, but also demonstrating they can deliver for the constituencies of populism that would undermine them.