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Polarization in Mexico: On “Democracy” and Authoritarianism

The fierce opposition to Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s reform of the National Electoral Institute, which oversees Mexico’s federal elections, reveals high tensions among Mexico’s ruling class; however, neither the reform nor its opponents aim to challenge an electoral system that silences working class people and is subordinated to the interests of the United States.

Pablo Oprinari

April 6, 2023
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In Mexico in recent months there has been a media-driven confrontation between the country’s political opposition and the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). This confrontation has been marked by the debate around the National Electoral Institute (INE) and AMLO’s controversial reform to the institution which was finally approved by the Congress of the Union. Although both sides have given endless heated speeches about control of Mexico’s institutions, this is clearly an electoral struggle, one whose participants have an eye toward the next presidential elections in 2024.

In particular, mobilizations on February 26 against the reform, held in Mexico City’s Zócalo and in other cities under the banners of “defending INE,” turned out to be a continuation of the opposition march held on November 131See, for example, Arturo Mendez, “Ni con la reforma electoral de AMLO ni en defensa del INE,” La Izquierda Diario, November 29, 2022, https://www.laizquierdadiario.mx/Ni-con-la-reforma-electoral-de-AMLO-ni-en-defensa-del-INE.; it was a categorical rejection of the electoral reform promoted by the government.

The reform, in its finally approved plan “B,” gave rise to multiple controversies. While the opposition argued that it seeks to “chop up” the Electoral Institute, establish an authoritarian political regime, and reverse the country’s supposedly democratic advances, AMLO’s government and its supporters affirmed that the goal is to reduce the INE’s excessive budgetary burden and undermine its entrenched “aristocracy,” which mainly refers to its director, Lorenzo Córdova, and Electoral Adviser Ciro Murayama.

Beyond the accusations being hurled by opponents and proponents of the reform alike, the truth is that the reform aims to reduce the structure of the INE and its budget, as well as to cap the salaries of its officials, who now cannot earn more than the president. The monthly presidential salary is 121,000 pesos (US$6,680) (a yearly 1,864,000 pesos [US$102,950 USD], including benefits). Therefore, even with the aforementioned “ceiling,” electoral officials will receive highly privileged salaries, even more so if we compare them with the low salaries earned by the country’s workers, who are subject to precarious conditions and daily exploitation.

The approved reform also left out the “eternal life clause.” This benefits small coalition parties (such as those that usually appear with AMLO’s Morena, as well as the PRI and PAN), allowing them to remain on the ballot even if they receive a low vote, thanks to the votes won by their majority partners.

The mobilization was meant to pressure the ministers of the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation to declare the reform unconstitutional, which would open a new chapter of the dispute, this time in the courts. This tactic mirrors that of other Latin American right-wing opposition parties, with the final word emanating from the judiciary, an institution whose members nobody votes for.

Meanwhile, AMLO responded by calling for a mobilization of his supporters on March 18, which shows that the polarization confronting Morena and the right-wing opposition parties continues.

The Opposition, the Fight for “Democracy,” and Elections

The February 26 mobilization was tinged with pink and white, the colors of the INE. In an attempt to give the demonstration a “civic” and “democratic” character, the event featured speeches from journalist Beatriz Pagés and former Supreme Court minister José Ramón Cossío. They cleverly tried to avoid shining the spotlight on the opposition parties, the real beneficiaries of the protest, and tried to make the mobilization seem like part of the struggle against the AMLO’s supposed authoritarianism.

Seeking to portray themselves as beyond partisan interests, they distanced themselves from the “conservative” label that AMLO has branded them with time and again, preferring to appear as a democratic opposition. More importantly, they sought to strengthen the opposition’s chances in the 2024 national election and this year’s state elections, seeking to pierce Morena’s electoral base; Beatriz Pagés in particular called on politicians to court middle class votes. Surely, the organizers of the protest have in mind the electoral results of 2021, when Morena lost in Mexico City; they hope to recruit sectors of the population where anti-government discontent germinates.

As one columnist put it,

Four years later, the opposition finally found the key. They tried in many ways, but finally on Sunday, under the pretext of defending the INE, a movement of middle classes (actually upper middle classes) willing to directly confront the president was articulated. Behind their use of the adjective “citizen” and the use of the Mexican rose and the pretend defense of the INE, hides the germ of an electoral movement that has made the Jesus Zambranos and Alitos of national politics very happy.

A very important fact must not be forgotten: the opposition parties are still suffering a crisis of legitimacy that emerged in 2018, although it had been brewing in previous years, particularly since the mobilizations for Ayotzinapa.

Meanwhile, Morena has capitalized on this crisis and maintained its electoral growth. With the exception of Mexico City two years ago, Morena won most states, reflecting the president’s continuing strength and popularity, despite his policies, which are far from meeting workers’ and people’s demands.

This crisis is reflected in the absence of a candidate who generates enthusiasm and who can raise the banners of that “democratic opposition”; it is enough to stop at two of the names mentioned in the polls — Ricardo Anaya (former PAN presidential candidate) and Lilly Téllez (Sonora state senator from PAN) — to understand the swamp in which the opposition finds itself.

The reactionary character of the aforementioned mobilizations can also be seen in the neoliberalism of their public leaders. This does not deter some from social criticism of the government; José Woldenberg, the first president of the INE, wrote recently that “what is being built is an increasingly authoritarian country, but also one with more poor people.” This is an attempt to capitalize on the real limits of government policies and their evident consequences on precariousness and poverty. This is especially cynical if we take into account the culpability of the opposition parties — the same ones that signed the “Pact for Mexico” a few years ago — in promoting economic and social policies against the majorities of the population.

AMLO’s Progressivism: Between the Progressive Narrative and Continuity

Many political analysts, while distancing themselves from the opposition, criticized AMLO’s government for not debating the electoral reform, which would include different political and social actors. The fact is that AMLO used his institutional strength to force the approval of the reform (and even then what ultimately passed was a watered-down version of his initial bill) without worrying too much about being democratic or building consensus or agreements, beyond his daily parliamentary partners. His objective was clear: to deal a political and moral blow to the right-wing opposition and, in particular, to the INE leaders, whom he has confronted throughout the last four years, the underpinning of a narrative in which his anti-neoliberal progressivism is at odds with the conservatives.

It has already been said that AMLO’s government effectively maintains a neoliberal policy. Beyond the official rhetoric, there is much continuity with the past in the administration’s policies, such as in the militarization of the country, labor precariousness, and economic subordination to U.S. imperialism. This cannot be denied despite Morena’s progressive discourse. Its social policies, although they generate sympathy in sectors of the population, do not solve the situation of poverty and misery for millions of workers and popular sectors.

Furthermore, though it is true that AMLO’s opposition are in no way pillars of democracy themselves — as they showed time and time again when they controlled state governments and the national government — the current administration shows a Bonapartist tendency. Nowhere is this clearer than in increased militarization throughout the country and the special place given to the Armed Forces in Mexico’s political life. But this tendency can even be seen in the reform itself, which maintains the profoundly anti-democratic character of the electoral system — which practically forbids the working class and the Left from participating or giving a platform to their demands — while making limited changes to the functioning of the INE.

Since 2019, Mexico’s austerity policies have resulted in widespread layoffs and further precarization in the public sector. Given this, we can expect that many INE workers — whose workers contend with conditions that are far from the privileges of the electoral councillors and the institute’s elite — will be harmed by the reform.

“Democracy” vs. “Authoritarianism” in the Narrative of the Opposition and the Ruling Party

In the clash between the opposition and Morena, there are differences and opposing electoral interests. But there is also overlap: neither questions the political regime, which has guaranteed the interests of the big capitalists and the country’s imperialist oppression and has excluded the great majorities from the fundamental economic, political, and social decisions of the country. Behind the facade of voting every six years (or if you take into account the midterm elections, every three), the course of Mexico’s economic and social policy is aligned with the interests of those who have not seen their profits diminish even during the pandemic, while poverty and labor precariousness have grown. Although Morena has undertaken some civic voting exercises, it has promoted a political theory of “participatory democracy” that cannot resolve the fundamental issues of the welfare of the working and popular classes.

Since the mid-1990s, all political actors — including many who now make up Morena’s leadership — promoted and endorsed the transition regime under the notion of a “democratic alternation” among the parties. The first experience of this was the arrival of President Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas in 1997 and the triumph of Vicente Fox in 2000, which left behind the old PRI and gave greater institutional weight to the Congress of the Union and other institutions, such as the IFE, predecessor of today’s INE.

This political transformation, promoted from the White House itself, fundamentally sought to contain the mass movement initiated in 1988 in response to the fraud perpetrated in those elections, and to the discontent that became evident in the Zapatista uprising of 1994; that is, to avoid the revolutionary fall of the PRI, to divert this situation behind the illusion of a democratic change promoted from above and by the hand of the parties responsible for authoritarianism and political, economic, and social oppression against the great majorities.

In fact the IFE, created in 1990, under the idea of being a guarantor of democratic elections and where the high salaries of the electoral councillors were justified by some as a mechanism to avoid corruption, turned out to be a key institution to maintain the restricted nature of Mexican democracy based on the agreement between the representatives of the employers’ parties and the councillors. This, of course, did not prevent it from playing a disastrous role in the 2006 election fraud that blocked AMLO from the presidency, by means of which the popular will was once again trampled on and the aforementioned fiction could not even be maintained. The same can be said of the 2012 election, in which, despite much evidence of fraudulent behavior, the IFE endorsed the victory of Enrique Peña Nieto. More recently, amid the pandemic, Córdova’s INE refused to grant an extension to the independent candidacies that found it difficult, due to the capital city’s pandemic restrictions, to gather enough signatures to participate.

It was under the transition regime — whose left wing was the PRD, of which AMLO was the presidential candidate on two occasions — that the plundering of the country by the imperialist transnationals was deepened. Mexico was turned into an export platform at their disposal, based on the exploitation of the Mexican working class, thanks to the nefarious role of the trade union bureaucracy in all its variants that allowed all the reforms against the workers to pass. It was thus a “democracy” that was in the interests, not of the great majorities, but of a tiny minority, national and foreign, that benefited and enriched itself at the masses’ expense, and that catapulted characters such as Carlos Slim and others to the front pages of Forbes.

In this framework, dependence and subordination to the United States at all levels was expanded, and as a fundamental part of this, the militarization of the country was consummated with the excuse of “fighting drug trafficking,” resulting in hundreds of thousands of dead, disappeared, and displaced people. Furthermore, under this “democracy for the rich,” the aberrant phenomenon of femicides and trafficking networks was forged, workers were attacked and repressed time and again — as we saw with the dismissal of 44,000 workers of Luz y Fuerza in 2009 —as were the various social, popular, and student movements.

For all this, the political regime combined bourgeois-democratic mechanisms (such as the supposedly “clean” elections and the widely publicized role of the Congress of the Union) with strong authoritarian and Bonapartist features. But make no mistake: it was those democratic institutions that consummated the looting and guaranteed the institutional mechanisms for the country’s surrender to imperialism. Thus, while Mexican democracy was said to be expanding, exploitation, oppression, misery, and poverty grew exponentially. The neoliberal reign in the country was combined with the so-called political alternation and the illusion of democratic progress. This was the reactionary character of this “democracy.”

That regime — defended by all the opposition parties and even many of those who later defected to Morena — is not questioned by the current government. Beyond the budget cut to INE and the questioning of the high salaries of the electoral bureaucracy, the big bourgeoisie and the imperialist transnationals continue to benefit under the shadow of AMLO’s “Fourth Transformation,” which does not affect the bases of this dependent and semi-colonial capitalism tied to the designs of the United States.

As other comrades in our network have stated, “The anti-democratic character of every bourgeois republic, where the right to vote plays the role of presenting a fiction of popular sovereignty to cover up the despotic character of a state power at the service of maintaining that of a tiny minority of capitalist owners, is something we Marxists have always pointed out.”

As stated there, since Marx’s time there has been no political freedom without economic freedom. We revolutionary socialists propose as a horizon the struggle for a democracy that is superior in every sense to the most democratic of bourgeois republics, where power is organized in the form of a system of workers’ councils and the exploited masses. Faced with those who try to convince us that we must resign ourselves to this system of exploitation, oppression, and misery, we think a workers’ state should be based on the expropriation of the capitalists and transnationals that control the strategic economic resources, centralizing the means of production, so that the organized masses can democratically decide their own destiny, with revocable representatives who earn the same as an average worker, participating in all political deliberations and in the democratic planning of the economy.

To aim toward that objective — which can emerge only from the action and mobilization of the working class and the popular sectors — it is necessary to build a socialist and revolutionary organization, with a perspective clearly independent of both the government of the Fourth Transformation and the right wing, and that is combative in the terrain of the class struggle, in the debate of ideas and in the future electoral scenarios. It must aim to converge with those sectors of the working class, the militant youth, and the women’s movement that see the need for an alternative politics; that sustain the need to end the economic and political domination of the exploiters, their parties, and institutions; and that seek to build a state of the workers.

Originally published in Spanish on March 12 in Ideas de Izquierda Mexico


1 See, for example, Arturo Mendez, “Ni con la reforma electoral de AMLO ni en defensa del INE,” La Izquierda Diario, November 29, 2022, https://www.laizquierdadiario.mx/Ni-con-la-reforma-electoral-de-AMLO-ni-en-defensa-del-INE.
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Pablo Oprinari

Pablo is a sociologist from Mexico City and a leader of the Socialist Workers Movement (MTS).


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