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6 Mar 2023 | Commentary

Beyond Plan B: Democracy and Checks and Balances in Mexico

The recent approval by Mexico’s Congress of the electoral reform package known as “Plan B” triggered national protests and international concern over weakening of the country’s independent election body. However, this is not the only area in which democratic checks and balances face threats in Mexico. Defending democracy requires strengthening the work and the independence of multiple institutions charged with guaranteeing Mexico’s democratic system, the rule of law, and human rights.

On February 22, Mexico’s Congress approved the final part of the electoral reform package known as “Plan B” (so called because it was the available option after the rejection of a first, more wide-ranging proposal that would have required constitutional reforms). Through the Plan B reforms, president Andrés Manuel López Obrador seeks to modify the structure and functions of the National Electoral Institute (Instituto Nacional Electoral, INE), the autonomous body that organizes elections, issues voter ID cards, and supervises campaigns. The approval of Plan B triggered protests in Mexico, international media coverage, and public statements by the U.S. State Department and legislators. It will now be up to Mexico’s Supreme Court (Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación, SCJN) to decide the legal appeals filed against Plan B.

The INE, which is legally challenging the reforms, states that Plan B threatens its ability to carry out its work by significantly reducing its institutional structure. Critics also point out that the reforms benefit incumbent parties by facilitating the use of government propaganda and weaken controls over violations of campaign rules.

As Plan B draws international attention, it is important to stand by the principle that democracy depends on free and fair elections. At the same time, electoral processes alone do not guarantee democracy. Democracy also requires separation of powers and checks and balances to ensure that institutions are accountable and that power is not unduly concentrated in any one office or person, including a person who comes to power through elections.

While experts recognize the importance of improving the work of the INE and other autonomous bodies in Mexico, López Obrador has sought to weaken rather than improve such bodies, and he has questioned or weakened other institutional checks and balances, as illustrated by examples below. His reaction to civil society’s role as a democratic check on the State has been to disqualify criticism from the population and repeatedly question the legitimacy of media and human rights organizationsin a country where journalists and human rights defenders suffer high levels of violence.

While Plan B is at the forefront of current debate, the broader national context also shows the need to strengthen democracy and human rights in areas such as the following:

  1. Civil-military relations. Military deployment in policing tasks in Mexico intensified during the 2006-2012 presidency of Felipe Calderón and has not been reversed since then. López Obrador has expanded military deployment and functions. Today, federal policing tasks fall exclusively to the armed forces. An unconstitutional 2022 reform promoted by López Obrador formalized this situation by transferring control of Mexico’s National Guard to the Defense Ministry (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, Sedena). The armed forces also construct and manage megaprojects and companies, among other tasks, serving as a vehicle for the implementation of a variety of government priorities. The expanded role of the military in public life brings risks of human rights violations, distortions in civil-military relations, and the identification of the armed forces with a specific political agenda. The armed forces also lack robust external accountability mechanisms. The current concentration of power in the military will not be easy to undo, but reversing this process and building up civilian institutions is crucial to strengthen the rule of law.
  2. The relationship between the executive and judicial branches. López Obrador has attacked the judicial branch on multiple occasions. The president and high-ranking officials have reacted to adverse judicial decisions by exhibiting, blaming, and announcing criminal complaints against judges. Even beyond these concrete cases, they have suggested that the judicial branch is responsible for the country’s high levels of impunity. The government sends this public message even though, according to Mexico’s 2022 national victimization survey (Encuesta Nacional de Victimización y Percepción sobre Seguridad Pública, ENVIPE), the overwhelming majority of crimes committed against the population never come before a judge due either to lack of reporting or to lack of investigation and failure to bring charges by prosecutors’ offices. López Obrador has also equated due process guarantees in the judicial systema fundamental safeguard against abuses and errors by security forces and prosecutors’ officeswith “technicalities.” In short, the government’s discourse takes aim at the legitimacy of the judiciary’s role as such, a concerning message in any democracy. Meanwhile, the SCJN itself has not been an effective check on key parts of López Obrador’s agenda, such as militarization. Under the new leadership of Chief Justice Norma Lucía Piña Hernández, the SCJN will resolve pending cases against militarization and Plan B.
  3. The National Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR). The FGR was created in 2018 as an autonomous institution whose work is supposed to be based on evidence and technical criteria, not political agendas. However, under National Prosecutor Alejandro Gertz Manero, the FGR has not demonstrated independence from the executive branch. Gertz Manero has interpreted the FGR’s “autonomy” as a justification to reduce inter-institutional collaboration and accountability. A truly autonomous, technical, and effective FGR is fundamental to the rule of law in Mexico; the same applies to state prosecutors’ offices.
  4. The National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH). The CNDH is an autonomous federal body charged with examining complaints of human rights violations, filing constitutional challenges against rights-violating laws, and generally promoting human rights. Mexican and international civil society organizations have signaled the need for improvements in the CNDH for many years. Under current Commissioner Rosario Piedra Ibarra, the CNDH has lost credibility by taking highly questionable positions in support of López Obrador’s agenda, including on militarization and electoral reform. In February 2023, the CNDH publicly called on human rights NGOs and the media not to disseminate information they were documenting about the arbitrary killing of a group of young people by soldiers.

As the above examples show, Mexico must address democratic and institutional deficits on multiple fronts. Defending democracy in this context means ensuring free and fair elections. It also means strengthening the checks and balances that should guarantee the democratic system, the rule of law, and human rights on a daily basis.