Democratic backsliding in Mexico: Lessons for opponents of authoritarian populism
Most Mexico observers would agree that Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is undermining the country’s democratic institutions. This development poses two questions. First, how closely the Mexican experience fits into the broader patterns of the crisis of democratic rule around the world in the 21st century? Second, what lessons can other societies learn from this experience as they also struggle to build and sustain democratic institutions in the face of rising authoritarian populism?
To answer the first question, I take as reference point the ideas of Mickey et al. for whom “the experience of most contemporary autocracies suggests that it would take place through a series of little-noticed, incremental steps, most of which are legal and many of which appear innocuous. Taken together, however, they would tilt the playing field in favor of the ruling party.”
To answer the second question, I follow the ideas of Nancy Bermeo who considers three qualities of contemporary forms of democratic backsliding that opponents need to reckon with. First, and in consonance with Mickey et al., that “troubled democracies are now more likely to erode rather than to shatter.” Second, that “current trends are not random events but rational responses to local and international incentives.” And third, that “contemporary forms of democratic backsliding are most ambiguous and most difficult when they marshal broad popular support—and they often do.”
I have organized my own ideas in the form of a written questionnaire. My responses follow the notion that the struggle to build and sustain democracy in Mexico is in fact the history of creating autonomous electoral authorities and shielding them from political interference from the executive branch. For most of the 20th century, elections in Mexico were a farce as the hegemonic Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) controlled them and sanctioned their validity. The result was, of course, that the party always won. Starting in 1977, Mexican politicians from both the PRI and the opposition began to pursue a democratic project. This was attuned with the democratic winds blowing in other parts of the Spanish-speaking world. Over the next two decades, these politicians established the rules and institutions to redress the authoritarian regime. Despite the slow and complex process, by 1996 the electoral authorities became independent of the PRI-dominated executive branch. In this way, if in 1977 the elections were organized and sanctioned by the Ministry of the Interior, by 2000 they were organized by an autonomous Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) and sanctioned by the newly created Electoral Tribunal of the Federal Judiciary Branch (TEPJF).
This is in a nutshell the story of Mexico’s democratic transition: a two decades-long series of electoral reforms to prevent political interference in elections from the incumbent government. Naturally, the democratic backsliding that we are currently observing in Mexico tries to unwind that process by restoring the influence of the executive branch in the electoral process.
1. Has Mexico’s democratic backsliding taken place “through a series of little-noticed, incremental steps”?
Yes, and in fact I trace the exact moment when the democratic backsliding started in Mexico: the election night of July 2nd , 2006, when AMLO refused to accept his defeat and lashed out at the National Electoral Institute (INE) accusing it of abetting electoral fraud. That was the precise moment that the tide turned for the INE and by extension also for Mexican democracy. We are reaping what we have sown. The eminent Polish-American political scientist, Adam Przeworski argues that one of the essential conditions for democracy to survive is that losers accept electoral defeat. None of this happened in Mexico in 2006, nor in 2012 when AMLO lost against Enrique Peña Nieto and again cried foul. On the contrary, and to this day, he keeps fanning conspiratorial flames with claims of a Big Steal à la Trump in 2020. His animosity against the INE was not even tempered with his landslide victory in the 2018 elections that were organized and overseen by the INE. On the contrary, a few weeks after his victory, he went on the offensive against the Institute, accusing it of malfeasance for auditing his campaign finances.
Ever since 2006, AMLO has created his political persona as an embattled social justice warrior that faced and eventually defeated a corrupt economic elite that twice stole the presidency from him, abetted by the acquiescence of the INE. And ever since that year he has vilified the Institute over and over again. He found in this an unexpected ally in the liberal intelligentsia, which for years had ruthlessly criticized the Institute calling it inefficient, imperfect, expensive, tone-deaf, etc. Let no one fool themselves. Not even those with a superficial knowledge of AMLO can be surprised that he is leading a full-frontal assault on the INE. So to answer the question: yes, Mexico’s democratic woes are the chronicle of a death foretold.
2. Have the steps been legal and apparently innocuous?
Yes and no. The real question, however, is whether it is desirable and feasible for authorities to ‘force’ a political actor to acknowledge defeat? This is a devilishly difficult proposition. To be specific, should it be deemed illegal to disallow unfavourable electoral results? Whatever option we may hold, the fact is that back in 2006 and to this day it is not illegal to “send institutions to hell” as AMLO famously declared in the aftermath of that year’s election. It could be, I can imagine, fringing into the illegal to suggest that the INE’s board members sold themselves for a few pesos, as AMLO accused them of doing. But most of the time those expressions are simply disregarded as rhetoric. Ironically but true: for a democracy to be such, it needs to tolerate the intolerant, and to put up with those that flat-out subvert and vilify it from the inside.
But one thing is to say that AMLO’s antics are legal, or rather put “not illegal”, and another thing to say they are innocuous. They are not. The first casualty here was the public’s trust in its electoral authorities. We need also to remember where we came from: the PRI led a hegemonic party system under which “other parties are permitted to exist, but as second class, licensed parties; for they are not permitted to compete with the hegemonic party in antagonistic terms and on an equal basis.” It took almost 20 years to restore public trust on the electoral process, and one night in 2006 to destroy it. And we are still stuck in that moment. The conspiratorial flames over the 2006 electoral results are the same that are being fanned over the INE with claims of it being a bloated, unreliable bureaucratic apparatus. AMLO is crystal clear on this, by the way, noting “I did not reach the Presidency because of the INE, I reached the Presidency because of the people. When I was a candidate, I never met with the INE and always tried to keep my distance from them and not believe them because I knew that they were biased referees.”
Demagoguery and lies may be the daily bread in politics, but they are never innocuous. Quite the contrary, they create alternative facts where the devil lurks.
3. Taken together, have they titled the electoral playing field in favour of ruling party MORENA?
I’m not entirely sure about this. Despite all of AMLO's efforts to undermine, neutralize, and emasculate the INE, the fact remains that it still there and working. Barring the possibility that AMLO strikes a last-minute decisive blow against it, it is safe to assume that the INE will have survived the most direct and vicious attack from the federal government in its 26-year history. Let's take a moment to see how this happened.
First, there was Plan A, which flat-out proposed to eliminate the INE under the guise of an "electoral reform" that would create a new body under the orbit of influence of the executive branch. Largely perceived as a power grab, the “electoral reform” failed after a massive rally across Mexico in defense of the INE in November 2022.
Then came Plan B, a not-so-veiled administrative reform that aimed to denaturalize the INE by drastically reducing its budget and stripping it of key administrative responsibilities. This plan also failed when massive demonstrations took place across Mexico and abroad, and the legislative process of the bill was admitted for review by the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation.
Next came Plan C, which, as it turned out, was an attempt to pack the INE's board with AMLO loyalists. The plan also failed due to pure luck as the new board members were chosen at random, leaving out AMLO's favoured options.
Despite all of the efforts and animosity displayed by AMLO towards the INE and the rivers of ink spilled around it, his gains are modest: placing one of his loyalists in the INE's presidency, which, given the collegial nature of the board, feels like a pyrrhic victory.
For all of the above reasons, I believe it is unclear whether the electoral field is tilted towards MORENA or not. To be clear, the playing field is always tilted towards the incumbent, but is it any more tilted now than it was in 2018 towards the PRI or 2012 towards the PAN? We will soon find out.
4.“Piecemeal erosions of autonomy may thus provoke only fragmented resistance.” Has the opposition in Mexico fallen into this trap?
I don’t think so. AMLO’s 2018 landslide victory taught the opposition that the only way to prevent a complete takeover by MORENA was to join forces. And they did so in 2021 by running together in that year’s midterm elections, successfully defeating MORENA’s candidates in key races for Congress and in several of Mexico City’s boroughs. They also managed to establish a united front in the defense of the INE, despite the many attempts of the government to break it apart. Therefore, on the balance the opposition has acted together on the critical turning points, most likely simply out of pure survival instinct.
5. “…trends in backsliding are rational reactions to international incentives as well as domestic history.” Has the Mexican opposition recognized this?
I am not sure. The 2018 election in Mexico was a political earthquake that shattered the 25-year-old party system that consolidated with the end of the democratic transition. This was a stable three-party system in which the PAN occupied the political right, the PRD the left, and the PRI, the center. A generation of Mexicans grew up in this system that abruptly came to an end in 2018; almost single-handedly brought down by AMLO. The immediate reaction of the traditional parties was to cast this event as a bizarre accident. Stunned as they were left, they were incapable of realizing the profound generational and social changes that had occurred since 1996. They grew up over-confident with hubris and took their voters for granted. This painful truth is slowly sinking in and, little by little, the opposition parties are starting to realize certain things. First of all, and chief among them, is the generational change towards a more radical electorate, which became less tolerant and more belligerent than before, just like AMLO himself. Second, that not all of this is their fault. These are dark days for democracy around the world as its value is questioned and demagoguery runs rife. Mexico is not an island, and it is only natural that the authoritarian winds that blow elsewhere do the same in the country, just as did the democratic winds that blew strong in the 1970s and 1980s.
6. “…those seeking to reverse backsliding must cope not only with the state actors who engineer backsliding but with their mobilized supporters. Silencing or simply ignoring these citizens’ preferences may stoke reactionary fires and undercut the quality of democracy. Yet changing their preferences is devilishly difficult and a long-term project at best.” Have the opposition parties in Mexico arrived at this realization?
I am not sure. There is still a whiff of hubris among the leaders of the opposition towards the heterogeneous political coalition that AMLO put together in 2018. They are still very much operating under the successful slogan of Felipe Calderón in 2006: “AMLO: A danger for Mexico.” This fear-inducing message worked wonders in 2006 but not anymore. AMLO learned his lesson and in 2012 and 2018, he softened his image. The electorate stopped being afraid of him at some point in the second quarter of 2018 when he broke his historical voter preference ceiling, going from the mid-thirties to 50 percent. This is the15% of loosely committed voters who will decide the 2024 election. The thing is that it is unlikely that they will be mobilized simply by offering an anti-AMLO message, which at this point seems to be the only thing the opposition has to offer. But that would be too little, too late. The opposition leaders needs to offer more and engage with them in a way that does not censor them over their past or present views on AMLO. They need to offer them a path that reconnects with their profound desire for radical change in times of social anxiety and widespread criminal violence. A political “New Deal” to promote national economic and social recovery, a deal that clearly departs from AMLO but at the same time is not a return to a past that voters soundly rejected in 2018. The challenge ahead for the opposition is to reinvent itself and adapt to new circumstances and new generations. Give hope to the young and old and fully embrace their radical desire for change, to which they are fully entitled. It starts at the basic level of developing their own language and breaking free from the Newspeak of this administration: 4th transformation, conservatives, otros datos, fifís, etc. The future of democracy in Mexico depends on it.
 Robert Mickey, Steven Levitsky, and Lucan Ahmad Way, “Is America Still Safe for Democracy?: Why the United States Is in Danger of Backsliding,” Foreign Affairs 96 (2017): 2.
 Bermeo, Nancy. "On democratic backsliding." Journal of Democracy 27.1 (2016): 5-19.
 ibid. p. 14
 ibid. p. 15
 ibid. p. 16
 Przeworski, Adam. Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. p. 31. “A successful democracy requires that losers accept their defeat as legitimate and that winners do not seek to humiliate the losers or prevent them from competing again in the future.”
 Giovanni Sartori, Parties and Party Systems: A Framework of Analysis (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 230.
 ibid. p. 14
 ibid. p. 15
 ibid. p. 16
About the Author
The Mexico Institute seeks to improve understanding, communication, and cooperation between Mexico and the United States by promoting original research, encouraging public discussion, and proposing policy options for enhancing the bilateral relationship. A binational Advisory Board, chaired by Luis Téllez and Earl Anthony Wayne, oversees the work of the Mexico Institute. Read more