Mexico’s upcoming elections Part II: Are AMLO’s Proposed Judicial and Electoral Reforms a Threat to Mexico’s Democracy?

President seeks to increase the power of Mexico’s executive branch over the judicial branch and defund Mexico’s election watchdog

If passed, these measures could affect Mexico’s democracy, worsen corruption, and increase the power of organised crime.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) sent a package of 20 reforms to congress in February 2024, just months before his term ends in October. These measures encompass a wide range of proposed changes within the judicial, electoral, and national pension systems, among others. They have been criticised by opponents of AMLO’s Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (Morena) party as a last-ditch attempt to consolidate power in the executive branch before the forthcoming elections and beyond. The June presidential elections are currently projected to be won by Morena’s candidate and AMLO protege, Claudia Sheinbaum. Consolidating power within the executive branch could have long-lasting benefits for Morena’s hold on power.

AMLO’s proposed reforms are a mix of populist social welfare measures combined with undemocratic changes to the judicial and electoral systems, making it difficult in the pre-election months for opposition candidates to criticise the reform package without also appearing to oppose the expensive and unsustainable welfare spending that AMLO has included to placate his voter base.

While it is unlikely that many of the proposed judicial and electoral changes will pass through Congress—due to their likely negative ramifications on the integrity of Mexico’s democracy and the need for a two-thirds majority to be adopted – these reforms seem to be a long-term objective of AMLO, and possibly the wider Morena party, as he has attempted to pass similar measures in varying iterations in 2022 and 2023. However, the willingness of a sitting president to champion such reforms and the willingness of his preferred successor, and Morena politicians in general, to pursue them has raised alarm within Mexican media and academic circles.

Judicial Reform

In terms of changes to Mexico’s judicial branch, AMLO declared that the number of Supreme Court Judges (ministros) be decreased from 11 to 9 and that no member of the judicial branch – whether Supreme Court judges, district judges, or other federal judges – may hold office for more than 12 years. In addition, they must be elected directly by the populace. The reforms would also create a judicial disciplinary tribunal, potentially under executive control.

The current Mexican judicial system has deep set problems; judges are often swayed by outside influences and verdicts are not always sound. However, the proposed changes to the system open it to further abuse. Mexico is an already institutionally weak state. Limiting the term of Supreme Court judges could prevent corrupt judges from indefinitely shaping Mexico’s application of law. Nevertheless, shorter terms would only be beneficial if there is a clean system behind it, and there is fair and transparent application of the law in practice. This is not the case in Mexico, where the justice system is riddled with impunity. For example, in 2022, only 4.3% of cases opened by Mexico’s Public Prosecutors’ Offices (Fiscalía General de la República) were accepted by the courts.

Given this, shortening the term of judges seems more geared towards strengthening political power over the judiciary. Life-terms for Supreme Court judges give them a degree of independence from politicians and their wrongdoings as, once appointed, their terms are not at risk. This independence would be curtailed by the introduction of term limits on appointments, especially with the proposed creation of a separate judicial disciplinary tribunal and the introduction of elections to appoint judges.

While the specifics have not been defined, the establishment of a disciplinary tribunal threatens the separation of powers between the judicial and executive branches. Given Mexico’s high levels of corruption, the disciplinary proceedings could quickly become another tool through which politicians, especially the party in power, may further secure their hold on the Mexican government, as judges who break rank or involve themselves in adverse proceedings against party politicians may be unjustly disciplined without recourse.

The proposed judicial elections create further concerns. Requiring elections for federal judicial officials could be seen as a strong incentive for them to be more partial to whichever party is in power, especially if they have received electoral backing from that party. AMLO has even suggested that judicial candidates should be directly chosen by the legislative branch, which would be a clear politicisation.

The only other Latin American country to have established a system of judicial elections is Bolivia, which introduced them in 2009 in an attempt to curb judicial corruption. 15 years later, the elections have failed to eradicate political intervention in the judicial system and have, if anything, led to an increase in corruption. Turnout for judicial elections in 2011 and 2017 was very low, either because the electorate did not know the candidates or they perceived the elections to be a move by former Bolivian president Evo Morales and his party, Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) to entrench power. Now that MAS has split, the requirement that candidates need a two-thirds majority for selection has effectively prevented the 2023 elections from taking place due to an inability to select candidates.

AMLO deploys the populist argument that “only the people can save themselves” (solo el pueblo puede salvar al pueblo), claiming that the democratic selection of judges is the only way to cure corruption. However, it seems clear his real motivation is securing political control over the judicial branch. This does not seem to be a play at saving the populace, but at entrenching Morena’s power.

Electoral Reform

Then there are the issues presented by AMLO’s electoral reforms, which are aimed at dismantling Mexico’s National Electoral Institute (Instituto Nacional Electoral, INE). INE’s predecessor, the Federal Electoral Institute (Instituto Federal Electoral, IFE) was created in 1990 following multiple allegations of electoral rigging around the 1988 general elections. IFE and INE were established as impartial organisations, with no party ties, to regulate and oversee Mexico’s elections. This has made INE one of the most highly regarded institutions in Mexico, with 60% of the population expressing that they trusted INE. Its oversight of elections has witnessed the longest period of political stability in Mexico. Despite this, since narrowly losing the Mexican presidential elections in 2006 and 2012, AMLO has repeatedly accused INE of electoral fraud and, throughout his presidency, has sought to dismantle it.

In 2023, AMLO attempted to pass a package of reforms which would hinder INE’s operations, slash its budget and personnel, and limit its capacity to identify locations for polling stations, thereby diminishing INE’s ability to oversee and regulate elections as well as sanction political candidates who violate electoral law. While Mexico’s Supreme Court deemed this unconstitutional, in February 2024 AMLO eliminated certain positions from congress and decreased the number of legislative and municipal positions. This was executed with the reported aim of decreasing the elections in which INE is relevant, thereby creating an excuse to cut its funding and personnel. AMLO also proposed that INE officials should themselves be directly elected, creating significant conflicts of interest and effectively politicising and undermining the perceived neutrality of the electoral regulator.

What do these reforms mean for AMLO’s power?

AMLO’s overall intention is to neutralise the power of watchdogs and regulators. The two aspects of AMLO’s reforms are highly interlinked. Greater executive control of the judicial branch will mean that reforms to dismantle INE will not be so easily blocked. Likewise, a weakened INE will not be able to effectively regulate proposed judicial elections. 1This is precisely why AMLO’s reforms have been labelled by opponents and media sources alike as undemocratic. The removal of checks and balances and the blatant augmentation of Morena’s power would have consequences for the stability and reliability of democracy in Mexico.

However, the reforms have more far-reaching consequences. Not only do they consolidate Morena’s power, but they may also facilitate the proliferation of corruption and the infiltration of organised crime into the higher echelons of Mexican politics. The proposed judicial elections would erode the need for competency and qualification for candidates and make it more probable that individuals with political agendas are elected as judges, including those with ties to organised crime. Organised crime already has a hand in shaping Mexico’s elections, assassinating and kidnapping candidates they do not favour. Opening judicial positions to election would create an additional avenue to corrupt the judiciary. Add to this a weakened or totally dismantled INE, and there would be little oversight, incentive or action to discipline candidates who violated electoral law, making it more likely that these types of candidates were elected to federal judicial positions.

While these reforms have not yet passed congress, and both the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) and the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) parties oppose them, it is concerning that AMLO and Morena continue to push for these changes. AMLO will only be in power until his successor’s inauguration in October. However, as the campaigning season commences, early polling continues to project that his chosen Morena heir, Sheinbaum, will become Mexico’s next president. Sheinbaum herself has voiced her full support for AMLO’s reforms. If elected, the assumption is that she will continue AMLO’s crusade against INE and the judicial branch in order to bolster Morena’s attempt to exercise a monopoly on executive power.

Andrea Peniche-Cobo, Analyst