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Yesterday, 22 July, the lower house voted in four new counselors to sit on the board of the National Electoral Institute (INE), which organizes federal elections and audits parties’ finances. The vote was required because four counselors’ terms expired earlier this year.
The INE board’s partial renewal had become mired in controversy after one of the members of the committee of academics appointed to vet candidates for presentation to Congress had harshly criticized the process. John Ackerman, a left-wing academic and firm supporter of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), accused the rest of the selection committee of political bias. Ackerman said that a “conservative bloc” within the committee was promoting candidates who would ensure partisan control of the electoral process. In parallel, a group of legislators from the governing National Regeneration Movement (Morena) and allies wrote to the party’s lower house leader, Mario Delgado, calling for the list of INE candidates to be withdrawn because many were “identified with groups hostile to the Fourth Transformation” (as AMLO has styled his political project).
In fact, the selection committee seems to have acted with professionalism. However, Ackerman’s favored candidate(s) failed to make it through to the final line-up. In response, Ackerman and the Morena faction attempted to discredit the selection process and the electoral court (TEPJF) electoral court, and by extension the INE itself. By undermining the election arbiter, the group is deliberating sowing doubts about the legitimacy of the election process ahead of the 2021 “mega-elections”, which involve the lower house mid-term vote, 15 state gubernatorial elections, a host of state assembly and municipal ballots, and ultimately, the 2022 presidential recall referendum.
More than just preparing the ground for a possible defeat for Morena, this strategy points to other beliefs and currents among AMLO’s supporters. First, rules can be manipulated or discarded if they do not suit the Fourth Transformation. Second, there is a belief in the need for a “cleansing” of the neo-liberal order. Finally, and closely related to this last point, technocratic expertise is seen as inherently untrustworthy because the technocracy is synonymous with the “mafia of power” that AMLO regularly rails against. Ackerman believes that loyalty to AMLO is the best qualification for anyone in the state’s institutional apparatus, from regulators to autonomous state bodies. Recall that the government has already attempted to shorten INE head Lorenzo Cordova’s term.
However, the episode also reveals that this more radical faction is not representative of Morena as a whole. Delgado, a pragmatist, successfully shrugged off the Morena dissidents’ challenge and secured a cross-party consensus around the four candidates who were elected yesterday, who appear to be independents. Other leading lights on the Left strongly criticized the Ackerman position, and pointed out that withdrawing the INE candidate list would represent a return to the status quo ante of routine partisan interference in electoral affairs. The episode was ultimately a defeat for radicalism, and all sides congratulated themselves on their ability to reach a consensus. However, AMLO himself today called on the new counselors to be impartial, thereby hinting that the upcoming elections are somehow at risk of manipulation. That suggests more insidious efforts by AMLO and his more radical lieutenants to undermine the INE and blame it for a poor electoral performance in 2021 will continue.