September 8, 2021

Latam

MEXICO: Prospects for AMLO’s three constitutional reform priorities

BY Nicholas Watson

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( 5 mins)
  • Three constitutional reforms that President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) wants to advance over the next 18 months face an uphill struggle.
  • The congressional landscape is more complex following the June mid-terms, though AMLO is likely to probe the main opposition alliance for any weaknesses he can exploit.
  • AMLO is already looking to smooth the succession path, which involves taming key institutions.

In the wake of the June mid-term elections, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) announced that he had three constitutional reform priorities: 1) electricity sector reforms, 2) changes to the electoral system, and 3) to bring the National Guard (GN) under military command. August saw some discussion of what the electoral reforms might include as a combative AMLO called for an overhaul of the National Electoral Institute (INE), which organizes federal elections and audits parties’ finances, and the TEPJF electoral court. However, in his annual state-of-the-nation address on 1 September, AMLO turned to the electricity reform first, promising to send a bill to Congress this month.

AMLO’s motivations

The reforms share some common drivers. The two overriding motivations center on AMLO’s need to de-risk the transition to his eventual successor and ensure no rollback of his reforms after he leaves office in 2024.

  • Putting the GN under the Defense Ministry (Sedena) would help cement military loyalty to AMLO’s “Fourth Transformation” project. Similarly, new and more pliant electoral institutions would help the National Regeneration Movement (Morena) party win when AMLO himself is not on the ballot in 2024 and then maintain power thereafter – hegemony for Morena being the ultimate goal.
  • Second, AMLO knows only too well that there is a tendency to invent from scratch rather than build on existing institutions; he himself scrapped the Federal Police (PF) and replaced it with the GN when security experts argued that it would have made more sense to improve the PF. AMLO’s own rollback of the 2013 energy reforms is another example of how any policy can be reversed or modified as the political winds change. Elevating reforms into the constitution makes any rollback much more difficult.

Congressional challenges

The problem for AMLO is that – following the June mid-terms – constitutional reforms face significant hurdles. All three reforms require two-thirds majorities that Morena and its allies, the Workers’ Party (PT) and Greens (PVEM), do not possess. The Morena-led coalition has 278 out of 500 seats in the lower house, or 56 votes short of the two-thirds it needs. Three out of the four opposition parties, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the National Action Party (PAN), and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), remain in an alliance ( Va por Mexico ). They total 199 seats. Another opposition party, the Citizen Movement (MC), has 23 seats.

So far, the Va por Mexico alliance has stuck together despite its uneasy foundations. Its members have rejected the reform proposals, which would leave all three AMLO initiatives stillborn. That outcome remains a real possibility – which would incidentally raise the question of how AMLO would react to being stymied. However, there is also scope for negotiation and deal-making. It could also be that AMLO plans to use the reforms and other initiatives as a way to drive a wedge into the opposition alliance. AMLO may hope that with a strengthened mandate after March 2022 (assuming he wins the planned recall referendum), he will have more leverage to win over some opposition legislators. The PRI is perhaps most vulnerable to being co-opted; the party has 71 seats, enough to take the Morena-led coalition above two-thirds. The PRI is presenting its own electoral reform bill, which could be a sign of a future deal.

Electricity sector

AMLO has been saying for months that he would look to change the constitution to circumvent multiple injunctions that left his reform of the Electricity Industry Law (LIE) in stasis. The reform was designed to alter grid dispatch rules to benefit the state-run CFE electricity utility at the expense of private companies. However, though the reform was approved in Congress, it has never been properly implemented after courts granted injunctions filed by companies that argued the law violated fair competition laws. The Supreme Court (SCJN) could deliver a final verdict on the issue before the end of 2021. AMLO may think that a constitutional reform could put pressure on the court. Regardless, it is difficult to see this reform passing.

Electoral reform

The electoral reform was originally supposed to go to Congress in 2022. However, public debate intensified over August, precipitated by AMLO’s offensive against the INE after a disappointing turnout in the referendum over whether to investigate ex-presidents for corruption and other wrongdoing. AMLO, who described the INE as a “Frankenstein” and its members as “immoral,” was also incensed by the INE’s ban on a close ally, Felix Salgado Macedonio, as gubernatorial candidate for Guerrero state. The prominent Morena Senator Ricardo Monreal has suggested reducing the INE and TEPJF in size and cutting the number of legislators elected by proportional representation – a move that could benefit Morena. More than size, the issue to watch with the INE will be whether it retains its independence or whether – as AMLO wants – it becomes subordinated to the executive. In the latest twist, the Morena party president Mario Delgado said yesterday, 6 September, that the reform could even be shelved until 2023.

National Guard

AMLO wants to bring the GN under the purview of Sedena. It is difficult not to see this as another gift to the military (which has new roles across various sectors, including ports, customs, fuel distribution, and in the construction of the Santa Lucia airport) to keep it onside. This raises troubling questions about the creeping politicization of the armed forces, the deepening militarization of public security alongside a lack of accountability, and spending opacity. However, this reform would only formalize a reality that is already evident: the GN is already overwhelmingly military in its personnel, methods, and command structures.

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