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Former ambassador weighs in on potential changes to Mexico's electoral process

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

If voting is a pillar of democracy, then is cutting spending on elections a threat to the strength of a country's democracy? That's at the heart of a debate in Mexico right now. A new law waiting to be signed by the president would slash the budget of Mexico's National Electoral Institute. Critics of the law say these cuts would undermine election integrity. The president supports the changes. Former Mexican ambassador to the U.S. Arturo Sarukhan opposes them. Ambassador Sarukhan, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ARTURO SARUKHAN: It's a great pleasure to be with you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Why do you object to these proposed changes?

SARUKHAN: Well, because it's taken Mexicans two generations to finally move Mexico in the direction of a modern, free, fair electoral system. And the National Electoral Institute - INE, by its acronym in Spanish - the elections watchdog, has been responsible for the modernization of Mexican democracy for the past three decades. It's allowed for the alternation of power between three different political parties. And at the end of the day, these changes put Mexicans' right to vote in free, fair and credible elections at risk.

SHAPIRO: Now, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador says the money that is saved through these changes could go to help the poor. What is your sense of why he wants to strip back the Electoral Institute?

SARUKHAN: The money saved is about 0.1% of the federal budget, so it's minimal. The reason why Lopez Obrador wants to weaken this is because he holds a big grudge against the National Electoral Institute. He argues that the Electoral Institute was piece and parcel of what he still claims was a stolen election back in 2006, despite the European Union underscored that the election had been tight but it had been free and fair. And since 2006, President Lopez Obrador has held a grudge against the Electoral Institute. As his party lost eight of the largest 10 metropolitan cities in Mexico's midterms two years ago, he is slightly concerned about what may happen in 2024, Mexico's next presidential elections. And many, including yours truly, believe that at the heart of his attempt to eviscerate and weaken Mexico's National Electoral Institute is his attempt to ensure that he can control the potential outcome of the elections and to eliminate a level playing field in the 2024 presidential elections in Mexico.

SHAPIRO: So let's imagine that this law does pass and President Lopez Obrador's term comes to an end. New presidential elections take place next year. What do you expect the elections to look like?

SARUKHAN: Well, certainly the fact that it would preclude the National Electoral Institute from preventing government officials from campaigning, which is forbidden in Mexico. If you're an elected politician or you're in the government as a civilian bureaucrat or as a political appointee, you cannot campaign on behalf of a political party. It would mean - eliminating some of these mechanisms that INE has in place today would dilute the ability to monitor that from happening. It would dilute the ability to ensure that parties are not spending more than what they should be spending in the political campaign. When you don't have citizen monitors in the polling booths, any type of hanky panky could take place. It would really be a step backwards in how Mexico has really modernized its electoral processes and presidential elections.

SHAPIRO: And at this point, is it more or less a done deal?

SARUKHAN: No. The opposition has underscored that they will present an injunction before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court would have the last say. Now, the question is whether the president publishes the law as it was approved by his simple majority that his party and their allies have in Congress, whether he does it in such a way that allows the Supreme Court to deliberate and make a ruling in time. But obviously, the big question is that these very fundamental changes to the law are being done less than a year and months to go before the next presidential election.

SHAPIRO: That's former Mexican ambassador to the U.S. Arturo Sarukhan. Thank you for speaking with us.

SARUKHAN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.