March 25, 2023

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Thousands protested against electoral reform in Mexico

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Thousands gathered in cities across Mexico on Sunday to protest President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s push to curtail the independent electoral authority, arguing the changes threaten democracy, a charge he vehemently denies.

Mexico’s Congress last week approved an overhaul of the National Electoral Institute, which Lopez Obrador has repeatedly attacked as corrupt and ineffective.

Critics of the legislation, which would slash the budget and staff of the National Institute of Statistics, are holding rallies in Mexico City and other major cities as it appears the controversial amendment is about to be brought before Mexico’s Supreme Court.

Veronica Echevarría, a 58-year-old psychiatrist from Mexico City who was participating in the protest, said she worried that López Obrador’s reform of the INE was an attempt by him to control electoral power so he could stay in power.

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“We are fighting to defend our democracy,” she said, wearing a hat emblazoned with the words “Hands off INIS”.

She and thousands of others converged toward the Zocalo across the city’s Paseo de la Reforma on Sunday morning, many of them dressed in pink, the colors of INIS.

Video footage on social media showed people approaching the square holding signs reading “Hands off voting”.

The National Electoral Institute and its predecessor played a major role in creating a pluralistic democracy that in the 2000s ended decades of one-party rule, according to several political analysts.

Fernando Belonzaran, an opposition politician who helped organize the protests, said the changes weakened the electoral system and increased the risk of rifts surrounding the 2024 election when Lopez Obrad’s successor is chosen.

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“Usually chiefs try to have governance and stability for their succession, but the chief creates uncertainty,” said Belonzaran. “He’s playing with fire.”

Belonzaran said in a tweet on Sunday that there will be rallies in more than 100 cities.

Mexican presidents may only serve one six-year term.

López Obrador, a 69-year-old leftist who claims to have been robbed of the presidency twice before he won a landslide victory in the 2018 election, says the INES is too expensive and biased towards his opponents.

The institute denies this.

According to the National Elections Institute, reforming the president violates the constitution, limits the independence of the institute, and eliminates thousands of jobs designated to protect the electoral process, making it difficult to hold free and fair elections.

López Obrador has also weakened other independent bodies that check his power on the grounds that they are drains of public money and hostile to his political project. He says that modifying his INE will save $150 million annually.

Last week, he described the National Electoral Institute as “anti-democratic” and a tool in the hands of the ruling elite, accusing it of fomenting electoral fraud.

Polls show that President Morena’s Movement for National Renewal, which in a few years has become the dominant force in Mexico, is the strong candidate to win the 2024 election.

Critics of the INEE’s sweeping reform argue that López Obrador is not confident that Morena can retain power without interfering with the electoral process. denies this.

Belonzaran and his fellow protesters aim to fill Mexico City’s main square, which abuts the presidential palace, and which holds political significance.

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Over the years, the Zocalo has hosted numerous rallies in front of López Obrador, both as president and during his long career as a scourge of opposition to the Mexican establishment.

Protesters hope Sunday’s protest will gain support from more than the tens of thousands who turned out in November to denounce Lopez Obrador’s earlier failed attempt to push constitutional changes to reform the National Elections Institute.

(Reporting by Dave Graham) Additional reporting by Diego Orr and Valentine Hillier Editing by Josie Kao and Diane Kraft

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