Mexico: Who are you marching for?

I was sitting in the highest place of the auditorium, which was crowded because the person who was teaching the course is one of the key figures for democracy in Mexico. Of all the teachings and experiences he shared with us those days, there is one that I have not been able to forget: “The construction of our democracy was based on mistrust”.

With that phrase, the speaker summarized the different technical, theoretical, ideological, and political disputes that, between political parties, between political parties and civil society, and civil society with the Government, led to the creation of the then Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) which today, as the National Electoral Institute (INE), is once again the center of the distrust that has made Mexicans fall into one of two camps: “transformers” or “continuists”.

“Transformers” support President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s initiative to reform INE through the so-called Plan B, which, among other issues, includes cuts in the institute’s operational structure. On the other hand, “continuists” criticize Plan B by showing that its structural and budgetary cuts would imply transferring de facto the realization and validation of elections to the government in office.

Beyond the discussion of the plan’s legal loopholes, this new episode of distrust translates the narrative of both sides into a mise-en-scène: the marches. The “continuists” first took to the streets on November 13, 2022, to denounce the attempt to destroy the institute; López Obrador called for a march in response on December 27 of the same year to show the broad popular support for his initiative. For this year, “continuists” took the streets on February 26; “transformers” will do the same on March 18.

What are the competing ideas? The Government has put “austerity” at the center of its reform: who would not advocate saving more and spending less (almost) on anything? On the other hand, “continuists” have done the same with “security”. They defend the idea that, although INE may be costly, the certainty it gives to the electoral processes and results are above any figure.

The marches of both sides are a good sign of the times of affective polarization we are living in. Most of the reforms promoted by the Government have forced us to be in favor or against and, consequently, the democratic plurality has had to artificially syncretize itself in order to defend as a bloc something on which it has differences.

The dynamic of the current Mexican democracy is once again based on the distrust that gave rise to it and on affections that weaken democracy by dividing us. The governmental discourse reflects the distrust it has toward democracy itself. The INE is nothing more than the visible face of the contempt that “transformers” have for democracy, but which they adorn with the discourse of being the bearers of the voice of the people. On the other hand, “continuists” will have little success in translating their idea of “security” to the population if they only link it to the rejection and anger the figure of López Obrador arises in them.

After the crises we have gone through in this century, Mexicans would agree that saving is a good idea, but, at the same time, we know that the high cost of elections has allowed us, during this same century, the alternation in power and the expression of our voice through the casting of the vote. In this double context, marching is an expression of the crisis/opportunity in which Mexican democracy finds itself.

Although there is still a long legal road ahead for Plan B to become a reality, it is likely that by February 26, the day of the “continuists” second march, “transformers” will have already taken the first steps toward its implementation. Therefore, we must not lose sight of the ideas that sustain the dispute over INE, since they define not only the structure and operation of this institution but also the future of Mexican democracy.

Who are you marching for? Austerity or security? Ideas are in dispute: the street is the field where the game is played.

*Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva

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