Mexican president disparages pro-democracy demonstrators

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FILE - Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speaks during the North America Summit, at the National Palace in Mexico City, Jan. 10, 2023. Obrador said on Feb. 23, 2023 that he'll sign a new bill into law that will cut funding to the countrys electoral agency. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano, File)

MEXICO CITY – Mexico’s president lashed out Monday against demonstrators opposed to his plan to cut election funding, belittling their concerns about threats to democracy and dashing any hopes that he would try to ease rising political tensions.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador seemed to revel in the conflict, hurling insults at the tens of thousands of people who demonstrated over the weekend in Mexico City’s main plaza, calling them thieves and allies of drug traffickers.

“There was an increase in the number of pick pockets stealing wallets here in the Zocalo, but what do you want, with so many white-collar criminals in one place?” López Obrador said at his daily morning press briefing.

At the root of the conflict are plans by López Obrador, which were approved last week by Mexico's Senate, to cut salaries and funding for local election offices, and scale back training for citizens who operate and oversee polling stations. The changes would also reduce sanctions for candidates who fail to report campaign spending.

López Obrador denies the reforms are a threat to democracy and says criticism is elitist. He argues that the funds should be redirected to helping the poor.

Riffing on the protesters' slogan “Don't touch the INE (National Electoral Institute),” López Obrador said their slogans were “Don't touch corruption,” “Don't touch privileges,” “Don't touch the Narco Government.”

“They don't care about democracy, what they want is to continue with the oligarchy, the rule of the rich," the president said.

Demonstrators say the electoral law changes approved last week threaten democracy and could mark a return to past practices of vote manipulation. Few at Sunday’s demonstration had any kind words for López Obrador, either.

“The path he is taking is toward socialism, communism,” said Fernando Gutierrez, 55, a small businessman. “That’s obvious, from the aid going to Cuba,” Gutierrez said. López Obrador has imported coronavirus vaccines, medical workers and stone railway ballast from Cuba, but has shown little taste for socialist policies at home.

Sunday’s demonstrators were clad mostly in white and pink — the color of the National Electoral Institute — and shouted slogans like “Don’t Touch my Vote!” Like a similar but somewhat larger protest on Nov. 13, the demonstrators appeared somewhat more affluent than those at the average demonstration.

The heated nature of the debate drew attention from the U.S. government.

“Today, in Mexico, we see a great debate on electoral reforms that are testing the independence of electoral and judicial institutions,” Brian A. Nichols, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs, wrote in his Twitter account. “The United States supports independent, well-resourced electoral institutions that strengthen democratic processes and the rule of law."

López Obrador said last Thursday that he’ll sign the changes into law, even though he expects court challenges. Many at Sunday’s protest expressed hope that Mexico’s Supreme Court would overturn some of the changes.

Lorenzo Cordova, the head of the National Electoral Institute, has said the reforms “seek to cut thousands of people who work every day to guarantee trustworthy elections, something that will of course pose a risk for future elections.”

The president has pushed back against the judiciary, as well as regulatory and oversight agencies, raising fears among some that he is seeking to reinstitute the practices of the old PRI party, which bent the rules to retain Mexico’s presidency for 70 years until its defeat in the 2000 elections.

Tyler Mattiace, who researches the Americas for Human Rights Watch, said it was “disappointing” that López Obrador decided to make major changes at the one part of Mexican democracy that is clearly working.

Vote counts have become much more reliable since the national electoral institute was founded in the 1990s, and the agency certified López Obrador's own victory in 2018 elections.

“It is worrisome that all this comes just before the 2024 elections, in a context in which the president has shown very little tolerance for those who don't agree with him,” said Mattiace.

Elections in Mexico are expensive by international standards, in part because almost all legal campaign financing is, by law, supplied by the government. The electoral institute also issues the secure voter ID cards that are the most commonly accepted form of identification in Mexico, and oversees balloting in the remote and often dangerous corners of the country.

López Obrador remains highly popular in Mexico, with approval ratings of around 60%. While he cannot run for reelection, his Morena party is favored in next year’s national elections and the opposition is in disarray.

Part of his popular appeal comes from railing against high-paid government bureaucrats, and he has been angered by the fact that some top electoral officials are paid more than the president. But López Obrador has also openly criticized oversight and regulatory agencies, the courts and congress.

The opposition, tarnished by corruption scandals, has struggled to compete with the president's popular spending and handout programs.

Rubén Salazar, the director of the Etellekt Consultores firm, said there is "a lack of leadership in the opposition to mount a defense of all these institutions like the INE and the Supreme Court."