While the world is looking elsewhere, Mexico may be on the brink of losing its democracy | Opinion

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While much of the world is focused on Brazil’s Oct. 30 presidential elections, we should also pay attention to an alarming political development that could mark the end of democracy in Mexico.

The Mexican government is planning to dismantle the National Electoral Institute (INE), the country’s highly respected independent electoral body.

The INE has played a key role in Mexico’s transition to democracy since the late ’90s, when it became an autonomous government institution. It has since guaranteed free and fair elections in a country that, before 2000, had been ruled by a single party for the previous seven decades.

But now, Mexico’s populist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador wants to dismantle the INE and replace it with a much smaller and weaker electoral body.

On Oct. 26, López Obrador’s Morena party in Congress approved a 21-member commission to set in motion major political reform. In addition to downsizing the INE, it would cut public funds and media time for political parties and eliminate 200 of the 500 seats in the lower house of Congress.

The Mexican Congress is scheduled to debate these changes in late November, when few in the country will be paying attention: It’s when Mexico’s national soccer team is scheduled to play against Poland, Argentina and Saudi Arabia in the World Cup in Qatar.

López Obrador, much like Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro and former U.S. President Donald Trump, has long criticized his country’s electoral system. He began lashing out against electoral authorities since he lost a 2006 presidential election and blamed it on fraud.

But the INE, which has undergone several reforms since its creation, has gained respect at home and abroad.

Sen. Tim Kaine, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Affairs Committee’s Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, told me that, “Dissolving the National Electoral Institute in Mexico would be a serious mistake and another major setback for democracy in Mexico.”

Kaine added: “In the U.S. and around the world, a credible electoral process administered by independent institutions is critical to ensuring” democratic rule.

Roberta Jacobson, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, likewise told me that, “The idea of dismantling the INE is beyond worrisome.” She added that it has been “one of the world’s strongest electoral authorities, with its leaders called on by countries around the world” to help them ensure fair elections.

“It’s part of López Obrador’s efforts to weaken or do away with independent regulatory agencies,” Jacobson said. “Strong democracies need strong, independent institutions. They are dying in Mexico.”

International democracy-advocacy groups are sounding alarm bells.

The European Commission for Democracy Through Law, also known as the Venice Commission, issued an Oct. 22 report concluding that López Obrador’s plan to replace the INE with a new institution “might compromise the impartial and independent operation” of the electoral body.

Daniel Zovatto, regional director for Latin America of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA,) a Sweden-based non-governmental organization, told me that López Obrador’s move against the INE is “very serious, worrisome and dangerous.” He added: “It could also have a very negative impact on other countries in the region.”

The Mexican president’s claim that he wants to downsize the INE to save government funds is ridiculous, considering the huge amounts of money he has spent on highly questionable public projects.

López Obrador’s government has spent $18 billion on building the highly controversial Dos Bocas oil refinery, at a time when Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich states are investing to diversify their economies away from oil. He has also spent $5.2 billion to build a new airport for Mexico City called Felipe Angeles International, which is 30 miles away from the city and virtually empty.

By comparison, the INE’s annual budget of $706 million has been one of Mexico’s best investments to ensure democratic stability, without which Mexico would find it much harder to draw investments.

Don’t be fooled: Dismantling the INE would take Mexico back to the old days when an almighty ruling party could rig elections at will. The only difference would be that, this time, López Obrador would be at the helm.

Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show on Sundays at 7 pm E.T. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera