Covid and Democracy in Mexico

Has the virus set the country on the path to authoritarianism?
Mexikos President Andres Manuel Lopez

Andres Manuel Lopez

© picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Marco Ugarte

Just a few months ago, the majority of people around the world would have associated global threats with climate change, storms, tsunamis that drown entire villages, mass migration, nuclear weapons tests by dictatorships or a new cold war. Alongside these lingering threats, we now need to add one more: Covid-19.

Corona Pandemic in Mexico

To talk about world threats meant, a few months ago, to talk about climate change, strong winds, or tsunamis drowning entire villages; massive migration, nuclear capability testing from an authoritarian country or a new cold world war. 

With this threats prevailing, we now add another one. Today, life as we know it, and hundreds of thousands of lives are in danger because of a despicable virus, a virus which closed every coffee shop, filled every hospital bed in the world and made us all experts in viruses. And it doesn’t end there. This virus, along with the health and economic crisis, brought a whole new form of being in the world, reinforcing the never to resolved issues of who rules, how and what for.

In Mexico, as in many other countries, the coronavirus forced people to stay home in order to protect themselves against the disease. It began in March and it did not go well. By June, the country had lost more than a million jobs, the national economy is in bankrupt[1] and by that date more than 25 thousand people have died according to official —and incomplete— records. The country has the third highest COVID-19 rate of mortality in the world.

The economy and health systems, already in bad shape before 2020, are going through an unprecedented crisis today due to the fear of the disease. And so there rises a new fear: Will this crisis lead to a broader presidential power without enough checks and balance and to a society dangerously tolerant to that increasing power?

Is Mexican democracy at risk?

Absolutely.

But this has nothing to do with COVID-19.

Mexico was heading back to authoritarian rule well before March 2020 and the government is not even pretending the virus is an excuse for this. There is no need. Let us see a clear case of what is not happening in Mexico: Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, took Covid as an excuse to push legislation enabling him to rule by decree indefinitely.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador used decrees before Covid, and worse, memoranda, to go against the Mexican Constitution[2].

This year, however, he did not push. Neither the Congress nor he have increased presidential faculties. You will hear that he put the army on the streets to fight crime in a clear move of militarization, but that was before COVID-19 and the virus is not used in the discourse. The Mexican president is so popular (he won with 70% of the votes in 2018 and he still has almost 60% of approval), he doesn’t need excuses to legitimate his decisions. In fact, he dismisses the virus’ high contagion rate: he does not wear a mask, and he encourages people to live without fear, simply behaving well and eating healthy. [3]

Having said that, let us be clear: Mexico has the most dangerous episode of authoritarian regression since 1988. The country has the three symptoms of a dying democracy (Levitski, 2018): seizure and dismantling of autonomous government agencies, discredit all forms of critics and opposition and a slow but structural change of the constitutional framework.

Freedom of the press as a form of useful and democratic activity has been undermined by a powerful strategy of controlling public perception of truth.

Every day at 7 o’clock, no matter what, the President speaks to the nation through a so called press conference, where not every journalist can attend and where the questions are carefully assigned.

Since March, the federal government added an additional daily message to the nation, where the head of the coronavirus strategy (Hugo López Gatell) tells tales, unsupervised by the joint national commission that should lead the efforts. What free press or analysts say is discarded and the Minister of Internal Affairs sent an official reprimand to a journalist because he claimed that people should stop listening to the “erratic suggestions” of López Gatell. 

Last but not least, the administration of López Obrador, with a congressional majority, has made 14 important constitutional amendments, regarding the army, public education, public officials’ salaries, expropriation, automatic prison, public calendars and recall, among others.  Slowly, without guns, without a violent coup d’Etat, and without the excuse of the despicable virus, an elected leader is capturing the State in Mexico.

Authoritarian Regression

In such a context, Mexico is currently experiencing the most dangerous episode of authoritarian regression since 1988. The country exhibits the three symptoms of a dying democracy (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2018). Takeover and dismantling of autonomous government agencies, discrediting of all forms of criticism and opposition as well as a slow but structural change in the constitutional framework.

 

[1] In the first three months of 2019 the no more profitable oil corporation (Pemex) lost almost 30 thousand million dollars. https://www.eleconomista.com.mx/mercados/Pemex-perdio-562130-millones-pesosen-el-primer-trimestre-ventas-bajan-20-por-la-caida-de-la-mezcla-mexicana-20200430-0069.html

[2] In April 2019, Andrés Manuel López Obrador send a Memo to the ministers ordering the non compliance of law regarding education until the congress change it.

[3] In June 2020, he presented a Decalogue To Get Out of Coronavirus, with ten moral recommendations for people: be aware, be optimistic, maintain calmed, don’t be selfish or a crazy buyer or a racist, eat natural, enjoy the sun, move and chase an ideal. Official site: https://www.gob.mx/conadis/videos/decalogo-para-salir-del-coronavirus-y-enfrentar-la-nueva-realidad

Ivabelle Arroyo is a Mexican Journalist