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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

More than 100,000 in Mexico protest changes to election agency

Thousands of people gather in Mexico City’s main square to protest against the electoral overhaul by the governing party, on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023.

By Natalie Kitroeff

More than 100,000 people took to the streets of Mexico on Sunday to protest new laws hobbling the nation’s election agency, in what demonstrators said was a repudiation of the president’s efforts to weaken a pillar of democracy.

Wearing shades of pink, the official color of the electoral watchdog that helped end one-party rule two decades ago, protesters filled the central square of the capital, Mexico City, and chanted, “Don’t touch my vote.”

The protesters said they were trying to send a message to the president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who backed the measures and lives in the national palace on the square’s edge.

They were also speaking directly to the nation’s Supreme Court, which is expected to hear a challenge to the overhaul in the coming months. Many see the moment as a critical test for the court, which has been a target of criticism by the president.

Protesters also chanted Sunday morning, “I trust in the court.”

Hours before the demonstration officially began, attendants, many wearing crisp collared shirts and Panama hats, lined up outside upscale cafes and sat for breakfast on a terrace overlooking the seat of government.

But on the streets, the mood was anxious.

“I paid my own expenses and my stay, but it doesn’t bother me, I’d do that and more for my country,” said Marta Ofelia González, 75, who flew in from Mazatlán, on the coast of Sinaloa state, and wore a straw visor to block the punishing sun.

She came, she said, because she fears “we will lose democracy and become a dictatorship.”

The president argues the changes will save millions of dollars and improve the voting system. Electoral officials, though, say the overhaul will make it difficult to guarantee free and fair elections — including in a crucial presidential election next year.

“This is our last hope,” said Guadalupe Acosta Naranjo, a former leftist member of Congress and one of the demonstration’s organizers. “We want to defend the court’s autonomy so it can declare these laws unconstitutional.” Otherwise, Acosta Naranjo said, “we will have to hold an election with a partial and diminished arbiter.”

It was not immediately clear how many people protested across the country — demonstrations had been organized in more than 100 cities — although the numbers in Mexico City alone were above 100,000, organizers and local officials said.

Looming over the protests was the recent conviction in a New York City courtroom of Genaro García Luna, a former top Mexican law enforcement official, who was found guilty of taking bribes from cartels — a verdict widely viewed in Mexico as damaging to one of the opposition parties associated with the demonstration Sunday.

García Luna served in high-profile security roles for more than a decade under two conservative National Action Party presidents — Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón — both of whom publicly called for citizens to attend the protest.

The streets where protesters roamed Sunday were lined with posters bearing García Luna’s face and the word “guilty.”

The president has suggested that the protesters are motivated by the desire to put the country back in the hands of the corrupt leaders of the past.

“They’re going to show up because there are vested, corrupt interests that want to return to power to continue stealing,” López Obrador said at a recent news conference. “So don’t try to say ‘it’s that we care about democracy, it’s that democracy is being damaged.’”

It was the second time in about four months that Mexicans had demonstrated in support of the election watchdog, which the president and his supporters say has become a bloated bureaucracy captured by political interests.

“It has too much power, perverted power,” said Pedro Miguel, a journalist at La Jornada, a leftist newspaper, who describes himself as a “militant” of the president’s political project. Miguel criticized the agency for paying its governing members too much, including a bonus after stepping down.

“This is a march in defense of that bonus and those miserable salaries,” he said of the demonstration Sunday.

The measures, passed by the legislature last week, will cut the agency’s staff, undermine its autonomy and limit its capacity to punish politicians who break electoral law. Electoral officials say the overhaul will also eliminate the majority of workers who directly oversee the vote and install polling stations across the country.

“It threatens the validity of elections themselves,” said Lorenzo Córdova, the departing president of the agency, in an interview.

The protest comes as the country gears up for the start of the 2024 presidential campaign, amid serious questions about whether a battered and inchoate opposition has the wherewithal to win over disenchanted voters.

“It’s an important test of how much they’re able to mobilize their base,” said Blanca Heredia, a professor at Mexico’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, referring to the parties opposing López Obrador, known by his initials, AMLO.

The crowd was big enough Sunday, analysts said, to suggest that many Mexicans are eager to support their institutions — and vent their anger at the president.

González, of Mazatlán, said she had not voted for López Obrador “because my brain still works.”

It remains unclear whether the opposition can use that bitterness to its electoral advantage.

“All they have is that anti-AMLO sentiment,” Heredia said of the parties opposing López Obrador. “If they want to gain more voters that aren’t just anti-AMLO, they’re going to need a positive project — a plan for the country.”

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