Luck of the Draw Supposedly Reigns Supreme at the New INE
By KELIN DILLON
While many of Mexico’s 120 million-plus residents reveled in the rest and relaxation brought on by last week’s Holy Week vacation time, the return to routine has brought some startling realizations, along with including the new reality of the National Electoral Institute’s (INE) General Council, which seemingly changed overnight after electing four new councilors to its ranks via raffle on the cusp of Holy Week, Friday, March 31. Though even just the initial change may be jarring, it’s the influence that the INE’s new ranks may have on the institute’s vitally autonomous and democratic elections in Mexico that’s causing much concern.
Originally founded in 1990 as the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) in the wake of Mexico’s contentiously fraudulent 1988 elections, the INE predecessor only strengthened its newfound autonomy through a 1996 reform that eliminated the institution’s links to the federal executive and kept all of the organization’s conciliary elections internal and subsequently free from state or party intervention.
Prior to the IFE’s creation, Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) held unbroken power in the country for 71 years from 1929 to 2000; the IFE’s autonomous nature is credited with restoring Mexico’s voting process from an unbridled authoritarian regime into a functioning electoral democracy and stabilizing the country’s electoral processes in turn.
The IFE was then eliminated and replaced by the modern-day INE through a series of electoral reforms passed by Mexico’s then-President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2014, after which the INE officially assumed the responsibilities of the IFE and began its oversight of all the nation’s local and state level elections, as well as national and local political parties.
However, despite the integral role the INE and its predecessor have played in establishing Mexico’s electoral democracy, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has been on a quest to limit the autonomous institute’s power ever since being voted into office during Mexico’s 2018 elections – ironically, the very same general election touted by the INE as its largest and most successful to date.
AMLO and the INE’s relationship has been contentious at best throughout the first four years of López Obrador’s six-year term and has featured public bouts between the two over López Obrador’s questionable mandate revocation and his interference in Mexico’s June 2021 midterm elections, only sharpening the federal executive’s disdain for the electoral institution.
After years of threatening to absorb Mexico’s autonomous institutions – which includes the INE and other vital independent organizations like National Institute for Transparency, Access to Information and Personal Data Protection (INAI) – underneath the umbrella of the federal government, López Obrador finally attempted to make good on his promise in April 2022, when he sent a constitutional reform to Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies proposing to replace the INE with the government-run Institute of National Elections and Consultation.
However, despite rumblings that the center-right PRI would collaborate with AMLO’s leftist National Regeneration Movement (Morena) to push the constitutional reform to pass through the Chamber of Deputies with the needed two-thirds majority, huge public pushback against the reform and nationwide demonstrations in support of the INE prompted the PRI to abandon its short-live alliance, essentially leaving AMLO’s constitutional reform dead in the water.
Still eager to hit the INE where it hurts, AMLO pivoted away from his desired constitutional electoral reform to take the simpler avenue of reforming some of Mexico’s non-constitutional electoral reforms through the so-called Plan B initiative. Plan B’s provisions propose eliminating the INE’s existing trusts, reducing its efficacy at the local electoral level by removing 300 of its local district boards, removing more than a thousand employees from the institution, and slashing a huge portion of the INE budget, initiatives AMLO has advertised as for the purpose of “saving millions of dollars and making voting more efficient.”
Plan B, which only needed a simple majority vote to pass through Mexico’s Morena-dominated legislative bodies, has since been approved, though dozens of lawsuits purporting the reform’s unconstitutionality and numerous complaints filed with the Supreme Court Justice of the Nation (SCJN) have temporarily put its implementation on pause until further judicial review.
Still, AMLO’s pursuit against the INE has persisted. Rather than follow the “the conservative tradition of quotas” in giving Mexico’s political parties a fair representative shake at the open INE director positions, Morena leadership instead elected to choose the new INE directors via raffle selection, all while knowing that the many of the viable candidates for the positions possess close ties to Morena’s ranks – six of which were flagged by the Technical Evaluation Committee as ineligible for the post due to a “lack of autonomy and independence required by the position.”
And so, in the early morning of Friday, March 31, just before the commencement of Mexico’s Holy Week holidays, the INE was forced to elect by raffle four new electoral advisors – as well as its new president – to its General Council in the midst of the electoral organization’s ongoing dispute with AMLO and Morena over Plan B.
By the power of the raffle, Jorge Montaño Ventura, Rita Bell López Vences and Arturo Castillo Loza all achieved their seat as an INE General Council director on Friday, March 31, while Guadalupe Taddei Zavala pulled the ballot for the post of INE president, taking over the position from Lorenzo Córdova, who served as INE president for nine years since the organization’s creation in 2014.
Just hours after Taddei Zavala won the raffle on March 31, AMLO took to his daily morning press conference to defend the non-choice outcome for the INE president.
“She has professionalism, she is honest, incapable of acting like the president (Córdova) who is leaving the post. She is a woman of integrity, but she was also examined by a congressional commission, and as if that were not enough she is the product of a lottery. She is the most transparent choice there can be,” said López Obrador at the time, while celebrating the choice to hold a raffle as a “more democratic way of choosing.”
Despite AMLO’s staunch proponency of Taddei Zavala’s supposed honesty and transparency, repeated reports have come out in the days following the raffle detailing Taddei Zavala and her family’s close ties to Morena, including a cousin and niece who respectively hold posts of superdelegate and local deputy for Morena in Sonora, though Taddei Zavala was previously questioned on these ties during her interview with the Technical Evaluation Committee.
Still, for some, Taddei Zavala’s close ties to Morena have raised concerns about the legitimacy of her raffle win – and prompted questioning from journalists like El Universal opinion columnist Alejo Sanchez Cano about how López Obrador could utilize the new INE General Council for his own personal benefit come the highly anticipated 2024 general elections.
Similarly, recent allegations against Morena INE Counselor Norma de la Cruz Magaña of stealing money from her advisors’ salaries and using staff funds to purchase hair and makeup consultations, speechwriters, and public speaking courses have sparked worries about what the reality of a Morena-heavy INE may look like.
For Córdova, whose time behind the helm of the INE is ending with a majority disapproval rating according to a survey conducted by El Financiero, the then-INE President took to his public Twitter account to express congratulations to the newly elected INE councilors, while also requesting that they remain committed to the “defense of the institution.”
“I am sure that they will continue, together with the councilors who continue in their position, and together with the INE staff, to defend the institution that guarantees us democracy in elections, and that they will strongly resist the attacks that seek to disqualify and undermine the credibility of the institute, something that I fear will unfortunately continue to happen,” wrote Córdova in his post.
Taddei Zavala officially assumed the INE presidency on Monday, April 3, using her speech at the event to urge Mexico’s political parties to respect the electoral process before going on to state her agreement that some aspects of INE do need to be changed, though only to further strengthen the autonomy of the institute.
While much remains to be seen about how this new era of the INE General Council will operate, expect Mexico’s 2024 general election to be a reckoning of whether the INE councilors’ allegiances truly lie with democracy, or with López Obrador.