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López Obrador laughs off US concern for electoral reform in Mexico

President López Obrador laughed at the idea of Biden looking into Mexico’s electoral politics, but experts say Washington is surely keeping a close eye on recent reforms.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Mexico’s president Friday openly mocked and laughed at news that the United States Congress tasked President Joe Biden with assessing changes to its southern neighbor's electoral system.

“You think the president of the United States has that on his agenda? He doesn’t even know about it,” said President Andrés Manuel López Obrador during his morning press conference. "President Biden, first off, is very respectful of the decisions we make, he knows that Mexico is an independent, sovereign, free country. He's an experienced politician."

His comments pertained to a report in the Mexican newspaper Reforma about a clause in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that directs Biden to provide Congress with an “assessment of any changes in Mexico’s electoral and democratic institutions.”

Issued on Dec. 6, the latest revision of the 2023 NDAA text stipulates that said assessment must include an account of the electoral reform’s “ability to ensure accountability for human rights violations, and its impacts on national security.”

Reforming Mexico’s National Electoral Institute (INE) is the latest in a laundry list of contentious institutional changes López Obrador wants implemented during his term. After his original attempt to amend the country’s constitution failed in the lower house of Congress earlier this month, he sent a “Plan B" batch of legislative reforms which was easily passed by a simple majority of his ruling Morena party and its allies. 

Mexico’s Senate approved the reform on Wednesday after adding a clause that would allow larger parties to transfer votes to smaller ones, something López Obrador threatened to veto if given the chance. Federal deputies, however, removed the clause and the bill now returns to the Senate, which will either hold an extraordinary session for a vote or wait until the next regular session in February. 

“What is a foreign government doing meddling in our affairs,” López Obrador asked Friday, adding that he would like to know why the U.S. government continues to allocate money to the war in Ukraine, rather than use those funds to support Central American countries and other poor nations from which people are forced to emigrate. 

“But I can’t say that. I can’t get involved. They’re free, sovereign,” he said mockingly. “Surely [Biden] already spoke to the president of the INE, Lorenzo Córdova, to ask him for a report on what is happening, that the situation in Mexico is very serious.”

Critics both at home and abroad — including The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post — have labeled López Obrador’s electoral reform an unconstitutional attempt to concentrate electoral power in the hands of the Morena party. 

Morena Senate Leader and 2024 presidential hopeful Ricardo Monreal also believes the reform violates Mexico’s constitution. He voted against the bill on Wednesday. 

While the Biden administration has not made explicit statements about concerns over Mexico’s electoral institutions, support for democracy across the globe has been a central plank of its international policy. Therefore, it is not irrational to think that electoral reform in Mexico could be on Biden’s radar, according to former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Earl Anthony Wayne. 

“It’s fair to say there is concern in Washington about this because our relationship with Mexico is so important,” Wayne said in a phone interview. “But the administration has not publicly said anything about this yet.”

Former Mexican Ambassador to the United States Martha Bárcena Coqui agreed that the United States should be concerned about what she called "the weakening of Mexico's electoral system and institutions," and added that Mexico should also worry about the similar trend north of the border.

"Both countries supposedly share the same principles and values," she told Courthouse News in a written exchange. "One of those principles is democracy."

Bárcena Coqui pointed out the communication breakdown between the parties involved, noting that the wording of the Reforma headline was unclear and that López Obrador appears to misunderstand that the electoral assessment is not a Biden initiative, but rather a Congressional mandate with which the president must comply.

The White House did not immediately respond to Courthouse News' request for comment.

Biden was originally scheduled to visit Mexico in December to attend the North American Leaders’ Summit, but López Obrador postponed the event until January. The Mexican president had hoped to meet with other Latin American leaders in Peru, but that trip and event were canceled amid the political turmoil caused by the removal of President Pedro Castillo.

Electoral reform could come up in the context of democratic backsliding at the summit in January, Wayne said, but much could change before Biden’s deadline to turn in the report. Congress gave the administration 180 days to make its assessment. 

“There’s plenty of time to write a report,” Wayne said. “We’ll see what happens in that period of time.”

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