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Mexico Supreme Court declares López Obrador’s superdelegates constitutional

Opponents decried the president’s reform to the federal administration law as a means of centralizing executive power, but the court ruled the reform valid despite evidence supporting their claims.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — The Mexico Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of a 2018 reform to the federal administration law that created the controversial governmental posts known as “superdelegates.”

One of several contentious reforms during the term of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the reform eradicated Mexico’s 2,300 federal delegates — public servants who acted as intermediaries between the various levels of government for the administration of social programs. 

Enacted by legislators of the president’s Morena party in November 2018, the month before López Obrador took office, the reform replaced the delegates with 32 so-called superdelegates, one for each state and Mexico City, with the apparent purpose of making the overly bureaucratic government more efficient. 

Ten of the court’s 11 justices voted last week, leaving the ruling split down the middle for and against constitutionality. Justice Loretta Ortiz Ahlf, who was occupied by an official committee the previous week, broke the tie Monday with her decision that the reform does not violate Mexico’s constitution. 

The challenge was brought by opposition legislators who claim the superdelegate system is a means of consolidating presidential power. 

In her ruling, Ortiz said the superdelegates “coordinate, supervise and implement plans, programs and actions that entail a direct benefit to the public,” attributing said actions to the federal government. 

She described the nature of the delegations with the Spanish word desconcentrado, which implies a certain degree of autonomy, but does not mean fully decentralized. Their objective, Ortiz said, “is to make public services more efficient by being hierarchically and organically assigned to the secretariat of wellbeing, and in turn […] subordinate to the federal executive.”

While Ortiz and the five other justices who voted in favor expressed no constitutional qualms with the reform, political scientist Manuel Guadarrama told Courthouse News that their analysis was not based on the reality of what Mexico has seen since the superdelegates took office in 2018. 

“This was an abstract analysis that doesn’t take into account what is actually happening in practice,” said Guadarrama, who is coordinator of the department of government and finance at the Mexico City-based think tank IMCO. 

The reworking of the functionality of the federal government is something that every Mexican president does upon entering office, but López Obrador’s reform clearly appears to be a means to consolidating his party’s grip on power in the country. 

Delegates are responsible for the administration of everything from the distribution of water to environmental management to public infrastructure projects. Responsibilities that were previously spread out among the 2,300 delegates, as well as the attendant power in taking them on, have now coalesced in the hands of 32 individuals. 

“This converted these positions into a kind of superpower,” said Guadarrama, but “obviously no one person can be a specialist in the environment and in energy and foreign relations. It’s a number of important processes and procedures that one person cannot specialize in alone.”

Although nepotism has always plagued Mexico’s political system, delegates were generally appointed based on their specialization and history of public service. Now, however, López Obrador personally chooses the superdelegates he wants in office, giving him a direct line of power from the National Palace to those in the state capitals. 

“With these governments united as such, there is no distinction between a presidential mandate and what the state governors might want to carry out,” said Guadarrama. “This is in line with the president’s continued efforts to centralize power in all aspects.”

This has led to superdelegates in effect having more power than state governors, according to Rosa Castañeda, a political analyst who investigated claims of corruption among superdelegates for the government watchdog Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity (MCCI). 

Castañeda described the position as the “perfect trampoline” to governorship. “There is sufficient documentation to show that superdelegates veered away from their original intentions and ended up being in favor of Morena and vying for candidacy for governor.”

Four of the eight superdelegates who renounced their posts to run for political office when Castañeda's article was published in November 2020 are now governors.  

Her report also revealed that 10 of the 32 superdelegates had been investigated by Mexico’s secretariat of civil service for the improper use of the social programs under their charge, and several others had claims of corrupt practices against them. 

Despite López Obrador’s repeated assertions that there is no longer corruption in the federal government, superdelegates have been investigated for nepotism, misappropriation of funds, embezzlement, and the use of the office to create political propaganda, among other irregularities. 

“Despite what the Supreme Court says of the constitutionality of it, we can corroborate that the superdelegate office generates corruption and the centralization of power and much broader exposure for the Morena party,” said Castañeda. 

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