President of Mexico Andrés Manuel López Obrador dismissed concerns on Monday about its plan to reduce the number of election observers in the country, accusing protesters of ties to drug traffickers.
Footage of a mass protest in Mexico City on Sunday shows tens of thousands of people dressed in pink, the color of the National Electoral Institute (INE), which oversees elections and has been accused of bias by López Obrador.
Many protesters held signs that read: “Hands Off INE”.
Speaking at his daily Monday morning press conference, López Obrador ridiculed the posters, saying they meant “hands off corruption.”
“According to them, the privileges are not touched, the drug state is not touched,” he added, claiming without evidence that the protest leaders “were part of the corruption in Mexico, they belonged to the drug state.”
Mexican lawmakers last week approved a president-backed bill to cut the agency’s budget, which could lead to an 85% reduction in staff and the closure of several local offices. Lorenzo Cordova, head of INE, said on Twitter that the move could “majorly affect future electoral processes”.
Electoral officials warn that the change will affect their ability to hold free and fair elections ahead of the 2024 general election, when López Obrador, whose term is limited to six years, is expected to nominate a successor.
More broadly, moves to restrict independent agencies such as the INE have raised fears of a return to practices that existed when Mexico was controlled Autocratic one-party system for decades before 2000
López Obrador argued that the plan to cut the agency’s budget would save millions of dollars and make voting more efficient.
The president came to power in 2018 promising to fight inequality and poverty, and has consistently criticized the salaries of high-ranking INE officials and accused the institution of allowing fraud in previous elections.
But Will Freeman, a fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, warned that López Obrador’s statements on Monday were “inflammatory, reckless and just as dangerous to democracy as the INE reform that brought more than 100,000 Mexicans to the streets.” ”
“We should be concerned in any country where you see an incumbent shaking up the electoral administration when the opposition really has no power left to fight back,” Freeman said.