On Thursday, Mexico’s highest court struck down a key element of a sweeping election bill backed by the president that would have undermined the agency that oversees the country’s voting and helped steer the nation away from one-party rule.
The Supreme Court ruling comes as a major blow to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has argued that the plan would make elections more efficient, save millions of dollars and allow Mexicans living abroad to vote online.
The electoral measures were passed earlier this year by Congress, which is controlled by the president’s party, and would apply to next year’s presidential race. Although López Obrador is prevented from running for reelection, the candidate chosen by his party will most likely be one of the favorites.
The bill would have cut the National Electoral Institute’s workforce, reduced its autonomy and limited its power to punish politicians for violating election laws. Civil liberties groups said the measures would hamper a key pillar of Mexican democracy.
« What he was looking for was to transform the entire electoral system, » said Ernesto Guerra, a Mexico City-based political analyst. « It was a 180-degree turn to the rules of the democratic game. »
As relieved as some Mexicans were by the ruling, some were also concerned that Mr. López Obrador might try to turn the legal setback to his advantage and rally his base around the idea that the judiciary is corrupt. During a Thursday morning speech in which he preempted the sentence, he entered the courtroom.
« It’s an invasion, an intrusion, » said Mr. McCarthy. López Obrador said.
He said he would come up with an initiative « in due course » to get members of the judiciary elected just like the president or senators. « It should be the people who elect them, » she said. « They shouldn’t represent an elite. »
Last month the court invalidated another part of the bill which, among other things, provided for changes to the rules on advertising in electoral campaigns.
In rejecting the remainder of the bill by a nine-to-two vote, the justices pointed to lawmakers’ violations of legislative process, stating that the changes had passed in just four hours and that members of Congress had not been given reasonable time to know what they were voting on.
« Overall, they are so serious that they violate the constitutional principles of Mexican democracy, » Judge Luis María Aguilar said during the court’s argument. « Failure to comply with the rules of legislative procedure is constitutional disloyalty. »
José Ramón Cossío, a lawyer who is a former member of the court, said Mr López Obrador and his allies had been carrying out the changes known as « Plan B » « in such an arrogant, violent and rude way that they lost ».
Experts described the court’s decision as a major setback for the López Obrador administration, which has made overhauling the electoral system a top priority.
The government had defended the changes as a necessary step to « reduce the bureaucratic costs » of the elections and to ensure that « fraud no longer occurs » in Mexico.
« The rule of law has never been threatened by the passage of reforms, » said the president’s legal adviser he wrote in a statement in March. « It is false that the fundamental rights of citizens are at risk ».
With Plan B rejected, next year’s elections will be governed by the same rules under which López Obrador and his Morena party came to power, Guerra said.
« That gives me peace of mind, » she said. « We see the burial of this reform enacted by and for the political power. »
But fears remain that the ruling could be used as a weapon against the justice system, which has already come under attack from the president for rejecting a number of initiatives by his administration, including one that would have transferred the newly formed National Guard from civilian to military control. . The court ruled that this was unconstitutional.
« This defeat was intentional to properly assume the role of victim and erect the perfect enemy, » said Juan Jesús Garza Onofre, an expert on constitutional law and ethics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. « Narratively, this defeat becomes more of a victory. »
The risk, analysts warn, is long-term damage to the judiciary. “Justice as we know it, with all its flaws, could suffer a setback,” said Garza Onofre.
The president, he added, would be prudent « to cool the heated spirits ».
« We know it won’t happen, » he said.