Editor’s Note: A Spanish version of this piece is available here. This piece is part of Just Security‘s Assessing Emergency Powers During #COVID-19 series, which aims to highlight and give voice to legal and civil society voices from across the globe, assessing the specific legal consequences of declared and de facto emergencies. Previous contributions have covered ItalyHungaryBrazilPoland,  the United Kingdom, Nigeria, and Colombia.

Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), an organization that tracks democratic developments, carried out an analysis of which countries were in danger of democratic decline in the face of COVID-19. Their conclusions, found in Pandemic Backsliding: Does Covid-19 Put Democracy at Risk?, were based on the following variables concerning the government’s actions:

  • Governing by executive decrees with no clear end dates.
  • Granting special executive powers that cannot be revoked by the legislature or the courts.
  • Authorizing special security measures such as suspension of rights or imposition of curfews.
  • Suspending the legislature indefinitely.
  • Suspending the judiciary indefinitely.
  • Using emergency measures to limit the freedom of expression.
  • Employing discriminatory criteria in social distancing measures.
  • Including unnecessary restrictions in electoral campaigns or in the exercise of the right to vote when it is necessary to suspend elections.

V-Dem concluded that, of the 129 countries analyzed using these criteria, 48 are at high risk of democratic decline, 34 are at medium risk, and 47 have no risk of pandemic backsliding. As the map below shows, V-Dem places Mexico in the “no risk” group.

Source: V-Dem (2020). Pandemic Backsliding: Does Covid-19 Put Democracy at Risk?

While the measures considered by the Mexican government may not be placing the democratic regime itself at risk, inside the country there is a vigorous political debate about various COVID-related steps that are being read as constructively authoritarian. To understand what is happening in Mexico, it is important to consider three contextual factors: the ever-increasing levels of political conflict, the spiral of violence, and the form in which Mexican politicians carry out politics. In light of the conceptual framework proposed by V-Dem, and these three contextual factors unique to Mexico, this piece will review the COVID-related decisions taken by the Mexican Government.

1. The Context of Political Conflict and Irresponsible Opposition in Mexico

In a democratic regime, there are three types of opposition: disloyal, responsible, and irresponsible. We are interested in the latter. Irresponsible opposition seeks political power as its sole objective. Its politics consist of a constant critique of the government without showing any interest in building or solving anything, instead preferring to hinder, slam, and confront rather than negotiating in any way. In this frame, whatever issue, whatever dispute that arises is an opportunity to increase political conflict. This does not emanate from any ideological dispute; it only serves a political purpose. Despite this opposition being irresponsible, it continues to be democratic, seeking to gain power by electoral means, but playing at the margins of what we would expect as principled engagement in the public sphere.

The 2006 elections marked the beginning of the irresponsible opposition in Mexico, by way of the following set of events: 1) the campaign against the country’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), which accused him of being a danger for Mexico; 2) his electoral defeat by Felipe Calderón; and 3) AMLO’s claim of electoral fraud committed in that year’s election. After that, the political group headed by AMLO developed into the irresponsible opposition in relation to the presidential administrations of Calderón (2006-2012), and Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018).

In 2018, when AMLO finally won the presidential election, the form of politics did not change, only the roles reversed. Those who previously were in the government, now converted into the opposition. In the face of COVID-19, as in other scenarios, they have acted like the irresponsible opposition. On the other hand, those who previously had been the irresponsible opposition today are learning what it is like to be a government confronted by an opposition whose only role is to criticize and hinder. The bad news: It does not appear that any of Mexico’s political actors has yet learned the moral of this story.

2. The Context of Militarization and the Spiral of Violence in Mexico

The 2006 elections brought something in addition to an irresponsible opposition and the increase of superficial political conflict. In December 2006, after being recently elected, Calderón declared a war on narco-trafficking and began to carry out military operations across the country. The consequences of the past 14 years of war have included more than 300,000 persons killed, hundreds of thousands disappeared, and the generalized practice of torture. In spite of this suffering, broad regions of Mexico continue to be governed by networks of macro-criminality.

The militarization of the country was a fact before 2006; what we have seen with the war against narco-trafficking is merely an increase in this process. For example, in 2011 – one of the deadliest years in the history of Mexico—there were 52,690 soldiers deployed throughout the territory. In 2018, the last year of the government of Enrique Peña Nieto, there were 54,690 such operatives. By 2019, the first year of AMLO’s presidency, there were almost 63,000 military troops deployed across the country, as well as an additional 30,000 troops who left the Army or the Navy to join the National Guard, a newly created militarized police force.

Military forces in Mexico not only carry out public security, but they are constantly engaging in a larger and more diverse set of activities. For the past several decades, for example, the government’s response to natural disasters has been in the hands of the Army. Added to this has been the military’s responsibility for the construction of public projects, like housing, roads and even airports. And, under the administration of AMLO, characterized by its emphasis on social policy, the military has also been charged as the custodian of resources destined for social programs.

3. The Politics of Mexican Politicians

Democracy “a la mexicana” is characterized by five processes: clientelism, denial, simulation, corruption, and impunity. Mexico’s political class governs through these processes. The principal objective of democracy “a la mexicana” is to nullify the mechanisms of accountability, essentially nullifying the rule of law.

One way in which the rule of law is nullified is through denial and simulation. For example, the government denies that the torture and disappearance of persons are generalized practices in Mexico. In response, the government simulates the existence of autonomous investigation and justice bodies through the appointment of unconditional supporters to these institutions. In role and in constitutional design,  they are de jure autonomous bodies but, de facto, they are totally subordinate [which ensures that the generalized pattern of violations is never proven.]

In the first year of AMLO’s government, there have already been various appointments of unconditional supporters to bodies that are supposed to be autonomous, which instead ensured that actual autonomy would disappear. This was the case with the national Ombudsperson, with members of the Supreme Court, and with the current attorney general. These actions were not in response to COVID-19 –the appointments were in 2019 – they were just the way that democracy “a la Mexicana” functions on a daily basis.

I should reiterate that all, all politicians in Mexico use these mechanisms (clientelism, denial, simulation, corruption and impunity). Because of this, modifying the patterns of democracy in Mexico becomes a much more complicated task. It presupposes a change of the political class in its totality.

4. The Mexican Response to COVID-19

All of these contextual elements demonstrate the difficulty of affirming or denying whether the responses to COVID suggest authoritarian tendencies that could put the Mexican democracy at risk. There are authoritarian tendencies, but they were already there, part of the democracy “a la mexicana,” the war against narco-trafficking, and the political dynamic in the country.

Instead, the government’s response to COVID-19, in and of itself, does not include any elements that would put democracy at risk, as was observed by V-Dem in its analysis:

  • The federal government has not decreed a state of emergency nor granted itself special powers.
  • Neither Congress nor the courts have been suspended.
  • Rights have not been suspended by decree. On the contrary, all the measures related to confinement are voluntary, so there have been no direct violations of equal rights or non-discrimination.
  • The decision to make these measures voluntary is because 95 out of 130 million Mexicans find themselves in conditions of poverty or social vulnerability, living from day to day. Worse still, 55% of the population depends economically on informal work or is self-employed. It would be impossible to ask them not to go out to work.
  • Media concessions have not been cancelled, nor have businesses been prevented from closing their operations. Neither has there been any report of political persecution during the COVID period.

In spite of this measured response to the virus, the political context in Mexico has not changed: the heightened level of political conflict has thus generated the sensation that AMLO’s government is advancing some sort of authoritarian plan. The spiral of violence is worse than ever (monthly records of killings continue unabated) in a country that was already militarized. And, the bodies designed to address problems remain de jure autonomous, while many are directed by persons unconditionally loyal to the president.

The political discourse in Mexico during COVID-19 is framed in binary terms: health versus the economy, and information versus panic. The opposition seeks to demonstrate that the government is incompetent and reckless. The accusations are daily: they are not taking the pandemic seriously, the government is more interested in the economy than in lives, the program to address the crisis is insufficient, and they are hiding the figures and the deaths. These story lines appear every day in every media outlet.

The government responds with four press conferences a day: 7:00 a.m., on presidential decisions; 6:00 p.m., on the granting of credits, which have been the principal response to the crisis; 7:00 p.m., on decisions regarding health; and 8:00 p.m., on the development of social programs.

This level of conflict is not new in Mexico, nor is it related to COVID-19. It was created at the end of 2006. The difference now is that these interactions between the government and the irresponsible opposition represent something more than a political dispute on a political stage. During the pandemic, this dynamic involves lives, hunger, and the suffering of the country’s people.

Image: Members of the National Guard monitor the General Hoptital of ISSSTEl on June 9, 2020 in Queretaro, Mexico. All 31 states and the capital stay under “red level” of alert. Photo by Cesar Gomez/Jam Media/Getty Images