The Hybrid Mexican Regime: Between Democracy and Authoritarianism

Hybrid Mexican Regime
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, president of the National Council of Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional (National Regeneration Movement), at the end of the “March-rally in defense of oil” in the Columbus Monument in Mexico City. Photo by ProtoplasmaKid via Wikimedia.

by Sebastian Godinez Rivera

The Balance of an Imperfect Democracy

Mexico is one of many countries to achieve democracy at the end of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, the phantoms of populism and authoritarianism are back in a significant number of Latin American countries. The wave of outsider figures started in 2018, when leaders with a large following and widespread support from society won the presidencies in a lot of countries.

In Mexico, President López Obrador was a candidate as early as 2006 when he lost against Felipe Calderon (PAN) and in 2012 with Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI). But in the 2018 elections Mexico experienced something it hadn’t seen before. Lopez Obrador and his party Morena won the presidency, a qualified majority in the Chamber of Deputies, and a simple majority in the Senate. The phenomenon of a unified government in the 21st Century was new for anyone born in Mexico’s democracy.

The new president promised to remove corruption, democratize the system and fight poverty. Now four years later Mexico is moving away from democracy. The Mexican president has concentrated a lot of power. This is a phenomenon that political scientists call  hyperpresidentialism. It means that the figure of the president has become the center of the system with a lot of power. The legislature is only an office that complies with the agenda of the government. They do not raise questions. They only approve initiatives. Ultimately, governors, legislators and cabinet officers don’t make decisions that can disturb the president.

These characteristics are well described by Jorge Carpizo in his book Mexican PresidentialismGuillermo O’Donnell in Modernization and Bureaucratic-Authoritarianism or Andreas Schedler in The Politics of Uncertainty. Political Scientists have analyzed populism and hyperpresidentialism in Mexico. Those characteristics formed the political system in the 20th century, when the Institutional Revolutionary Party governed seventy one years. But now the government of Morena added a new factor that erodes democracy and turns Mexico into a hybrid regime. This is polarization. President López Obrador divides society into two poles: the innocent people and the corrupted. The president regularly offends sectors that think differently from the middle class to universities and scientific communities to the Catholic Church and even women.

Polarization: Tip of the Hybrid Regime

In April 2022 López Obrador sent to the Chamber of Deputies an initiative that proposed choosing electoral counselors and magistrates through direct vote. In December 2022 the constitutional initiative was rejected because the president’s party did not have the qualified majority to approve it. But three hours later they approved a similar electoral reform with a simple majority. This maneuver bothered society and they organized a march to defend the INE.

On November 13th, in the heart of the Mexican Republic and in eighty-eight cities citizens marched to defend democracy, their political institutions, and clean elections. The next day in the press conference that Lopez Obrador makes daily, he disqualified the people that participated and called them “conservatives, corrupts and pointed them out as defenders of the ancient regime, neoliberalism and corruption.”

The partisans of the ruling party repeated the discourse against the opposition and at times even marked them as corrupt. The division in Mexico is very strong, because the dominant discourse is not debated with arguments. This phenomenon is so dangerous, because the president offends everyday citizens and stigmatizes one part of the society that doesn’t support him or simply believes the country is not going in the right direction.

The same thing happened on February 26th when citizens organized a new march to protest against the electoral reform. President López Obrador disqualified the event when he said “the people who protest are because they doesn’t want to transform Mexico and hate the democracy and they are not democrats.”

Through those examples, we can see that the Mexican regime has adopted authoritarian characteristics that erode democracy, separation of powers, and political pluralism. Also the people who support the government adopt radical positions under the argument that the opposition wants to overthrow Lopez Obrador’s administration.

Militarization Instead of Civil Policies

Finally, the second element is the militarization of the country. But it is important not to confound it with militarism that makes reference to a doctrine implying spending heavily in weapons and armament. When we talk about militarization in Mexico, it refers to the action and the role of the militaries in government activities that historically were from the civilian administration.

Roderic Ai Camp in the book Armed Forces in the Democratic Mexico and Soledad Loaeza in The Shadow of Superpower identify how in Mexican History that the participation of militaries in civil life dates back to 1940. The different presidents, no matter the party, used soldiers to keep the order against the social movements and face organized crime, because the police did not have the resources to fight them. But in the current administration, militarization reaches a high level in diverse activities such as education, health, construction and security.

The best known cases are how the president awarded the National Defense Secretary megaprojects like Maya Train, the transistmic, the International Airport of Santa Lucía and Dos Bocas Refinery. The soldiers are doing jobs when there are a lot of other enterprises that can do those, in addition all the contracts were given by direct assignment. Moreover, the soldiers even managed the delivery of books for schools and during the pandemic of Covid-19 they were in charge of the distribution of vaccinations.

Last but not least, the growing presence of soldiers in security jobs is the principal reason to think of Mexico as a hybrid regime. In March 2023 by agreement of all the political forces in the legislature, the National Guard had just one condition. It must be commanded by a civil person. President López Obrador named Luis Rodríguez Bucio as commander. He is retired military, so it broke the agreement. The growing power of the military signifies that the president prefers to lean on the armed forces rather than dialogue and consensus.

Mexico: So Far from God and so Close to Authoritarianism

In conclusion, Mexico oscillates between authoritarianism and an imperfect democracy. The high level of polarization and the constant attacks on the opposition erode democracy as well as the dialogue necessary to practice meaningful politics. Of course, it is impossible to ignore the populist wave that has traversed the world, because a lot of countries in East Europe, Latin America, Asia and some consolidated democracies like the United States and France have also experienced populism and its consequences.

Mexico is yet another case where a populist looked attractive to the people and turned his rhetoric against past leaders and his political enemies. But we must challenge this form of leadership through strengthening institutions, democracy and pluralism, because authoritarianism is always more expensive than freedom.

About the Author

Sebastian Godinez Rivera is a Mexican political scientist graduate from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) . He has worked as an investigation assistant in the National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT) and has taught different subjects at UNAM like Legislative Power, Globalization, Introduction to Research in Social Sciences and History I and History II. Currently, he is a columnist in the magazine Latinoamérica21 and an analyst for think tanks.

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