Weekly Report - 18 November 2021 (WR-21-46)

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MEXICO: Zaldívar extension ruled unconstitutional

Mexico’s supreme court (SCJN) has ruled that a government-backed proposal to extend the term of its chief justice Arturo Zaldívar by two years is unconstitutional.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was a key proponent of the initial proposal to extend the four-year term of Zaldívar by two years, until late 2024. The extension would have meant that Zaldívar would preside over the court for the remainder of López Obrador’s six-year term in office, with both men stepping down on 1 December 2024.

President López Obrador justified the proposal on the grounds that it would allow Zaldívar to steer through the government’s planned reform of the judiciary. The president suggested that as a man of “integrity and honour”, Zaldívar was the best, and possibly the only, person able to reform the courts and stamp out corruption. The term extension was included in a bill reforming the judiciary, approved in congress, where the ruling Movimiento Renovación Nacional (Morena) has a majority, in April.

However, noting that both men are close friends, opposition parties were suspicious of the idea, arguing it was likely to erode the necessary independence of the SCJN. Mistrustful of President López Obrador’s intentions, some opposition leaders also worried that extending the term of the chief justice might set a precedent for the president to seek to lengthen his own presidential term (something which he has consistently denied, saying he intends to retire from politics in 2024).

Zaldívar himself said in August that he did not want to extend his term and would be stepping down on 31 December 2022 as originally envisaged. This was followed by a ruling of the 11-strong SCJN on 16 November that the extension was in any case unconstitutional. President López Obrador remains critical of the SCJN: in August he said Zaldívar’s term extension was likely to be opposed because a majority of SCJN members were appointed by “the old regime”.

Separately the government said it has submitted a short list of three candidates to replace Justice José Fernando Franco, whose SCJN term comes to an end in December. The three are Bernardo Bátiz (who was CDMX attorney general when López Obrador was governor), Eva Verónica de Gyvés (a legal expert who is close to the government), and Loretta Ortiz (a political ally of the president).  All three currently sit on the federal judiciary council (CJF), presided over by Zaldívar. The senate must select one of the three to be appointed. 

Tensions with INE

The national electoral institute (INE), an autonomous electoral regulator that has been severely criticised by the president, said on 17 November that it would manage next year’s proposed presidential recall referendum, despite deep budget cuts imposed by the federal government in its 2022 federal budget.

INE had requested 2022 funding of M$24.6bn (US$1.2bn) but the latest version of the draft budget cuts that back by M$4.9bn. The cost of the recall referendum is estimated at M$3.8bn. INE president Lorenzo Córdoba said that the budget cuts made managing the referendum more difficult. He added that the institute planned to seek clarification from the SCJN as to whether it could reduce the number of polling stations in the referendum vote.

Plans for a mid-term presidential recall referendum were approved by congress and supported by President López Obrador as an exercise in direct democracy. Under the terms of the law, to trigger the referendum it is necessary to collect signatures representing 3% of the electoral register from at least 17 of Mexico’s 32 states (around 2.5m signatures in total). If this threshold is achieved, the referendum will be held on 27 March 2022.

However, the Va Por México opposition coalition (comprising the Partido Acción Nacional [PAN], Partido Revolucionario Institucional [PRI] and Partido de la Revolución Democrática [PRD]), has filed a case before the SCJN requesting that the recall referendum be declared unconstitutional on the grounds that it is designed purely to promote the president (López Obrador’s approval ratings remain above 60% and he is widely expected to win the referendum).

Tension between López Obrador and INE has been building for some time, due in part to INE’s disqualification of some Morena candidates in last June’s mid-term elections.

The president also blames INE for the low turn-out in a “consultation” on 1 August when voters were asked whether they endorsed investigating former presidents on corruption charges. Although over 90% of those who voted agreed, turnout was only some 7% of the electoral register.

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