In Other News: Mexican Midterm Elections, New Zealand-Australia Joint Declaration & More – June 4, 2021

June 4, 2021

As Mexicans go to the polls on June 6, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is counting on his high approval rating to hold on to a supermajority in Congress. López Obrador is not on the ballot, but the outcome of these high-stakes midterm races will have a huge impact on the direction Mexico takes in the second half of his six-year term. His National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) political party is expected to capture many of the 15 governorships as well as a large swath of the seats in Congress and state legislatures. The opposition coalition is comprised of Mexico’s three traditional political parties, the PRI, PAN, and PRD, which will compete in these races as Forward for Mexico (Va por México). The PRI once held near total control of Mexican politics and still holds on to many governorships. Polling data indicates that López Obrador’s MORENA and allied parities are likely to do well, but it is unclear if they will hold on to the supermajority in Congress which López Obrador needs to push through his “Fourth Transformation” agenda. This agenda includes constitutional changes for economic reforms that would undo many of the market-friendly reforms made during previous administrations. In addition to his desire for more state control over the economy, López Obrador is also looking to consolidate power in the presidency and redistribute wealth to the poor. His populist style and confrontations with the private sector have made him a champion of the working class and helped garner him a high 63% approval rating in Mexico. But critics say he panders to the poor in an obvious power grab, while weakening the checks and balances on the presidency and undermining Mexico’s democratic institutions. Opposition candidates and the business community also criticize López Obrador for his handling of the economy, the pandemic, and violent crime. Indeed, Mexico’s economy shrank 8.5% in 2020, the country has lost approximately 228,000 lives to Covid-19, and this midterm election cycle is considered the deadliest on record with about 80 politicians killed since September. In most cases, the political violence has been perpetrated by organized crime groups and drug cartels that seek to maintain their influence with incumbents by threatening and/or killing opposition candidates. Polling data by the newspaper El Financiero found that 44% of Mexicans see insecurity as their top concern. These pressing domestic concerns for Mexico coming out of the pandemic make the midterm elections especially significant – and a clear referendum on López Obrador’s administration and the direction in which he wants to take Mexico.

In a show of unity, New Zealand and Australia make a joint declaration noting concerns about human rights abuses in China and affirm their support for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19. On Monday, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hosted Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a face-to-face meeting resulting in a joint declaration that included concerns about Chinese actions in the South China Sea, Hong Kong, and the Uighur region of Xinjiang. The declaration comes amidst an ongoing trade war between Australia and China that ignited last spring when Australia called for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 and China retaliated by imposing trade barriers on a variety of Australian products. Relations became further heated last November when China shared a list of 14 grievances criticizing Australia’s prior decision to ban Huawei from rolling out the 5G network and its outspoken protest of purported Chinese human rights abuses. The conflict, which has seemingly become personal, serves as an evolving case study into what can happen when a smaller nation articulates its view against Chinese policies and China responds by weaponizing its economic influence. Last May, the Chinese levied an 80.5% tariff against Australian barley, claiming that farmers were dumping the grain in China, but widely believed to be a retaliatory measure for Australia’s support of the Covid inquiry. Australians filed a dispute at the World Trade Organization (WTO), which is still ongoing. New Zealand, whose economy is also quite dependent on exports to China, has been less overt in its stance against Beijing, likely witnessing the Australia fallout and attempting to diversify its own customer base as a defensive measure. But New Zealand has reportedly been under pressure to take a stronger stance against China’s human rights abuses, and its recent solidarity statement with Australia sends a message about its position. Already the global market has shifted as Australia and China developed new trading partners over the past year, but it remains to be seen if New Zealand, who has cultivated its own, quieter diplomatic approach with Beijing, will now suffer a similar fate as its neighbor.

WhatsApp and Twitter remain in dispute with the Indian government over implementing new national regulations on encryption and content. The intersection of tech and nation continues to challenge policymakers as the dispute continues. In February, the Modi administration issued a new set of social media regulations, set to take effect in late May, requiring that media and streaming companies appoint compliance officers and respond to takedown requests of unlawful content within 24 hours, among other requirements. The most controversial new rule touches upon an issue that has been debated by law enforcement and tech companies since the advent of popular encrypted apps: traceability. India’s latest regulations require social communications platforms to trace the “first originator” of messages if requested by authorities, defying the end-to-end encryption that users depend on for safety when communicating in regimes unfriendly to political dissent. The tech companies generally make two arguments about traceability: it violates privacy rights, and it also gives their platform a “backdoor” that anyone – not only law enforcement – can use to enter. The government, on the other hand, argues that it needs to be able to identify criminal actors or the initiator of disinformation as a matter of national security. Last week, as the new regulations were taking effect, WhatsApp filed a lawsuit in Delhi High Court alleging that the rules violate Indian users’ privacy rights and could additionally be used for mass surveillance and censorship. WhatsApp is not alone in its concerns about censorship in India. Twitter has had multiple spats with the Modi administration regarding who gets to control the narrative by removing or categorizing certain postings. India is a massive social media market for Twitter and Facebook, and WhatsApp counts its 400 million plus Indian users as its largest group. The traceability ruling is going to be significant not only for social media companies and their Indian clientele, but also to other governments as they shape their own future policy on secure messaging apps and expressive platforms.