Thousands gathered in cities throughout Mexico on Sunday to protest against President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's drive to shrink the independent electoral authority, arguing the changes threaten democracy — an accusation he vigorously denies.
Mexico's Congress last week approved a major overhaul of the National Electoral Institute (INE), which Lopez Obrador has repeatedly attacked as corrupt and inefficient.
Critics of the legislation, which will slash the INE's budget and staff, are holding marches in Mexico City and other major cities as the contentious shake-up appears poised to go before the Mexican Supreme Court.
Veronica Echevarria, a 58-year-old psychologist from Mexico City taking part in the protest, said she was worried Lopez Obrador's overhaul of the INE was an attempt by him to take control of the electoral authority so he could stay in power.
"We're fighting to defend our democracy," she said, wearing a cap emblazoned with the words "Hands off the INE."
She and thousands of others converged towards the Zocalo via the city's Paseo de la Reforma Boulevard on Sunday morning, many of them dressed in pink, the colors of the INE.
Video footage on social media showed people approaching the square holding banners saying 'hands off my vote'.
The INE and its predecessor played a key role in creating a pluralistic democracy that in 2000 ended decades of one party rule, according to many political analysts.
Fernando Belaunzaran, an opposition politician who helped to organize the protests, said the changes weakened the electoral system and increased the risk of disputes clouding the 2024 elections when Lopez Obrador's successor will be chosen.
"Normally presidents try to have governability and stability for their succession, but the president is creating uncertainty," said Belaunzaran. "He's playing with fire."
Belaunzaran said in a tweet on Sunday there would be marches in more than 100 cities.
Mexican presidents may only serve a single six-year term.
Lopez Obrador, a 69-year-old leftist who contends he was robbed of the presidency twice before he finally romped to a crushing victory in the 2018 election, argues the INE is too expensive and biased in favor of his opponents.
The institute denies this.
According to the INE, the president's overhaul violates the constitution, curbs the institute's independence and eliminates thousands of jobs dedicated to safeguarding the electoral process, making it harder to hold free and fair elections.
Lopez Obrador has also weakened other autonomous bodies that check his power on the grounds that they are a drain on the public purse and hostile to his political project. He says his INE shake-up will save $150 million a year.
Last week he called the INE "anti-democratic" and a tool of the ruling elite, accusing it of fomenting electoral fraud.
Polls show the president's National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), which in just a few years has become the dominant force in Mexico, is a strong favorite to win the 2024 election.
Critics of the INE overhaul argue Lopez Obrador is not confident MORENA can retain power without interference in the electoral process. He denies this.
Belaunzaran and his fellow demonstrators aim to fill Mexico City's main square, which abuts the presidential palace, and holds political significance.
Over the years the Zocalo has hosted many rallies fronted by Lopez Obrador, both as president and during his long career as an opposition scourge of the Mexican establishment.
Demonstrators hope Sunday's protest will muster even more support than the tens of thousands who turned out in November to denounce Lopez Obrador's earlier, unsuccessful bid to push through constitutional changes to reform the INE.