Mexico president backs extension of supreme court head's term, sparks backlash

Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speaks during a news conference at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico, April 13, 2021. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Friday backed a decision by the Senate to extend the Supreme Court chief justice's term for two more years, a surprise move criticized by the opposition as a power grab.

Critics saw Thursday's decision as a bid to bring the Supreme Court closer to Lopez Obrador and his leftist MORENA party, and a test of whether presidential terms also could be extended. Presidents can only serve a single six-year term.

The lower house must still approve the extension of the term of Supreme Court President Arturo Zaldivar until Nov. 30, 2024, which was voted in a package of judicial reforms.

Queried about the move, Lopez Obrador said that while he had sent the reform package to Congress, it was the Senate that undertook to extend Zaldivar's term. If that meant the reform would pass, then he supported it, he told a news conference.

Independent senator Emilio Alvarez said MORENA was succumbing to the same abuses of power of Mexico's previous ruling parties, the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the center-right National Action Party (PAN).

"It's a test to extend Lopez Obrador's term," he said. "It's unacceptable that MORENA repeats the worst practices of the PAN and PRI when they told us they were going to be different."

Alvarez called the move unconstitutional and said MORENA submitted the proposed changes at the last minute, which did not give lawmakers the required time to properly review them.

Lopez Obrador has repeatedly said he will not seek to extend his term in office, which ends in late 2024.

MORENA and its allies have majorities in both houses.

In May, the Supreme Court struck down a 2019 law that had extended the governor of Baja California's term.

Zaldivar, who was made president of the court by Lopez Obrador and been supportive of him, could not immediately be reached for comment.

A Supreme Court spokeswoman directed Reuters to a statement by the Federal Judiciary Board, whose president is Zaldivar. The CJF said it was not involved with the term extension proposal, which was added to several initiatives related to judicial law that were also voted upon on Thursday.

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito, Raul Fernandez Cortes and Ana Isabel Martinez; Editing by Alistair Bell)

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