MEXICO CITY — Two weeks after tens of thousands of Mexicans protested against proposed electoral changes they say would undermine democracy, Mexico’s president on Sunday marched through the capital accompanied by massive crowds in a display of popular support for his mandate.
In an early taste of the 2024 presidential election, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s supporters, some traveling hundreds of miles by bus to the capital, came with Mexican flags, marching bands and even president-shaped stuffed toys as they filled the heart of the capital, chanting, “It’s an honor to be with Obrador.”
Mexico’s political opposition and some members of civil society spoke out against the march, calling it a show of force by a leader they cast as a budding authoritarian who uses state resources — including welfare programs — to maintain his popularity.
The president has denied those accusations, but the sway Mr. López Obrador maintains over many Mexicans was on full display Sunday.
Some said they were there to show support for a president who had benefited them economically through welfare programs, although they were less aware of Mr. López Obrador’s more specific policy goals — including the contentious electoral changes he hopes to get ratified.
The overhaul would give the president more control over Mexico’s electoral systems, but while Mexico’s Congress began discussing the proposal earlier this month, Mr. López Obrador does not have enough votes for it to be adopted.
Opposition members worry that the president will try to push the changes through by other means before the end of the year. Mr. López Obrador has used presidential decrees to adopt some of his more contentious policies recently.
Sunday’s march was a bid by the president to show popular support for his overall mandate as well as for his bid to overhaul the electoral system and increase his power over the body that oversees voting, the National Electoral Institute.
It came two weeks after a march to insulate the institute from the changes drew tens of thousands of supporters. That protest was the biggest opposition march of this presidency.
When Mr. López Obrador addressed the crowd Sunday afternoon, his speech focused heavily on the welfare programs his government has introduced while mostly skirting the rising violence and worsening security situation that has afflicted the country since he took office in 2018. Some four years into his term. the president maintains an approval rating that hovers around 60 percent, making him one of the world’s more popular leaders.
“Love is paid back with love,” he said when he took to the stage.
Mr. López Obrador cited the austerity spending program his government has pursued, which had led to some government workers having to bring in their own toilet paper and drinking water to some state agencies, according to employees. “In our government,” he said, “there is neither luxuries nor waste.”
That has freed up more money to direct into the welfare system, although some independent economists say the programs are not as efficiently run as during previous administrations and hand out assistance regardless of need.
On Sunday, the president’s supporters filled out the 2.5 mile stretch from the Angel of Independence monument to the Zócalo, the seat of government power where Mr. Lopez Obrador addressed throngs of supporters at the end of the day.
Alfredo Ramirez Martínez, 56, a farmer who traveled roughly 300 miles by bus to Mexico City from Oaxaca state, said he had come out to support a president who “helps the people most in need.”
But he said he was disappointed with the worsening security situation in his hometown. “That will always exist,” he said.
Critics of Mr. López Obrador said that he and his government put pressure on Mexico’s powerful labor unions to attend Sunday’s march and accused municipalities governed by the ruling party of pressuring citizens to attend, paying for the buses to transport them to the capital.
“What the march shows is the fear of the president and his administration: that is, to lose power in the 2024 election,” said Claudio X. González Laporte, a member of the political opposition who helped organize the protests earlier this month. “I believe that we are faced with an authoritarian man who seeks to preserve power at all costs, is willing to bypass the Constitution and laws to achieve this.”
Although Mr. González agreed that the president maintained high approval ratings, he pointed to the loss of seats in Congress the ruling party suffered during the elections last year.
The president maintained that Sunday’s turnout was genuine.
Hundreds of members of Mexico’s huge electricity and construction unions waved both the flags of their unions and the ruling party. Buses bearing signs of their origin were parked throughout the capital, protesters dismounting from the vehicles as mariachi bands serenaded the crowds headed toward the Zócalo.
The opposing marches of recent weeks underscored a fractured Mexico, where Mr. López Obrador over the last decade has established a political party that has mostly outmanneuvered its opposition. But the ruling party faces major obstacles ahead of the 2024 presidential elections, including a weakening economy.
Mr. López Obrador is barred by the Constitution from running for a second term, but is thought to be positioning a loyalist from his party as a presidential candidate so that he can maintain influence once he steps down.
Magdalena Molina García, 62, a homemaker from Mexico City, said she attended Sunday’s march to voice support for a president who had increased her and her family’s access to social programs, including a flagship one aimed at younger Mexicans.
But Ms. Molina said she did not support the president’s “hugs not bullets” security strategy. Mr. López Obrador used the phrase to describe a tactic of spending more to wean youths away from country’s powerful drug cartels and toward a more meaningful life.
“I would never hug a criminal,” she said. But, she said, “I am 100 percent an Obradorista.”