(CNN)Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has dismissed concerns about his plan to shrink the country's electoral watchdog on Monday, accusing protesters of links to drug traffickers.
Images of a mass protest in Mexico City on Sunday showed tens of thousands of people wearing pink -- the color of the National Electoral Institute (INE), which oversees elections and has been accused of partisanship by López Obrador.
Many protesters held signs that read: "Hands off the INE."
Speaking during his daily morning press conference on Monday, López Obrador mocked the placards, saying what they meant was, "hands off corruption."
"According to them, privileges are not touched, the narco-state is not touched," he added, claiming without evidence that protest leaders "have been part of the corruption in Mexico, they have belonged to the narco-state."
Mexican lawmakers last week approved a bill backed by the president to slash the budget of the agency, which could lead to an 85% reduction in its staff as well as the closure of several local offices. Lorenzo Córdova, who heads INE, said on Twitter that the move can "seriously affect future electoral processes."
Electoral officials warn the change will affect their ability to run free and fair elections ahead of the 2024 general election, when Lopez Obrador, who is limited to a six-year term, is expected to anoint a successor.
More broadly, moves to limit independent agencies like the INE have raised fears of the return of practices seen when Mexico was run by an autocratic single-party for decades prior to 2000.
López Obrador has argued that the plan to slash the agency's budget will save millions of dollars and make voting more efficient.
The president swept into power in 2018 promising to tackle inequality and poverty, and has constantly criticized INE's high-ranking officials' salaries and accused the institution of allowing fraud in previous elections.
But Will Freeman, a Latin America studies fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, warned that López Obrador's remarks on Monday were "inflammatory, reckless, and just as dangerous for democracy as the reform of the INE that brought over 100,000 Mexicans to the streets."
"We should be concerned in any country where you see an incumbent president shaking up the electoral administration, while there's really no force left standing in opposition to push back," Freeman said.