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July 15, 2021

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MEXICO: Referendum on ex-presidents is more show than substance

BY Nicholas Watson

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( 3 mins)

On 1 August, there will be a public referendum to decide whether to investigate ex-presidents for corruption and other wrongdoing. Officially, voters will be asked whether they agree that there should be action to “clarify” decisions by “political actors” over recent years. There are five ex-presidents – all of them opponents of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) – ranging from Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) up to Enrique Pena Nieto (2012-2018). Below we examine the significance of the referendum.

AMLO has blown hot and cold on the referendum, which largely reflects how the initiative has changed since it was conceived. The Supreme Court (SCJN) watered down the referendum question so that it only refers to generic “political actors” rather than naming ex-presidents as was originally intended. AMLO also wanted the referendum held on 6 June in conjunction with the mid-term legislative elections and various state votes. This would have increased participation. For the referendum to be valid, turnout needs to be above 40%, or 37mn votes, – a very high bar that is highly unlikely to be reached (turnout was 52.6% in the recent elections). Most recently, and perhaps recognizing that the referendum will not meet this threshold, AMLO has said that he will not even vote on 1 August.

Even though the referendum is unlikely to pass, it is still significant for several reasons.

  • The referendum allows AMLO to maintain his anti-corruption rhetoric, even if it looks increasingly threadbare following the release last week of another video showing one of AMLO’s brothers receiving a cash-stuffed envelope and amid continuing noise about collusion between cartels and the governing National Regeneration Movement (Morena) in the recent elections.
  • For a populist like AMLO, governing means being in constant campaign mode. The 1 August vote allows AMLO to portray himself as an underdog when he is in fact a powerful incumbent; sustain political confrontation with his opposition predecessors; distract from meager results; and mobilize his base. This is not just a macro-strategy. AMLO is clearly preparing for the presidential recall referendum that should take place in March 2022.
  • AMLO’s recourse to a referendum is a reminder of his demagoguery. Unofficial referendums (with minimal participation) have previously been used as cover to cancel the Texcoco airport and Constellation Brands’ Mexicali brewery. In this instance, pursuing former government officials of whatever rank should not depend on a public vote but on a politically independent, efficient judiciary.
  • Low turnout and/or a disappointing outcome would likely trigger another AMLO offensive against the National Electoral Institute (INE), which organizes federal elections and audits parties’ finances, and which AMLO wants to subdue. If the referendum fails to reach its turnout requirement, AMLO can blame the INE (and opposition parties) for failing to pursue past corruption.

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