President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is asking Mexicans to decide whether his five predecessors should be investigated for alleged wrongdoing, part of an effort to retain his anti-graft credentials and rally his support base, even though the vote’s results are likely to be toothless.
Supporters of that idea have placed posters around the country depicting fake mug shots of the five former presidents, but Sunday’s national referendum is set up for a feeble outcome. The ballot asks voters a murky question — whether they want “a process of clarifying the political decisions of years past by political actors” — and not enough of the electorate is expected to turn out for the outcome to count.
And even if enough Mexicans, some 37 million at least, show up and vote, it will not on its own lead to criminal charges against the ex-presidents. Polling stations open at 8 am in Mexico and close at 6 pm It may take some 48 hours to count all the ballots.
“The result does not require any judicial body to process, bring charges against, or incarcerate any ex-politician automatically,” said Jacobo Dayan, a professor of international criminal law at the Universidad Iberoamericana.
“There’s not a real effort to hold people accountable, but it’s important for the president to keep up his narrative about good versus evil.”
AMLO, as the president is known, champions referendums as tools of what he calls “participatory democracy.” This will be the first national vote since a 2019 reform explicitly gave citizens the right to be consulted on issues of national importance, including revoking the mandate of the president. Next year AMLO intends to test the referendum method by asking Mexicans to vote on whether he should stay in power.
The Supreme Court rejected arguments that Sunday’s vote would violate due process and the presumption of innocence, but past referendums in Mexico have been controversial.
The biggest vote, to cancel a partially-completed airport project near Mexico City in 2018, was organised by Lopez Obrador’s own party before his inauguration and had only 1.07 million participants out of 90 million eligible voters. Other local votes on whether to build a train through southern Mexico and to finish a half-constructed power plant were marred by accusations of impropriety.
By law, 40% of the electorate would have to vote on Sunday for the decision to be binding for the executive and legislative branches, but a phone poll published showed that even though 77% of Mexicans surveyed would vote in favour on Sunday, only 31% were “very” interested in participating.
When asked about the possibility of lackluster turnout, AMLO said at a press conference on July 27 that a public vote is important anyway because “people want democracy, participatory democracy, not just representation, not just going to vote every three years.”
National referendums have been used for other major decisions in Latin America.