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Lessons from Mexico’s Recall Vote

The first recall vote in Mexico’s history took place April 10th, 2022. Turnout, the most important parameter to evaluate it, was 17.8%, well below the threshold of 40% that was necessary to make the revocation of mandate legally binding. Of those voting, 91.9% were in favor of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) remaining as president – some 15.16 million votes.

This exercise in direct democracy is a net negative for Mexico and its young democracy.

Direct democracy lost

Mexico amended its Constitution to include direct democracy through popular referenda recently. AMLO and his allies had been some of the main promoters of this type of voting as a means to broaden the arsenal for democratic participation. Unfortunately, this recall vote perverted the use of referenda as a novel form of democratic participation for several reasons: one, the recall vote was prompted by the president and his party, not by citizens as it should have been, as means to consolidate and concentrate his power and renew his mandate. Two, in spite of legal prohibitions for government and government officials to promote the recall and spend public resources doing it, they did so openly and shamelessly. Three, the Morena majority in Congress manipulated the drafting so that the ballot showed two options (recall or ratification) as opposed to one (recall).

López Obrador won, at a high cost

There is no question that this Sunday’s ballot was positive for AMLO. Morena showed its capacity to mobilize a significant number of voters but only for a symbolic vote with no legal consequences and for which the outcome was never in doubt. A 17.8%, turn out is higher than the minimum of 15% he needed to show political muscle. In absolute terms, even though he only got half of the ballots that made him president in 2018, 15.16 million is more than total votes for PAN presidential candidates Ricardo Anaya in 2018 and Josefina Vázquez Mota in 2012.

But this higher than anticipated turnout comes at a cost: President López Obrador showed little regard for the rule of law and for democratic institutions – a willingness to accept the use of financial resources to support him in an election no matter their legitimacy. There is only one possible conclusion: the President and his allies are no democrats, not very different from former PRI presidents that manipulated vote counting and tilted the electoral process to guarantee wining. In this case, it was particularly unnecessary as the result was never in doubt.

The April 10th vote also presented a small loss of sorts for AMLO, as he hoped for the recall to occur alongside the 2021 midterm election. Having his name on the 2021 ballot could have drawn greater support for Morena in the midterms. However, minority senators denied AMLO the necessary qualified majority to overlap the recall with the midterms, instead pushing the exercise in direct democracy to April 2022.

INE showed its efficacy, but its future is now in question

The Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE) proved its reliability in organizing citizen-run electoral processes once more. Election day, in terms of polling booths and vote counting, was impeccable as in previous occasions. Voting took place in most places without major controversies or difficulties. The official count that begins Wednesday will change results only in those few voting places where the number of ballots was not proportional to registered voters and average turnout. Unfortunately, during the recall campaign and in interpreting the results, President López Obrador has used his significant moral authority to criticize INE and to convey th4e message that it cannot be trusted as an impartial arbiter and election organizer. AMLO used the recall to set the stage for the upcoming discussion of a constitutional electoral reform that might upend a working and fair system run by citizens, to be replaced by a model subject to manipulation as was done before. The stakes for Mexico’s democracy cannot be higher.

Opposition parties think they won ignoring the recall, but didn’t

Most opposition parties and activists chose ignoring the recall and abstention as the best way to participate. Judging by the small number of votes in favor of a recall, 6.4%, it is clear that the abstention campaign was successful, but only partially as it did not discourage AMLO’s solid base to participate even if the outcome was preordained. The main argument to lay low aimed to divert attention from the recall and reduce overall turnout –not only of those wishing AMLO to leave. The result was a lopsided victory (91.9%) with a thin (17.8%) participation, but not low enough to conclude Morena lacks capacity to mobilize voters.

The problem for opposition parties is that popular populists can only be defeated with very high turnouts. As in previous elections, particularly in 2018, participation was much lower in relatively successful states with larger middle classes. The map and the graph below show much more intense turnout in Mexico’s south, particularly in Tabasco, Chiapas, Campeche and Veracruz, but much lower in Baja California, Chihuahua, Durango, Nuevo León, Querétaro, Guanajuato, Aguascalientes and Jalisco. The graph also compares the recall turnout to that of the consultation on prosecution of former presidents in 2021.

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A similar pattern can be appreciated in the municipalities of Mexico City, as the chart below shows:

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The pattern is similar: middle class municipalities (from Cuauhtémoc to Benito Juárez on the right-hand side of the graph and where Morena lost in 2021) showed lower participation rates.

If the opposition believes that it can rest on its laurels and assume turnout was low because of an effective abstention strategy, it runs a very high risk of not doing well in the six gubernatorial races this June and in the 2024 presidential election. The ability Morena showed to mobilize voters in a purely symbolic exercise and the lack of a strong anti-AMLO wave mean that the upcoming elections will only be competitive if they feature a very high middle class turnout. It is much easier to appeal for a negative (stay home or go to the beach) than a positive (vote for me).

About the Author

Luis de la Calle

Mexico Institute, Advisory Board Member and Managing Director, De La Calle, Madrazo & Mancera and former Undersecretary, Ministry of Economy, Mexico;
Managing Director, De La Calle, Madrazo & Mancera and former Undersecretary, Ministry of Economy, Mexico
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Mexico Institute

The Mexico Institute seeks to improve understanding, communication, and cooperation between Mexico and the United States by promoting original research, encouraging public discussion, and proposing policy options for enhancing the bilateral relationship. A binational Advisory Board, chaired by Luis Téllez and Earl Anthony Wayne, oversees the work of the Mexico Institute.   Read more