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The public referendum attempts to incorporate the participation of the public in issues relevant to society. In this sense, it is a complement to representative democracy in which voters choose their authorities and representatives. It is a complement to, not a substitute for, the capacities and obligations of the governing.

Therefore, the use of the public referendum should be limited and regulated. The Mexican Constitution plans for the number, procedure, and, above all, the matters that should not be addressed by public referendum. For example, the public cannot vote directly on restricting human rights, the structure of the republic, electoral matters, or national security.

The current administration has constantly returned to referendums. Upon not achieving the legal requirements, it has opted for informal exercises to decide the luck of an airport, train, or beer company. Now, President López Obrador insists on asking the people if they want to press charges against five of the six living ex-presidents (Luis Echeverría remains uninvolved).

This is no minor subject and has major judicial and political implications.

Judicially, it is important because it violates the principle of law and the right to process outlined in the constitution, which cannot be put to a popular vote. Politically, it is important because it attempts to use a democratic mechanism against democracy itself.

Gustavo Zagrebelsky demonstrates this in his book, “La crucifixión y la democracia” (Crucifixion and Democracy). The Italian judge makes an interesting analysis of the moments before the passion of Jesus Christ, in which Pontius Pilate, in order to avoid an undesired responsibility, chose a different path and initiated “a ‘democratic’ procedure appealing to the people.”

The final decision created a mob that was only pacified with the condemnation and execution of the accused. From that point on, Zagrebelsky addresses the handy resource of using the voice of the people as an alibi for decisions contrary to the essence of democracy.

Even now, with the technological development and the changes in the relationship between governors and the governed, “it makes it possible for authoritarian forms of government to appear democratic.”

“Even worse, this change is presented under the banner of greater respect for the will of the sovereign people. Ambiguity is the characteristic that best defines democracy in our time.”

According to the author, one can confirm that those who most praise the public do so in order to use it as an instrumental tool of democracy.

Of course, this is not an attempt to compare the Mexican ex-presidents with Jesus of Nazareth. However, as Zagrebelsky warns, the historical example shows how avoiding democratic institutions and praising the wisdom of the people tends to flow into an authoritarian result, hidden under actions that appear extra democratic.

This article was originally published in Spanish on El Heraldo de Mexico...

About the Author

Verónica Ortiz-Ortega

Political Analyst, El Economista and Canal del Congreso
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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