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Recall referendum: 7 key takeaways (from what we know so far)

Alejandro Garcia Magos

Up to now, these are the seven essential takeaways from the recall referendum exercise that took place in Mexico this past April 10th.

  1. The hardcore electoral support for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and his party, MORENA, is around 15 million votes.  The figure is equivalent to 16 percent of the electorate and can also be seen as a measure of the ruling party's ability to mobilize its vote. It is not a negligible figure, far from it, but it does not equate to an unbeatable president either.
  2. Regional cleavages on the left and right continuum return to party politics.  The tripartite party system that existed in Mexico between 1991 and 2018, made up of the PAN-PRI-PRD, successfully articulated the regional and ideological cleavages of a country as big as ours. In that system, the northern and central states voted mostly for the centrist PRI and the right-wing PAN, and the southern states (with the notable exception of Yucatán) for the leftist PRD. The 2018 election obscured these divisions, which were again clearly visible in the referendum: it was the southern states that participated the most and those that registered the largest votes in favor of AMLO (Tabasco, Chiapas, Veracruz, Campeche).
  3. The anti-AMLO vote did not take the bait and stayed at home.  If the ruling party was expecting that the opposition was going to legitimize the exercise with its participation, it was left disappointed. The results show that eight out of ten Mexicans did not go to vote (82 percent abstention rate), and that nine out of ten who bothered to do so voted in favor of AMLO (91 percent). In other words, the opposition stood up the president and his referendum (and for good reasons: they had nothing to gain from it).
  4. Clear signs of opposition to the ruling party emerged again in Mexico City (CDMX).  The revocation had a low participation in CDMX, just above the national average (19 and 17 percent respectively). The most revealing piece of information, however, is that the city had one of the highest records in favor of removing the president with 10 percent, just below Nuevo Léon (16), Jalisco (11), and Aguascalientes (11).  Consider the fact that in the president's home state of Tabasco, this figure was only 2 percent. Also take into account that it was in CDMX where AMLO’s political career took off as Head of Government (2000-2005), and that is where his political goddaughter and presidential candidate in pectore for 2024, Claudia Sheinbaum, currently governs.
  5. As a mechanism for removing the executive and of direct democracy,” this referendum was a failure.  The affair showed that this type of referendum can easily be derailed by the executive who withholds financial resources. Indeed, although the law states that the revocation must have the same number of polling places and electoral officials as a regular federal election, AMLO decided to cut the budget of the National Electoral Institute (INE) to organize the revocation under the argument of austerity. The result was that only a third of the voting booths in the country were installed. What would have happened if the consultation really responded to a citizen demand? AMLO made it very clear: it would be enough to financially squeeze the INE to delegitimize the consultation or outright prevent it.
  6. The electoral authorities detected 25 percent of forged petitions for the revocation.  Just over eleven million signatures were collected from citizens who were supposedly registered on the nominal list and who requested to carry out the referendum. According to the INE, one in four of these signatures are forged, which is a serious breach of democratic rules and suggests the existence of an organized operation to collect them that does not respond to a genuine and spontaneous citizen demand.
  7. Government and opposition can capitalize on the recall referendum.  As a dress rehearsal for the 2024 presidential elections, the consultation serves the government to flex muscles and to start oiling the wheels of its political machine. For the opposition, the referendum offered a rare opportunity to gather valuable data and have a peak at MORENA’s weak flanks.

About the Author

Alejandro Garcia Magos

Alejandro García Magos

Lecturer, University of Toronto
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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