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Recall Referendum: Evaluating its Origins, Purpose, and Possible Consequences

Samantha Kane Jiménez

On April 10, Mexicans will face a series of critical decisions for the wellbeing of our country’s democracy. Before even considering the options on the Revocation of Presidential Mandate ballot, those concerned about Mexico’s political and democratic stability must decide whether to participate in this alleged exercise in direct democracy or to abstain as a form of protest. Ahead of the referendum, they are obliged to reckon with the motives that propel this process, the risks it carries, and its possible consequences.

First, we must consider the recall referendum’s origins. Historically, the opposition has been the driving force behind Mexican democratic development. In this case, the Morena government itself has been the one to conceive and ratify the Revocation of Presidential Mandate Law in August 2021. It did so under the pretext of incorporating into the political system an additional check and balance that lies completely in citizens’ hands.

The law requires that citizens, not a party nor a government official, secure petition signatures from 3% of the nominal electoral list in at least 17 states (equivalent to about 2.5 million voters). While the National Electoral Institute (INE) validated over 11 million petitions in December 2021, public servants and individuals associated with Morena orchestrated the push for signatures. Not only does that constitute a possible constitutional violation; it also confirms that this novel exercise was established for highly politicized motives.

At the same time, the same congress that passed the Revocation of Presidential Mandate Law reduced the budget of the INE – the apparatus that organizes the referendum – by about 5 billion pesos, a sum equivalent to the revocation process’s estimated costs. The Supreme Court of Justice upheld the budget cut, suggesting that the electoral body request additional funds from the Secretary of the Treasury, which promptly rejected the plea. The incongruousness of demanding a referendum but denying the necessary funds to realize it also points to a kind of dirty play.

Consequently, we must carefully examine the implicit purpose of this process. In theory, this exercise in direct democracy is the first to offer Mexico’s electorate a mechanism to remove a president due to a loss of public confidence. However, AMLO enjoys higher approval ratings than any of his predecessors, and seldom have they fallen below 60%, eliminating the need for organizing such an expensive and showy campaign. In effect, unless a significant portion of the opposition and a minimal portion of the pro-AMLO cohort go to the polls, it is quite probable that the results will favor the president, regardless of whether they are binding.

But is emphasizing his public approval ratings and supposedly setting the example for future presidents worth the trouble? A government would not invest so much time, money, nor political inertia in a process that jeopardizes its source of power; it also would not take such measures lest there are significant political gains to be reaped.

So, what else does AMLO expect to gain on April 10? To answer that question, we must evaluate the possible outcomes and appreciate that each alternative provides political opportunities for the president.

In the least turbulent scenario, results would favor AMLO but participation would remain below the 40% threshold. In this situation, the president would win in aesthetic and rhetorical terms: he would celebrate the triumph and would argue that, if it weren’t for the INE’s failure to generate sufficient turnout and the neoliberal opposition’s anti-referendum interests, binding results would have favored him.

In a terser scenario, results against AMLO would not reach the turnout threshold necessary to make the vote binding, infuriating AMLO enough to blame the INE for low participation rates and, on that premise, reject the results. Attacks against the INE under these circumstances could intensify. AMLO could slander the electoral body to the degree that he demands its dissolution. (Even before the vote, he has already proposed an electoral reform that would critically restructure the apparatus and undermine its independence). Still, this possibility is not the most worrisome.

A binding result, in either direction, would gravely jeopardize Mexican democracy. If more than 40% of voters participates in the April 10 referendum, the least severe consequences would derive from a result that favors the president. But even then, significant risks would arise: AMLO could coopt a positive binding result to justify any political maneuver under the pretext that the country supports him – especially if his sky-high approval ratings hold. He could even distort the result to extend his presidential mandate. Of course, he would violate all sorts of laws in doing so, but the danger of this scenario is that it would enable him to slowly debilitate and hollow out democratic institutions, gradually undermining the political system’s checks and balances until he obtains absolute control.

Even worse, a negative binding outcome could shatter the democratic regime that Mexico has constructed brick by brick over the past half a century. If the electorate decidedly calls on AMLO to step down, it is unlikely that the president will acquiesce. The president with a history of accusing opponents of electoral fraud now enjoys the support of the Senate majority, of the party he erected (which is young but strong), of the Mexican Armed Forces, and of the majority of Mexicans (according to polls). A man like that does not let power slip from his grip no matter how much democratic rhetoric he touts, especially if the question on the ballot conditions his revocation on the “loss of public confidence.” In this scenario, Mexico would fall into a constitutional crisis, to be managed by a skewed and fraught Congress and enforced by a military that is all-too-ready to serve. Under these circumstances, Mexico’s fragile democracy could easily crumble, sinking its political future in a sea of uncertainty.

Of course, one would hope that Mexico someday reaches the point in which its political leaders play an active role in developing and strengthening the country’s democratic institutions and processes. However, it would be a grave mistake to assume that our current political environment has reached that level of maturity. The Morena arguments that “the people elect, the people reject” merely use democracy as an excuse to mobilize their partisan base with the purpose of expanding political control.

About the Author

Samantha Kane Jiménez

Samantha Kane Jiménez

Program Assistant, Mexico Institute
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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