Mexico: recall referendum ruse leaves no one satisfied
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador won 90 per cent of the vote in April’s recall referendum, which he initiated. The result was, however, not binding due to extremely low voter turnout. The president embarked on his recall adventure for the same reasons he has systematically undermined the space for civil society and independent journalism: because he considers himself the sole legitimate representative of the Mexican people. The inconclusive results should give pause for thought on how Mexico can build a stronger democracy, not only with mechanisms to enable people to participate in decision-making but also with stronger representative institutions and checks and balances, and an open civic space that allows civil society to flourish.
On 10 April, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador triumphed in a recall referendum that asked people whether they wanted him to step down or complete his six-year term. But bizarrely, it was the president and his party rather than the opposition that activated this mechanism, intended as a tool for dissatisfied citizens to get rid of a president.
Revocation or ratification
People were asked a two-sided question. The ballot read: ‘Do you agree that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, President of the United Mexican States, should have his mandate revoked due to a loss of confidence, or should he remain in the Presidency of the Republic until the end of his term?’
Only the first part of the question was really needed, allowing for a yes or no answer. But the wording reflected the struggles surrounding the establishment of the recall mechanism, being used for the first time.
Before he became president, López Obrador promised to give Mexicans the chance to remove presidents halfway through their term and initiate referendums on important public issues. The ruling party, Morena, introduced both reforms in 2019. Pushed under the motto ‘the people giveth and the people taketh away’, the recall mechanism was enshrined in article 35 (IX) of the Mexican Constitution and regulated by the 2021 Federal Law on the Revocation of Mandate.
In the constitution, the recall vote is presented as a tool allowing for the president’s removal. However, the bill originally submitted by Morena had sought to create a mechanism to ‘ratify’ the president’s mandate, and the 2021 law brought this intent back into the formulation of the referendum question.
The recall vote was therefore surrounded by a battle of interpretations over what the vote was for and how it was being used. This was candidly acknowledged by a young volunteer collecting endorsements to trigger the vote, who explained that to get signatures, she spoke of ‘ratification’ to people she sensed supported the president and ‘revocation’ to those she thought might oppose him.
A politically skewed process
Recall mechanisms are rare in Latin America. In some countries they exist at the subnational level but are rarely used. Before Mexico, only Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela had incorporated such mechanisms at the national level. Mexico is the third country, following Venezuela in 2004 and Bolivia in 2008, to offer its citizens a chance to recall their president.
In Mexico, a recall vote can be held only once, halfway into the president’s six-year term. To activate it, the signatures of at least three per cent of the voter roll must be collected, across at least 15 Mexican states. Its results are binding only if a minimum of 40 per cent of voters show up. If that threshold is met and more than half vote to oust the president, the president of Congress is appointed acting president and within 30 days Congress must make a permanent appointment for the rest of the president’s term.
The process is organised by the National Electoral Institute (INE), which is also the only body that can disseminate information about the vote, as a means to encourage informed debate. While political parties can promote participation, they are not allowed to try to influence voters. No public resources can be used to organise signature collection or buy media space, and once the initial stages of the process have begun, the government is not allowed to broadcast propaganda in any form.
But that’s not exactly how things happened in the run-up to 10 April. The recall vote was activated by the president and his party, who pitched it as an unprecedented democratic milestone. Signature collection was nominally conducted by an ad hoc organisation named ‘Let democracy continue’, chaired by a former candidate of the ruling party; in practice, it was Morena activists who collected nine million signatures – much more than the 2.8 million required – to trigger a mechanism that, from their perspective, was meant to ratify their leader in office.
Generally speaking, the constitutional and legal recognition of direct democracy mechanisms is positive. The problem has been their instrumentalisation for non-democratic purposes. The popular consultation held in July 2021 to submit to citizens’ consideration the prosecution of former presidents for acts of corruption and human rights violations is unacceptable from the perspective of a democratic and constitutional rule of law, because compliance with the law and the punishment of those responsible cannot be subjected to plebiscitarian mechanisms. It also validates the institutional paralysis that causes almost absolute levels of impunity and keeps intact the structures of macro-criminality that have provoked a severe human rights crisis in the country.
It was no different with the recall referendum. The ruling party and the president captured and used a tool that is supposed to be activated by citizens dissatisfied with the job done by the chief executive. It was the ruling party that promoted the president’s recall. They stirred up confrontation with the National Electoral Institute to question its autonomy. They cut its budget for the installation of ballot boxes and broke the law by conducting prohibited campaigning from the government lectern. They deepened polarisation and the stigmatisation of those who publicly considered the vote a farce.
Leopoldo Maldonado, Article 19
The government spared no resources to push the process forward, even if this meant it broke the law it had passed. While INE did its job of advertising the vote, the government also stepped in. Government officials of all ranks openly promoted the president’s ‘ratification’ through public appearances and printed materials and mobilised thousands of activists to hand out flyers, paper city walls with propaganda and get people to polling stations.
INE ordered the removal of much of the illegal propaganda and issued precautionary measures against government officials and ruling party leaders. In return, Morena accused INE of boycotting the vote by ‘hiding’ ballot boxes. In fact, the government had rejected INE’s request for additional funding, and when INE officials paused the process to press for more resources, Morena legislators suggested impeaching them for violating citizens’ democratic rights.
The Supreme Court finally stepped in to rule that while INE could not demand a budget increase, the government could not criminally charge or administratively sanction its members if it could not set up the number of polling stations required by law. The process eventually went smoothly, but INE, a reputable institution, has now found itself among the president’s many enemies.
Shortly before the scheduled vote, Morena legislators hastily issued a permissive interpretation of the law, authorising the president and other public officials to promote the recall vote on the grounds that ‘the expressions of public officials do not constitute political propaganda’.
And the winner is…
A turnout of around 37 million people – 40 per cent of Mexico’s 92.8 million registered voters – was needed to make the results binding. To encourage more people to vote, President López Obrador promised to leave office if a majority voted against him, even if turnout fell short of 40 per cent.
In the end, only 17.7 per cent, 16.5 million people, turned out to vote. They did so overwhelmingly for López Obrador: over 90 per cent – around 15 million voters – said they wanted him to stay.
Recall votes could be viewed as a practice of direct participation that is healthy for Mexican democracy, which continues to be under construction and has just had this type of experience for the first time in its history.
However, the process was promoted to measure the president’s popularity and his party’s mobilisation capacity. These practices should be promoted by citizens.
According to INE data, eight out of 10 citizens decided not to participate, which translated into a turnout of 17 per cent of the total voter roll.
Ninety-one per cent of the 16,502,636 voters, or nearly 15 million, decided the president should stay. Only 1,063,209 voters opted for recall.
The vote staged a clash of political forces measuring their strength in the run-up to the 2023 and 2024 elections, where it will be seen whether Mexican democracy is moving forward or backward.
Mexican Centre for Philanthropy (CEMEFI)
But nobody was really demanding López Obrador’s recall. Most of the opposition had urged people to abstain, under the slogan – aimed directly at the president – ‘you finish and you leave’. The president could only win. And yet in a sense he lost.
López Obrador became president in 2018 by winning over 30 million votes. So while 15 million votes are a quite substantial endorsement, the number wasn’t anywhere close to the backing the president must have expected. Instead it was remarkably similar to the total he collected in his two earlier, unsuccessful bids for the presidency. High approval ratings, of around 60 per cent, did not translate into enthusiastic participation in the vote.
A battle of narratives has ensued since the vote, with each camp using the numbers that back their story: for the opposition, the key was the feeble 17 per cent turnout, while for the government it was their overwhelming 90 per cent share of the votes cast. The president pointed to his wide margin as proof that Mexicans are ‘happy’ with his policies, while his opponents cited the low turnout as evidence they are not.
Democracy and civic space
Even as Mexico engaged in what its government hailed as an unprecedented experience of direct democracy, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index downgraded the country’s rating from ‘flawed democracy’ to ‘hybrid regime’. Its already bad scores, particularly in the areas of political culture, the functioning of government and civil liberties, worsened even further.
A key challenge for democracy is Mexico’s highly restricted civic space – a problem that long preceded López Obrador’s election but which he has done nothing to improve. While pushing forward with the referendum, the president systematically undermined the space for independent civil society – and did so for the same reason he held the recall vote: because he views himself as the true and only representative of the will of the Mexican people.
The ruling party tries to capture and corporatise any popular organisation attempt. The statist conception of the social realm has deepened, which is why many civil society organisations (CSOs), very diverse in terms of their ideological colours and area of work, are viewed as ‘intermediaries’ between historically vulnerable populations and the state. Under this conception, social organisations have no raison d’être because the only legitimate popular project is that of the government, which brings together and represents ‘the people’.
For the same reason the freedom of expression and the right to information are under constant attack: the government rejects transparency and accountability because it considers itself inherently ‘good’. The press in Mexico experiences an attack every 14 hours and 42 per cent of the attacks are committed by public authorities. The press is going through one of its most lethal periods, with 33 journalists murdered so far under the current government.
Like journalists and academia, CSOs are recurrently questioned and stigmatised. The dominant narrative accuses them of being ‘coup plotters’ due to the foreign funds they receive, a situation reflected in two bills to restrict the flow of resources to CSOs. Public discourse presents the partisan opposition as ‘traitors to the homeland’. This creates an atmosphere of hostility and permissiveness for more serious attacks and restrictions coming from various state institutions. There is no room for anyone who questions the ruling party.
Leopoldo Maldonado, Article 19
In Mexico, full respect for civic space is not consolidated. Even federal and state governments that have had a democratic rhetoric have not been known for respecting it. The use of Pegasus spyware against journalists and human rights defenders under the previous administration is a good example of this.
The current government has contributed to making inequality visible and giving a voice to an ignored part of Mexico, which is a democratic contribution, although many of its measures have been discursive and symbolic rather than substantive. With respect to civic space, the current government has remained in line with the historical record, especially in terms of a hostile presidential rhetoric. Although this rhetoric is not always accompanied by concrete actions, it does constitute a licence for other actors to put words into practice. In this sense, it has not contributed to the strengthening of democracy.
Moreover, in many regions of the country, the main threat to civic space comes from actors linked to drug trafficking and criminal networks that have not been dismantled. It is these networks that silence the press and are linked to disappearances and murders, for which the authorities are also responsible, either through lack of prevention or acquiescence.
Sofía De Robina, Centro Prodh
Since taking office, López Obrador has resisted scrutiny and criticism. He has disqualified opponents, politicised the judiciary and tried to get rid of watchdog institutions that limit presidential power. He has demonised environmental, human rights and accountability groups, often singling out specific organisations and individuals and baselessly accusing them of being part of an opposition plot to overthrow his government.
He has denounced international funding of civil society as foreign intervention in Mexico’s internal affairs. One of his targets, human rights CSO Article 19, was accused of receiving US funding to destabilise his government after it published a report detailing attacks against journalists and violations of the freedom of expression. In a recent press conference, the president called some anti-corruption groups ‘pro-coup organisations’.
Another ‘foreign agents’ law?
In February 2022, the ruling party, which has a majority in both chambers of Congress, introduced a bill to prohibit CSOs that receive foreign funding from trying to influence or change laws through lobbying or strategic litigation. If passed, the law would allow the government to revoke the non-profit status of CSOs found in violation.
This initiative doesn’t put Mexico in good international company. Pioneered by Russia and imitated by other authoritarian states including China and Egypt, various forms of ‘foreign agents’ laws have subsequently been adopted and weaponised in the region by states such as Nicaragua and Venezuela, while a failed attempt at introducing one was recently made in El Salvador.
President López Obrador has also systematically smeared independent media outlets and vilified and intimidated journalists, publicly calling them liars, criminals, mercenaries and thugs, and even sharing private information about them. He has done nothing to improve the dangerous circumstances in which journalists work; on the contrary, his incendiary rhetoric has legitimised attacks against them, while funding for the protection of journalists and human rights defenders at risk has been reduced.
A deadly record
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, Mexico has long been one of the world’s deadliest countries for media personnel, even compared to some countries that are at war.
Five journalists were murdered in Mexico in the first couple of months of 2022 alone: José Luis Gamboa of Inforegio Network in Veracruz, photojournalist Margarito Martínez and broadcast journalist Lourdes Maldonado in Tijuana, Baja California, Roberto Toledo, a camera operator with news website Monitor Michoacán, and Heber López Vásquez in Salina Cruz, Oaxaca.
Countless others are routinely censored, sued and harassed, and physically attacked when covering protests. Many have narrowly escaped assassination or abduction attempts. Those attacked often cover local politics and crime or are vocal about corruption and officials’ links with organised crime. Often attacks are preceded by threats and requests for protection, which is not provided or inadequate.
In late January, journalists in almost 40 locations around Mexico took to the streets to urge the government to do more to protect journalists under threat, given that existing protection mechanisms are failing to do their job. But the killings did not stop: in March the latest victims were crime reporter Juan Carlos Muñiz of Testigo Minero, a local website, and Armando Linares López, co-founder and editor of Monitor Michoacán.
The recall vote neither satisfied the president’s ambitions nor realised his opponents’ nightmares. From the outset, the opposition assumed the president was motivated by the desire to extend his stay in office. By long tradition, Mexico’s powerful presidents are limited to a single term, and López Obrador’s opponents feared he would use a favourable result to push for the removal of the term limit by sheer force of acclamation. López Obrador consistently denied this because – as he put it upon learning the results – ‘I am a democrat and I am not in favour of re-election’.
It would be as inappropriate to claim with naïve optimism that this consultation deepened democracy as it would be to claim with extreme pessimism that it degraded it.
Turnout did not even reach 40 per cent of the electoral roll, so the referendum was not legally binding. For a significant section of the population, approximately 15 million Mexicans, it was a relevant exercise in civic participation in which they were able to express their support for the incumbent president. In the context in which it took place, it deepened polarisation but did not have catastrophic results.
Beyond what has happened on this occasion, it is important to establish within the normative framework and promote the use of social participation mechanisms by society, specifically to broaden the participation of and give voice to historically excluded groups. But it should be borne in mind that these mechanisms can also easily be used in a propagandistic or merely symbolic way.
Sofía De Robina, Centro Prodh
The experience of the recall vote offers a reminder that democracy is about more than voting: a high-quality democracy has many facets, and they all need care. Mechanisms of direct democracy, when properly used, are one of them. Another is improving the workings of representative democracy and the institutional checks and balances that prevent or correct abuses of power. And yet another is the realisation of the freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly, guaranteed by open civic space in which civil society is able to play a full range of roles.
The president’s recall adventure was highly consistent with a vision of politics and society that is hostile towards civil society and the expression of dissent. The evident limitations of this approach, revealed through the low turnout, should give the president pause for thought and prompt him to rise to the challenge of building an effective democracy that works for all Mexicans.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Mexican government must fulfil its obligation to guarantee the integrity of civic space by refraining from harassing journalists and human rights defenders and providing them with effective protection from attacks.
The Mexican government should shelve initiatives that restrict the work of civil society and rebuild its relations with CSOs on the basis of the recognition of their legitimacy as an expression of pluralism and source of accountability.
All political forces should recognise the importance of mechanisms that facilitate the expression of citizens’ preferences, including direct democracy mechanisms, and strive for their proper use rather than misuse.
With thanks to our partners whose inputs informed this piece: Leopoldo Maldonado, Article 19; Sofía De Robina, Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez (Centro Prodh); and the team of Centro Mexicano para la Filantropía (CEMEFI). All contributions are edited extracts.
Cover photo by REUTERS/José Luis González via Gallo Images