On 10th April the recall referendum is scheduled to take place, with the aim to revoke the mandate of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) before the end of his presidential term in 2024. The recall referendum has been one of AMLO’s oldest obsessions. This will be his fourth referendum since 2018, and participation in all of them has remained well below 40%. AMLO is aware that it will be almost impossible to reach the minimum required to make the result legally binding. He needs to reach a threshold of 40%, 5 million more votes than the ones he received in the presidential elections in 2018.
Recent polls show that about half of the population approves of his administration and see this referendum as a test of honesty compared to past administrations tainted with corruption and embezzlement of resources. AMLO argues that it will set a precedent to empower citizens to remove their rulers if they feel those in power are not fit enough to run the country. There is a widespread belief that leaving the decision directly in the hands of the people embodies the core meaning of democracy. AMLO has made use of this rhetoric and has disguised the referendum as a selfless and democratic gesture. However, the potentially democratic character of the process has been vitiated by the political pacts and personal objectives of the president. This referendum is not driven by dissatisfied voters but by the president himself. This inverted logic reflects the reality of the Mexican political system: decisions on what needs to be fixed do not come from those affected, but by those in power. AMLO is also aware that this referendum will also be useful to revitalise MORENA’s electoral base before the June elections this year.
AMLO aims to ensure not only that MORENA maintains power in the next presidential elections in 2024, but he is also looking to avoid internal struggles in the presidential succession within his own political party. A victory in this referendum would strengthen his authority in the eyes of the population. A victorious result would also legitimise his policies, keep the opposition on the defensive and MORENA’s electoral machinery would be greased to continue advancing at state level. The 6 states that will hold elections in June 2022: Aguascalientes, Durango, Hidalgo, Oaxaca, Quintana Roo and Tamaulipas are not in the hands of MORENA. Even if the participation of the electorate remains as low as in his previous referendums, this would grant him and his political party enough political legitimacy and strength to potentially snatch the power from the opposition in those states. A victory would also give AMLO a renewed and expanded popular mandate.
Even before he became president in 2018, a serious aspect to be concerned about has been AMLO’s ongoing condemnation of autonomous institutions and agencies that limit his presidential power, such as the National Electoral Institute (INE). AMLO and the INE have been engaged in several political disagreements since before 2018. If this referendum does not reach the binding victory threshold of 40%, AMLO could use this argument to further weaken the INE. His attacks could go beyond rhetoric and be used as an excuse to replace current leadership in organisations or even disappear institutions altogether.
AMLO conceives his power based on people actively reiterating their support to him. On December 21 last year, he said that if the INE did not hold the recall referendum, citizens could organise themselves a non-binding vote on their own. The INE has been subject to massive funding cuts and restraints that have limited its ability to prepare for this recall referendum. Just this week, in a fast-track process in the congress, a decree was approved that allows the President, governors and legislators to promote the recall referendum despite having unconstitutionality issues as the Constitution establishes the obligation of public servants to neutrality during electoral processes. This sets a negative precedent for the 2024 elections, because it puts the fairness of elections post this referendum at risk.
This decree also means the imposition of the majority by force. By endorsing a legal interpretation of the law that is favourable to MORENA, along with its coalition political parties they can change the rules of the game halfway . It also opens the door for the president, governors, mayors, legislators, or any other political actor to openly campaign for a party or candidate even days before elections take place. MORENA lost its absolute majority in Congress in 2021. They are no longer able to approve a comprehensive electoral reform, therefore they are willing to explore all available loopholes that allow them to have as much control over the 2024 electoral process as they can.
AMLO understands democracy directly, without the need for institutions, a vision that is dangerous for the survival of democracy in Mexico. Without the institutional apparatus of the INE, and its monitoring and transparency mechanisms, a fair referendum cannot be guaranteed. While referendums seem to be the perfect manifestation of democracy at first glance, history has repeatedly shown us that direct democracy has served to subvert the democratic cause. Unchecked referendums are dangerous for democracy because they can increase polarisation, reduce political negotiation to a dichotomic question, and legitimise leaders or proposals that, in the long run, are detrimental to a functional democracy.
The rising tide of contemporary populism is accompanied by an undercurrent of political opportunism. Referendums are the perfect opportunity to strengthen that mix. When we reduce complex problems to dichotomous questions, we dangerously simplify political reality. Referendums are also a political tool, a strategic and calculated move by leaders to assert their power and legitimise indefensible decisions; they encourage destructive debate and exacerbate political polarisation and instability. Referendums are essential tools in creating public policy under appropriate conditions that include the consensus of all political actors, an established margin of victory, and the independence of process from the incumbent party. A society and a government that do not advocate for consensus and compromise are dangerous to the democracy they seek to preserve.