Like many countries, the Mexican constitution allows voters to collect signatures to remove a politician they have lost confidence in from office. It is a very specific type of citizens’ initiative that is especially popular in Latin America. Recall referendums of this type can be triggered on all political levels in Mexico, from the local to the national, but it was the first time ever that the entire country was called upon to decide the fate of a sitting President. That in itself would make it an interesting case study, but what set this particular recall apart from all others is that the person who initially called for it was none other than the President himself.
The promise to hold a recall referendum as a kind of mid-term confirmation had been an integral part of the 2018 presidential campaign of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly referred to as AMLO, who hailed it as a model for accountable politics.
However, in Mexico the President does not have the power to trigger a recall referendum, it has to be held at the initiative of the voters. In order to start the process, the President called on his supporters to collect the required 2,75 million signatures. A dedicated NGO was even set up for the purpose.
“It was a very counter-intuitive use of the instrument,” Greta Ríos, citizen participation expert and founder of Ollin tells us. A recall referendum in essence is a way for a significant number of voters to show that they have lost confidence in an official and to remove that person from office, it is not technically intended to be used as a confirmation of power.
“It was activated by people who did not want to remove the President from office, and they were very vocal about it. There was a group of people who created an NGO called ‘Let Democracy Continue’.” She stresses that this constitutes improper use of the recall mechanism, “It was used knowing that the President was not going to get recalled, it was used as a political tool.”
The signature collection campaign was also marred by reports of fraud, Ríos says, “We saw a lot of bad practices. For example, they needed around three million valid signature to activate the referendum and they collected a lot more - almost twice as much - but one in four was forged.”
On Sunday 10 April, some 16 million voters turned out to answer the question “Do you agree that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, President of the United Mexican States, have his mandate revoked due to loss of confidence or continue in the Presidency of the Republic until his term ends?”
93% of voters expressed their will for López Obrador to stay in place. While this might seem like a resounding confirmation for the President, there are a number of caveats to the result.
First of all, the turnout was too low for the result to be binding. With 17% of voters taking part, it falls wildly short of the required 40% threshold. In the run-up to the vote, opposition parties had called for their supporters to boycott the result by staying away.
“For civic participation practitioners like me, I had a hard time finding whether I should support this exercise or not,” said Ríos, “People asked me whether I thought they should go out and vote or not. After giving it a lot of thought, I think my decision is always pro-participation.”
Because the process was initiated by supporters of the President and the MORENA party, a lot of citizens were also confused about the exercise Ríos reports, “I think a lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily support the president didn’t understand the process and thought that if they go and vote they would be in a way supporting him.”
López Obrador himself sounded victorious at the 93% win, calling it “historic” and celebrating the fact that in Mexico “the people are in charge” and he continues to carry their support.
But if we look at the result in the smaller context of the MORENA party, the result of the vote raises some questions. Many of the 30 million Mexicans who voted AMLO in office in 2018, did not turn out for this vote.
“Actually, they were engaged in a presidential campaign,” Ríos tells us, “There were signs everywhere, there were people handing out flyers on the street, there were people wearing T-shirts, … It was a big, big mobilisation process and they lost half the votes they got (in 2018). Of course the president and his party are saying that this was a big success, that they got 90%,… but I think that there are many ways to see it.”
So, will this new way of using the recall referendum persist in Mexican politics? “The way the law is framed right now, citizens have to activate it, citizens who have lost confidence,” Ríos says. What the President aimed to achieve, she explains, was to show that “We are very democratic, because we have this mechanism, and we even use this mechanism to give the opposition a chance.” But to use the recall referendum instrument in this way has been strongly criticised in Mexico Ríos points out, “It is like a popularity poll and that is how they’re using it, but this is an abusive use of the mechanism and of resources. It’s not cheap to do this kind of exercise.”