Illustration credit: Niño José Heredia
Last Sunday, a popular referendum—and flagship project of President of Mexico Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO)—asked Mexican voters whether ex-government officials should be subject to investigation and prosecution for allegations of impunity and corruption. However, the referendum, a key component of AMLO’s promises to crack down on graft and government impropriety, was a flop, drawing the participation of only seven percent of eligible voters, well below the 40 percent voter turnout threshold required for the referendum result to be legally binding (although over 98 percent of those who did cast ballots voted in favor of facilitating the prosecution of ex-officials). Although previously proposed versions of the referendum question had referenced AMLO’s five immediate predecessors—Carlos Salinas, Ernesto Zedillo, Vicente Fox, Felipe Calderón, and Enrique Peña Nieto, who collectively governed Mexico from 1988 until AMLO’s victory in the 2018 presidential election; and who all, to various degrees, have been accused of misconduct while in office —by name, the final text of the question was much more ambiguous, reading: “Do you agree or not that the pertinent actions be carried out, in accordance with the constitutional and legal framework, to undertake a process of clarification of the political decisions made in the past years by the political actors, aimed at guaranteeing justice and the rights of potential victims?”
In comparison to June’s legislative, regional, and local elections, for which more than 160,000 ballot boxes were set up across the country, for Sunday’s referendum Mexico’s Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE) established only about 57,000 such boxes—provoking the ire of AMLO, who has frequently sparred with the electoral body (even charging the INE with complicity in irregularities that, he has argued, were responsible for his slim defeat to Calderón in the 2006 presidential election). Nevertheless, the muted turnout for the referendum appears to have vindicated many of AMLO’s critics, who viewed Sunday’s vote as a political stunt and a thinly disguised attempt to galvanize supporters of AMLO and his Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (Morena) party in the wake of modest setbacks in June’s elections.
AMLO finally claimed the Mexican presidency on his third attempt—following unsuccessful bids in 2006 and 2012—and subsequently negotiated a cordial transition with Peña Nieto, despite the fact that AMLO’s candidacy was predicated on his identity as a political outsider committed to fighting the entrenched interests of the country’s economic and political elite (represented by Mexico’s established, historically dominant parties—Peña Nieto’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and Fox and Calderón’s Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), as well as the Partido de la Revolución Democrática, which AMLO left in 2012). Despite his stated commitment to combatting corruption and impunity, AMLO’s tenure as president has thus far been characterized by the same inability to win high-profile convictions that has plagued his predecessors. (Indeed, AMLO himself has been forced to confront allegations of corruption, following the release of a video apparently showing his brother, Pío López Obrador, accepting cash payments on behalf of Morena.) Nevertheless, last September, AMLO called for a national plebiscite which would offer to “the people” of Mexico the choice of whether to enable the prosecution of their former leaders. Mexico is currently ranked 124th out of 180 countries on the German NGO Transparency International’s World Corruption Perceptions Index. Moreover, 44 percent of Mexican citizens believe that corruption has increased over the last year, and it is estimated that corruption costs the country between two to ten percent of its GDP annually, according to a 2018 report by Rice University.