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MEXICO CITY – Mexico is holding a presidential recall referendum this Sunday, the first of its kind. Voters are being asked to decide whether President Andrés Manuel López Obrador should end his six-year term or be removed from office.
While recalls are a common political tool around the world, it is normally opponents of an unpopular leader who call for a recall. But Sunday’s vote was the president’s idea. And the polls suggest he should win.
While campaigning ahead of his landslide victory in 2018, López Obrador pledged to let voters decide midway through his term whether he should stay.
Opponents say Sunday’s vote is pure political theater, an expensive farce. They called for a boycott.
Here’s what you need to know before the referendum.
What exactly are we asking?
Voters will face a two-part question on the ballot: “Do you agree that the mandate of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, President of the United Mexican States, be revoked due to a loss of confidence or that he must continue as president of the republic until the end of his term?
Voters will have a choice of two checkboxes. It reads: “His mandate should be revoked due to loss of confidence.” The other: “He must remain at the presidency of the republic.”
There is no other issue on Sunday’s ballot. Despite the president’s popularity and strong base of support, turnout is expected to be low. For the results to be binding, 40% of registered voters must participate. López Obrador said he would respect the decision chosen by voters, regardless of turnout.
Why is López Obrador targeting his own presidency in this way?
López Obrador argues that the recall referendum is a powerful tool to strengthen direct democracy. His supporters agree – and say that while they vote to keep this president in power, they hope the recalls can be used to oust future bad leaders.
In his final state of the union address last December, López Obrador told an enthusiastic audience that political leaders should be subject to recalls, ensuring accountability.
“That way it’s not like I’m elected for six years and can do whatever I want, NO, the people should always keep the power in their hands…and any politician who doesn’t does not obey, then revoke his mandate and throw them out,” he said to thunderous applause.
Why are his detractors calling for a boycott of the vote?
Opponents of López Obrador say he is using the recall to bolster his support after a series of political scandals. Rising prices and his inability to control Mexico’s staggering violence are undermining his popularity.
By calling for a boycott of Sunday’s vote, they hope to inflict a political loss on the president by denying him the 40% turnout needed to validate the contest.
Many also object to the cost of the referendum. Known for his budgetary austerity, the president has allocated the equivalent of 77 million dollars. But election officials say this is less than half the amount needed to run the referendum effectively and they fear they will be blamed if there is a low turnout.
López Obrador was highly critical of the work of the National Electoral Institute, the autonomous agency responsible for organizing national votes. He says he is corrupt and undemocratic, and should be brought under executive control. He even suggested that its administrators be subject to popular elections.
Many say that López Obrador never forgave this agency for validating the 2006 elections, which he narrowly lost. The agency’s director at the time, Luis Ugalde, who now works for political consultancy Integralia Consultores, said López Obrador’s threats to the independence of the electoral institute were dangerous, as was his criticism non-governmental groups, including independent media and universities.
“Our very young democracy, with many [of] deficiencies, will collapse,” he says. “That’s what’s at stake right now in Mexico.
What is the likely impact of the referendum?
The Mexican constitution stipulates that presidents can only serve for one six-year term, without the possibility of re-election. Now that the president is in the second half of his term, analysts say he fears being treated like a lame duck and wants to be influential in the critical midterm elections next year – and the presidential race very important in 2024.
Carlos Bravo, a political analyst at the CIDE public research center in Mexico City, says the referendum will give López Obrador a chance to show his solid base.
“It’s a way for him to say, ‘I’m still strong despite everything and people support me,'” Bravo said.
It also gives the president the chance to see which of his potential presidential candidates can best rally voters.
On Wednesday, one of the rising stars of the presidential MORENA party, Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, rallied thousands of supporters to vote for López Obrador. Many say she is López Obrador’s most likely choice to succeed him in 2024.