Is Mexico’s Recall Election “Democracy of the Highest Order”?

MEXICO CITY — Walking around Mexico’s capital these days, it would be easy to assume that the country’s president is in danger of losing his job imminently.

City streets are littered with signs, flyers and billboards urging Mexicans to vote on whether to impeach President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in a recall election this Sunday.

Only, it is not the opposition telling people to rush to the polls. They are the president’s loyalists.

“Support President López Obrador,” reads one flyer. “If you don’t participate, the corrupt will deprive us of the scholarships, aids and pensions that we receive today.”

For the better part of a century, Mexican presidents have served six-year terms without fail, whether or not they were elected fairly — or scorned by much of the population. The recall election, proposed by Mr. López Obrador and the first of its kind in Mexico, has the potential to upend the country’s political system, giving citizens a powerful new way to hold their leaders to account.

On Sunday, voters will be asked to decide whether Mr. López Obrador “should have his mandate revoked for loss of confidence” or “continue as President of the Republic until the end of his term”. To become binding, 40% of the electorate must participate.

The only difficulty is that the vote’s most enthusiastic promoter – and the person most eager to test the president’s entrenched popularity – was the president himself. Opposition leaders have told their supporters to boycott the exercise, and analysts believe turnout may be too low for the results to matter.

So while Mr. López Obrador called the recall “a first-rate exercise in democracy,” many fear it is something far less important: a marketing tool aimed primarily at bolstering demand of the president in power.

“It’s supposed to be a mechanism for civic checks on power, but instead it’s become an instrument of political propaganda,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a political analyst and administration critic. The ruling party, Mr. Bravo Regidor said, “wants this to be a show of strength, muscle and the ability to get people to the streets and make their support for López Obrador explicit.”

On a balmy Monday in Mexico City, volunteers from the president’s camp fanned out in a residential neighborhood armed with fliers and broad smiles, happily announcing nearby polling stations and telling anyone listening to go vote at the recall.

Allan Pozos, one of the group’s leaders, said he hoped the drill would “set a precedent” so that future leaders could be kicked out if necessary. This time, however, he just wants the president to know he’s loved.

“It’s to show Andrés Manuel that he has the strong support of the people,” Pozos said. “Andrés often feels alone, because he has to go against a whole system and has no support.”

Such a show of support couldn’t come at a better time for the president, who has passed the midpoint of his term while struggling to deliver on key campaign promises that propelled him to power in a landslide victory in 2018. He vowed a “transformation” of the country that would reduce poverty, revive the economy and tackle endemic violence at its roots.

But after a pandemic and global recession, poverty rates remain stubbornly high, economic growth is anemic, and homicides are still at record highs.

But Mr. López Obrador remained hugely popular, with more than half of Mexicans approving of his performance, according to polls. His government sought to improve the lot of the poor, quadrupling the minimum wage and increasing social spending.

Mr. López Obrador has also earned points with symbolic gestures, such as turning the presidential mansion into a museum open to the public, and carrying out commercial flights, even when he visits the United States.

His high favor with voters is also a tribute, supporters and critics agree, to his relentless dissemination of an official narrative in which he portrays himself as a lone warrior for the people, taking on a corrupt establishment.

“The results have fallen short of the expectations of the government itself,” said Jorge Zepeda Patterson, a prominent Mexican columnist who has backed the president, referring to Mr. López Obrador’s achievements during his tenure.

“Polarization is very profitable politically, especially if you don’t have results,” Mr. Zepeda Patterson said, adding, “at least you can build the narrative you’re fighting.”

The main risk of the recall for the president is the possibility that large swaths of the country will ignore the exercise altogether, especially since it takes place on Palm Sunday. By law, for the vote to become binding, at least 37 million Mexicans must participate — far more than the number of people who voted for the president in the 2018 elections that propelled him to power in a power slide. ground.

But Mr López Obrador has already identified a scapegoat for low turnout: the country’s electoral watchdog.

For months, he has attacked the National Electoral Institute for what he sees as a failure to devote enough resources to advertising and administering the recall vote.

“They should have promoted the referendum from the start, not acting dishonestly, keeping silent, not promoting the vote so people wouldn’t know about it, keeping the voting booths as far away as possible,” the president said during the interview. a recent press conference. , referring to the electoral institute. “They are openly against us, against me.”

The institute appealed to the federal government for more money to oversee the contest, to no avail. With only about half the budget it needed, the watchdog set up about a third of the polling stations it would need in a normal election.

Lorenzo Córdova, the head of the electoral institute, known by its Spanish acronym INE, says it is set up to fail.

“It’s not just the president,” Mr Córdova said, “there is an orchestrated, systematic and well-designed campaign to discredit INE.” Capture.”

The country’s Supreme Court has said political parties cannot advertise the recall, yet Mr López Obrador’s face has appeared on placards across the country.

Mr Córdova says the electoral institute has not determined who pays for all the ads, but said there are at least twice as many in states where the president’s party will contest for the post of governor in June.

“It makes you suspect that there is political intent,” behind the marketing campaign, Mr. Córdova said.

There are, of course, strategic advantages that could come from asking the country to decide whether or not it likes the president at this particular moment. Mr. López Obrador founded his political party and has a clear interest in doing everything possible to ensure his victory in the general elections to replace him in 2024.

Recall voting patterns will tell the president where his side’s weaknesses lie — and which of the potential presidential candidates can get people to the polls.

“It’s kind of an experiment, a rehearsal,” said Blanca Heredia, a professor at CIDE, a research institution in Mexico City. “Looking ahead to 2024, it can measure the ability of its operators to mobilize the vote.”

Whatever happens on Sunday, for many in Mexico, it’s hard to see how the country’s first-ever presidential recall will seriously hurt this president.

“Andrés Manuel has this thing where even when he loses, he wins,” Ms Heredia said. “He always has a way of turning a defeat into a triumph.”

Oscar Lopez contributed reporting from Mexico City.