Voter turnout for Mexican referendum on prosecuting ex-presidents appears to fall short

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Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador cast his vote in Coyoacán on Election Day in Mexico City in 2018
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, shown on election day in 2018, championed a referendum on the prosecution of former presidents. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Should former Mexican presidents be prosecuted for alleged crimes committed while in office?

That was the question facing voters in a national referendum Sunday, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said. But not enough of his compatriots appeared to care enough to deliver a binding answer at the polls, according to election officials.

Whether former presidents can be subject to prosecution is a query of considerable political and moral gravity in a country where de facto impunity has long shielded politicians, especially former chiefs of state, from facing justice for corruption and other misconduct.

Although more than 90% of those who voted Sunday sided with López Obrador in saying yes, overall voter turnout was only about 7%, far short of the 40% required for the result to be binding, Mexico's National Electoral Institute reported.



Even before a single vote was cast, the exercise devolved into a polemical shouting match between the president and his detractors.

López Obrador called the vote a moral imperative. His critics called it a performative act of political theater and score-settling.

Moreover, the question facing the electorate was cloaked in so many ambiguities that it was unclear what effect the vote would ultimately have.

López Obrador had long championed the referendum — technically a consulta, or consultation — casting it as a transcendent moment of people power.

“The people must always have the reins of power in their hands,” López Obrador told reporters Friday. “It’s very important that people realize that being in a representative democracy doesn’t mean that you only participate every three or every six years.”

Few disagree. But his opponents saw the vote as a self-righteous ploy meant to exact revenge on longtime political adversaries and deflect attention from López Obrador’s many deficiencies: botching the pandemic response, failing to curb spiraling crime and overseeing a lackluster economy.

Former President Vicente Fox called the vote a "farce" and urged people not to participate.

“It’s a waste of time,” concurred Arturo Macías López, 45, a geography teacher in the capital. “It’s all show ... one more distraction from López Obrador and his terrible governing.”

In fact, there is no current legal impediment barring prosecution of ex-presidents.

Luis Echeverría, who served as head of state from 1970 to 1976, was accused in 2006 of genocide stemming from a pair of massacres — one while he was president, the other when he was national security chief. Echeverría, now 99, was cleared in 2009.

Five other living ex-presidents could theoretically be subject to prosecution — as could López Obrador in the future. Posters of the five with red labels emblazoned across their faces reading “Fraud” and “Narco-government” appeared across the country in the lead-up to Sunday's vote, though it was unclear who was financing the campaign.

Bombshell allegations tying three ex-presidents to corruption have emerged from Emilio Lozoya, a former chief of Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the state energy behemoth, who was extradited to Mexico from Spain last year on bribery and other charges. But Lozoya’s allegations have yet to yield indictments against former leaders.

Sunday’s election was the latest plebiscite backed by López Obrador since he was elected in 2018 on an anticorruption platform. Other votes have sought citizen input on a variety of issues, including a new airport, a tourist train megaproject and a new brewery. Turnout has been low, and critics have assailed the process as rigged. But in each instance, massive majorities backed the president’s position, allowing him to assert widespread acclaim for his policies.

Sunday’s vote was different and, at least in theory, more consequential. The task of organizing the vote fell not to the presidential loyalists but to the independent National Electoral Institute.

Opposition parties, while not calling for an outright boycott, denounced the process as a sham and said they wouldn't participate. And electoral authorities said they had only enough funds to set up about one-third as many voting sites as there were in June’s midterm elections, in which 52% of eligible voters participated.

Then there was the matter of the ballot question’s hazy wording, drafted in dense legalese by Mexico’s supreme court. The text didn't name any former presidents, didn't specify alleged crimes and didn't mention legal consequences. Rather, the 52-word question asked voters if authorities should begin “a process of clarification of political decisions taken in past years by political actors … to guarantee justice and rights of the possible victims.” Respondents were asked to mark "yes" or "no."

The tortured phrasing drew comparisons to the twisted verbal gymnastics of Cantinflas, the late Mexican comedian known for his nonsensical discursive riffs, often mocking politicians and other figures of inflated grandiosity.

“Not even Cantinflas could explain this,” columnist Adrián Rueda wrote of the ballot question in Mexico’s Excelsior newspaper. “It’s so ambiguous that one doesn’t understand anything.”

There was no guarantee that passage would lead to prosecutions. Some said voters' approval could provide impetus for the creation of a national truth commission to investigate past crimes of state. But that was speculative.

Still, a lot of Mexicans got the point, even if they remained doubtful that any ex-president would ever be seen on trial.

“In this country, corruption and impunity have always ruled," said Laura Obregón, 67, a retiree in Mexico City who said she planned to vote yes on the ballot question.

Felipe Robledo, 49, one of the capital’s legion of taco vendors, was skeptical. He had no plans to vote. He vowed to offer his product free to all diners if a former Mexican president was carted off to the slammer.

“But that will never happen,” predicted Robledo. “You’ll never see a president in jail in this country, because they are all the same. They all cover up for each other.”

Sánchez is a special correspondent.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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