The Significance of Mexico’s Upcoming Referendum on Lifting Former Presidents’ Immunity from Prosecution

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (commonly known as AMLO) has repeatedly assailed Mexico’s former presidents as corrupt. However, despite his attacks, AMLO has said that he does not want to pursue criminal actions against his predecessors. Therefore, AMLO raised eyebrows this past September when he called for a referendum that asks citizens to vote on the question whether “the relevant authorities should, in accordance with the applicable laws and procedures, investigate and if appropriate punish, the presumed crimes committed by former presidents,” specifically naming former presidents Enrique Peña Nieto, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Ernesto Zedillo, Vicente Fox, and Felipe Calderón. Opponents challenged the referendum as unconstitutional, on the grounds that Mexico’s Constitution prohibits popular consultations on matters involving guarantees like the presumption of innocence and due process. However, Mexico’s Supreme Court narrowly held, by a 6-5 vote, that the referendum would be constitutional, but voted 8-3 to modify it. The Court altered the language by deleting the reference to the ex-presidents and the phrase “presumed crimes” so that the referendum now reads: “Do you agree or not that the relevant authorities should, in accordance with the constitution and legal framework, undertake a process of clearing up political decisions taken in previous years by politicians, with an aim to guaranteeing justice and the rights of possible victims?” Mexico’s lower house of Congress approved the revised referendum and set the date of the vote for August 2021. AMLO, however, wants the referendum to be held in June 2021, during Mexico’s midterm elections.

Seizing on the vagueness of the referendum and AMLO’s hostility towards his predecessors, AMLO’s opponents have attacked him for attempting to undermine the judicial system and seek political revenge by having a public vote on whether to prosecute and convict former presidents. Other critics have argued the referendum, which is both vaguely worded and non-binding, will not have any real impact, and amounts to little more than political virtue signaling intended to boost AMLO’s party in the upcoming midterm elections.

To a certain extent, I agree with the latter criticism. AMLO’s primary motivation in promoting this referendum is likely political: He wants to (re)create a positive association between his party and the fight against corruption. It’s probably not a coincidence that the push for the referendum comes at a time when one of Mexico’s biggest corruption scandals is unfolding, with former President Peña Nieto accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes from the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht. It’s probably also not a coincidence that AMLO wants to hold the referendum vote on the same day as the 2021 midterm elections. Despite having won power in a landslide in 2018, AMLO and his party are currently in political trouble. Mexico continues to face economic stagnation and high crime, and AMLO’s administration has failed to control the coronavirus. As for AMLO’s promise to rid his country of corruption—a major component of his presidential campaign—he hasn’t made much progress here either. AMLO’s anticorruption credentials have been further tarnished by a leaked video showing AMLO’s brother receiving packages of money from a government functionary that were used to strengthen AMLO’s political party ahead of the 2018 election. It seems that AMLO is attempting to divert attention from his political and policy failures by introducing a referendum that will focus attention on the corruption of prior administrations.

But just because there is a political motivation behind the referendum does not mean that the referendum won’t have a meaningful impact. It likely will, whichever way it comes out.

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What Made Alexei Navalny an Anticorruption Icon?

On August 20, 2020, former Russian presidential candidate Alexei Navalny fell ill while on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow. He slipped into a coma and was immediately evacuated to Berlin, where doctors discovered that Navalny had been poisoned by a Soviet-era nerve agent. While the Kremlin has denied any involvement, the chemical nerve agent used on Navalny was similar to the one that Russia was accused of using to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in 2018.

A Kremlin-orchestrated attempt on Navalny’s life was hardly surprising. For the past decade, Navalny has been making a name for himself as one of the leading figures opposing Russian President Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party. Navalny has denounced United Russia as a “party of crooks and thieves” and has organized campaigns to unseat Putin-affiliated politicians across the country. Furthermore, Navalny’s investigative journalism has uncovered government corruption, and he has used these exposés to advocate for political reform and to bolster his own popularity, especially among the younger generation. Navalny’s success in exposing corruption highlights several interesting and unique tactics and personal attributes that allowed him to be an effective advocate in a country that routinely punishes government opposition.

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Fighting Corruption in Chicago Requires Fundamental Systemic Reforms to City Government

Chicago, a city with an economy larger than that of countries like Thailand and Belgium, has won the title of the most corrupt city in America, with a total of 1,750 public corruption convictions between 1976 and 2018. (Los Angeles came in second with 1,547 convictions, while New York City (Manhattan) had 1,360.) There are numerous reasons why corruption is so pervasive in Chicago, many of which have roots in the city’s complicated history. But one particular institutional feature of Chicago city government appears to play a particularly important role: the system of so-called “aldermanic privilege” that allows local municipal representatives, known as aldermen, to operate their districts like discrete fiefdoms.

Chicago is divided into 50 political wards, each of which elects an alderman to represent the ward in City Council. Chicago differs from most other cities because an alderman can control virtually every aspect of zoning, licenses, and permitting within his or her ward. If, for example, a business needs a permit to hang a sign over its store or wants a license to sell liquor, the local alderman has to approve it. The aldermen also have broad authority to determine if a city block should be zoned as residential, commercial, or manufacturing, and to change zoning designations about how big a house can be, how many patrons a restaurant can serve, and what types of commercial properties are permitted. These powers, known collectively as aldermanic privilege, are not written anywhere in the city’s charter or ordinances. Rather, aldermanic privilege is a byproduct of Chicago’s longstanding political culture of deference and reciprocity: aldermen tacitly agree not to interfere with each other’s decisions, and the mayor cedes control of local wards to aldermen in exchange for the aldermen giving the mayor a wide berth on city-wide decisions. Some defend this system on the grounds that each alderman knows what is best for his or her own ward. And to be sure, aldermanic privilege can be used for good. But this system also fosters corruption, with alderman frequently using their power to extort bribes from local businesses. A particularly egregious illustration of such abuses came to light last year, when federal prosecutors charged Edward Burke, one of Chicago’s longest serving and most powerful alderman, with extortion and related offenses in connection with Burke’s alleged shakedown of local businesses in exchange for licensing and building permits. But Burke is hardly unique.

What can the city do about this problem? Last year, in part in reaction to the Burke Scandal, Mayor Lori Lightfoot successfully ran for mayor on a campaign that called for fighting corruption and ending aldermanic privilege. Mayor Lightfoot followed through shortly after her inauguration, issuing an executive order that stripped aldermen of their authority over permits and licensing decisions, and instructing city departments to stop deferring to aldermen’s wishes. The City Council also passed Mayor Lightfoot’s ethics package, which, among other things, gave Chicago’s inspector general greater powers to investigate aldermen, and banned alderman from having any outside employment that poses a conflict of interest.

This is a good start, but it’s insufficient to root out aldermanic corruption. Succeeding in that endeavor requires more fundamental reforms to Chicago city government. Two such reforms, individually or in combination, might help achieve this end:

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