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.