La Semana: Sunday, April 17
The week in recall referendum aftermath and the energy reform bill
Welcome to the Sunday edition of The Mexpatriate. In today’s newsletter:
To be continued: AMLO “wins” the recall vote
The Easter energy reform vote
Please send me your comments, feedback and questions, and feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. You can always find all sources (with links) at the bottom of the email.
Wishing you all a peaceful holiday week in celebration of renewal and hope.
To be continued: AMLO “wins” the recall vote
Last Sunday, April 10, 16.5 million Mexicans (17.7% of eligible voters) cast their votes in the much-anticipated recall referendum and 91.86% were in favor of President López Obrador remaining in office. Hailed simultaneously as a victory for democracy by some and a cynical public act of adulation by others, it has left a further polarized political landscape in its wake. For AMLO and his party, MORENA, the "revocación" marked not only the fulfillment of a campaign promise, but also an opportunity to assess their strength to mobilize constituents in 2024.
“This is a peaceful way to make an impact, to express the yearning for participatory democracy,” according to historian Karla Motte.
According to the Constitution, in order for the referendum to be legally binding, 40% of the electorate must participate. This threshold was not met even in the states with highest participation rates, such as Tabasco. AMLO’s supporters have blamed the National Electoral Institute (INE) for insufficient turnout by not installing enough voting booths or broadcasting sufficient information about the referendum to the public. This perceived vacuum of communication was filled by morenistas who in some cases blatantly flouted electoral laws by promoting the “revocación”, and even “giving rides” to voters to their local polling places.
Pablo Gómez, director of the government’s Financial Intelligence Unit (UIF), went so far as to insinuate that those who abstained from voting could face legal consequences since according to the Mexican constitution, voting is mandatory for its citizens. While the Constitution does stipulate citizens have both a right and obligation to vote, the penalty for not doing so is unclear as the laws governing electoral procedures do not specify any.
Critics point out that given the low stakes of this debut recall referendum—instigated and promoted by the administration in power—it is unsurprising that there was voter apathy. Abstention from the vote was also an expression of civil dissent for some, even though no opposition party explicitly promulgated this strategy.
Looking back on López Obrador’s political trajectory, it appears these 16 million votes have been AMLO’s ride or die base since 2006: he tallied just below 15 million votes in the presidential election that year and again in the national election of 2012. In 2018, he won the presidency with 30 million votes.
“If you think this went poorly for the government and the president, you’re fooling yourself. 16 million is not the ceiling, it’s the floor,” noted analyst Jorge Andrés Castañeda in a Tweet.
A closer look at the numbers reveals who forms this base: 58% of voters surveyed in exit polls were beneficiaries of government social programs and the majority of voters were age 50 and up. The highest turnout was in Tabasco (AMLO’s home state) and other southern states such as Chiapas and Campeche, and was lowest in the north of the country.
Why has this referendum been so ardently pursued by AMLO and his followers? It is a curiosity in many respects when viewed in comparison with global democracies. The only other presidential systems that use recall referendums at a national level are Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. “This is a peaceful way to make an impact, to express the yearning for participatory democracy,” according to historian Karla Motte. “The recent history of Mexico and its episodes of corruption, particularly under Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto, would have been different if we had had a participatory tool like this one.” As the president has repeated at rallies many times: “the people put us in power, and the people can take it away.”
But why is it necessary to fortify a right that all Mexican citizens already possess? If anything, it seems that a push for a constitutional amendment to end executive term limits would be a more effective way to allow for citizens to either curtail or prolong a particular president’s rule. And if this recall referendum had been available to the Mexican voter halfway through the sexenio of Enrique Peña Nieto, would that have made a radical difference? The law as it stands now states that if a president is recalled by referendum, then Congress appoints an interim president to conclude his or her term. While the removal from power is through democratic means, without a mechanism in place to hold another general election, the choice of replacement is left in the hands of legislators.
From a broader perspective, it seems López Obrador’s “cuarta transformación” is falling into the same trap as his most despised predecessors by putting all the democratic eggs into the executive basket. Can the fate of Mexico, or of any nation, truly turn on just one man or woman in power?
The “arthritic elephant” of the Mexican state, as memorably described by AMLO, is actually where the spotlight needs to shine and is precisely what has been most summarily dismissed and desecrated by this administration. The battle lines drawn between MORENA and the INE over the course of organizing, funding and executing this recall referendum will surely be critical in upcoming elections. In the most sinister scenario, the president and his party could turn entirely against the independent electoral arbiter and propose their own apparatus for supervising elections.
The national conversation on the recall referendum has led to fierce, dynamic debate and even some collective soul-searching on questions of civic duty and what it means to live in a democracy. And yet, the narrative is still one dominated by the trope of the caudillo, the chief, the savior. The wobbling tower of weak institutions and rule of law he stands upon remains in the shadows.
The Easter energy reform vote
As I write, President López Obrador’s controversial energy reform initiative is being debated in the Cámara de Diputados (House of Representatives). The vote was previously scheduled for April 12, but at the last minute, members of the MORENA alliance (the majority) decided to postpone the vote until Sunday, April 17. Yes, that is today: Easter Sunday.
MORENA needs 54 votes from opposition representatives in order to pass the bill and the postponement of the vote to Easter Sunday was seen as an unsubtle maneuver to buy time and possibly, more votes. Since Tuesday, a few opposition representatives have jumped ship and come out in support of the bill.
Opposition members of congress posted videos and photos of their arrival at the San Lázaro congressional hall on Saturday night, carrying suitcases and sleeping bags, looking like kids arriving at camp. All promised their determination to stop the bill. “The president’s counter-reform isn’t dead…it is more than dead. There has been a wake, a burial, and tomorrow we will be placing flowers on the grave. There will be no Sunday resurrection for the #LeyBartlett,” stated one PAN (National Action Party) congressman, Jorge Triana.
The proposed constitutional reform has been widely criticized, nationally and internationally, for removing incentives for cleaner energy production, reducing competition in the energy market and empowering the notoriously corrupt and inefficient national energy company, the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE) run by 86 year-old political chameleon Manuel Bartlett. Legislation passed in 2021 to bolster the CFE and reverse privatization has already provoked lawsuits and injunctions in various states, some of which were ruled on just last week by the Supreme Court (SCJN). In an unprecedented decision, the court declared the law is constitutional even though 8 of the 11 ministers found it unconstitutional. In a “Kafkian” twist, the eight votes were counted as seven because they argued against constitutionality using different reasons. “The highest court in the nation ended up becoming a theatre in which there were simply and clearly eight votes, but they did not want to count them,” noted an article in Reforma.
“The SCJN sometimes is like a high-speed, shiny train. But then at times it becomes a delayed, antiquated, rusty train that arrives late to important appointments with history,” quipped analyst Denise Dresser.
Stay tuned for more on this landmark vote…
“Una revocación que no fue” (Gatopardo)
Es la hora de opinar (7 de abril)
Hora de definiciones por la reforma eléctrica (Animal Político)
Jorge Triana @JTrianaT (Twitter)
Sin derecho al futuro (Reforma)