In unusual step, Mexico president asks voters if he should go

MEXICO CITY – Mexico will hold its first presidential recall referendum on Sunday, promoted by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, on whether he should complete his six-year term, an exercise that has split public opinion.

With an approval rating of nearly 60%, the midterm popularity test appears unlikely to result in Lopez Obrador's early departure.

The president argues that submitting himself to the recall referendum is important for democracy, but critics see it as little more than an expensive propaganda exercise.

The 68-year-old self-styled anti-corruption, pro-austerity crusader was elected in 2018 vowing to overhaul Mexico's "neoliberal" economic model.

Lopez Obrador has promised not to seek reelection in 2024, following accusations by opponents that the referendum is a step towards changing the rules to enable him to stay in power beyond then.

The Mexican constitution limits presidents to one term.

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Lopez Obrador "seeks, like any populist politician, to maintain the climate of polarization and encourage the narrative that the people are on his side," said political consultant Luis Carlos Ugalde, a former head of Mexico's electoral institute.

But Ugalde is skeptical the vote will smooth the way for Lopez Obrador staying in office beyond 2024.

"Perhaps there will be voices in his party that say he should stay, but the power of that voice will be minimal," Ugalde said.

A successful result on Sunday could inject momentum into Lopez Obrador's policy agenda, including controversial energy reforms.

Lopez Obrador's Morena party lost its absolute majority in the lower house of Congress in legislative elections last year.

The president also has his eye on the 2024 elections and the prospects for his party and possible successors including Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum.


Lopez Obrador has overseen a series of referendums since taking office on controversial issues including his "Maya Train" railroad project, and canceling a partially finished airport for Mexico City.

A public consultation held in August on whether to prosecute his predecessors for alleged corruption drew only a small fraction of voters to the polls.

The midterm recall referendum was incorporated into Mexico's constitution in 2019 at Lopez Obrador's initiative.

Some 93 million voters will be able to participate, but many are expected to stay home.

The outcome will be overwhelmingly in favor of Lopez Obrador completing his term, although in any case turnout is likely to be below the 40% level needed for the vote to be legally binding, predicted Ugalde.

The opposition parties PAN, PRI and PRD have urged Mexicans to abstain from voting in what they call a "populist exercise."

Lopez Obrador enjoyed an approval rating of 58% in March, although that was far below a peak of 81% seen in February 2019, according to a poll of polls by the Oraculus firm.

"It's kind of an oxymoron to have a recall process when you have a popular president," said Jorge Buendia, director of public opinion firm Buendia & Marquez.

"The strongest supporters of the president are those that are going to go to the polls," he told a panel discussion.

Lopez Obrador owes much of his popularity to his social welfare programs aimed at helping the poor, and dominates Mexico's news agenda with press conferences lasting up to three hours every weekday.

Lopez Obrador's critics say he is damaging democratic checks and balances with his attacks on bodies including the National Electoral Institute, which the president accuses of undermining the referendum.

"We will defend the National Electoral Institute, which is under attack by the presidency," said Amado Vazquez, a lawyer attending a protest against Sunday's vote in the western city of Guadalajara.

The referendum is biased in favor of the government and "in no way a citizen's vote," he added.

Artmotion S.Africa

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