The new president of Mexico—Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO)—assumed the executive branch of a country plagued with social issues: high homicide rates, widespread corruption, and dismally low approval of government.  AMLO’s party, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), vowed to alleviate these issues by ushering in the cuarta transformación—the fourth transformation—of Mexico’s politics and society.  In the new Mexico, AMLO promised more inclusion and participation in politics by everyday citizens, particularly through popular consultations, including referendums.


True to his word, and even before assuming the Presidency, AMLO held a referendum to decide the fate of Mexico City’s new airport.  Shortly after—on 24 and 25 November 2018—AMLO held a second round of referendums where 10 issues—including a transcontinental railroad, doubling pensions, and increasing the number of scholarships for young students—were decided.  Finally, on February 24 and 25 of this year, AMLO asked citizens to decide the construction of a thermoelectric project, his first referendum since becoming president.


While attempting to expand the arenas where citizens can participate is admirable, voting on the referendums has been plagued by dismally low turnout, voter fraud, vandalism, and other irregularities.  Critics have pointed out the loaded terminology of consultations, lack of information, and have observed that polling stations have been set up in areas won during the presidential election.  The concerns with AMLO’s referendums are rightly valid, as has been addressed in a host of research.  All citizens should be weary of whether his consultas are effective decision-making mechanisms and whether the outcomes are democratic representations of citizens.


AMLO’s consultas, however, belie a more dangerous possible development: that referendums called directly by executives can usher in anti-democratic effects.  Two effects in particular continue to be ignored by both advocates and critics of AMLO’s referendums.  The first involves the disappearance of compromise in creating policy and the second involves the possibility of creating a feeling that the president derives his power directly from the masses.


Regarding the first, where referendums are used to decide issues, they appear on ballots as binary choices: a Yes or No decision.  The consequence of a binary decision for citizens is that voting takes place under the pressure of a belief that there exists only one correct position.  As such, binary referendums obstruct the adoption of projects that would normally result from compromise between conflicting interests.  In referendums, the most diverse reasons can lead to a No, despite compromise being a critical component of laws adopted in states with strong regional, social, and cultural diversity.


The more serious development—the second effect—is that AMLO’s referendums have not been a bottom-up process where signatures are gathered by citizens who qualify an issue to the ballot—as many American states or Swiss cantons would have it.  Neither have the referendums been proposed by the legislature, which would require some cross-party agreement or threshold to move forward.  Instead, they have been held directly at the insistence of the executive.  This direct demand has acute consequences.


The danger in using executive referendums is that these seemingly democratic tools are subject to an anti-authoritarian interpretation.  Regardless of a referendum’s value as an expression of the popular will, executive referendums can become the means of deriving the legitimacy of authority from the confidence of the ruled.  Continuously deciding policy creates a belief among citizens that they have a right to enact, recognize, or appeal laws. The institutional hazard is that instead of referendums being understood as a consequence of executive legitimacy, they may begin to be interpreted as the basis of democratic legitimacy.


Referendums as the basis of legitimacy can begin to form when citizens are continuously asked to directly decide issues via the ballot and becomes much more plausible when leaders hold referendums on their rule—a strong possibility in Mexico: even before AMLO began his presidency, he announced a referendum on his performance every two years and vowed to curtail his six-year term if voters so decided.


And here lies the danger. Holding a referendum on his rule instead begins to make AMLO a leader by the grace of his followers since the latter are now free to elect and even to depose him.  Instead of being elected as one individual among a group in a competitive election, AMLO becomes the freely elected leader.  A referendum on AMLO’s rule does not constitute an ordinary vote or election, but a profession of faith, “a recognition of one individual as a personally qualified leader”, as Weber believed. The effects on the executive are equally damaging: the use of referendums creates a feeling among the executive that he is acting on behalf of the masses precisely because he is recognized by them.  Both the Napoleons are classical examples as is Hugo Chavez.


The two anti-democratic effects–the disappearance of compromise in creating policy and  the possibility of creating a feeling that the president derives his power directly from the masses–has led some scholars to see direct democracy as Janus faced; sometimes referendums can be forward looking, seeking to improve the quality of democracies and other times, they can be used to accumulate power among leaders to the detriment of citizens.


The appropriate route for AMLO is to finish his sexenio, as has been done for almost a century in Mexico. Despite its many social challenges, Mexico has a long tradition of steady exchange of power dating back to the end of its revolution. This should not stop now.  A potential recall of AMLO would not only create an institutional crisis; it can also establish an expectation, indeed a precedent, for future Presidents to hold periodic referendums on their rule. What Mexico requires at this point is not uncertainty.  What it requires is a strong continuation of its political process.


Further Reading:

  1. Altman, David. 2011. Direct Democracy Worldwide. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Cortés, Juve J. 2017. “Arrested Development: The Slow Start to Mexican Direct Democracy.”Estudios Mexicanos[Mexican Studies] 33 (3): 394-416.
  3. Cortés, Juve J. 2018. “Self‐Governance in Latin America: To What Extent Can Citizens Make Policy via Direct Democracy?” Latin American Policy9 (1): 5-26.


Image credit: Eneas via flickr

About The Author

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Juve J. Cortés is a writer, scholar, activist and an aficionado of all things political.