In Mexico, everything is backwards.
On Sunday, April 10, Mexicans will vote in a recall referendum promoted by a president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who wants to show off the popular support he still enjoys. And the majority of opposition politicians, who should be interested in legally ending or limiting his term in office, don’t want to participate, calling it all a farce designed to elicit applause for the president. The world is upside down.
In other countries, when there’s a vote to remove a president from office, it’s the opposition that organizes it. Not the president. In fact, the president should be the least interested in shortening his rule. But in Mexico it’s AMLO himself who has pushed the process. The only explanation possible is that he knows he’s going to win, that he runs no risk at all and that he might be able to squeeze much political gain out of it.
That’s not what happened in Venezuela in 2004.
At the time, President Hugo Chavez had survived a coup attempt, faced a powerful strike by oil workers and a totally divided country, and was becoming ever more radical in order to hang on to power. The well-founded fear of many Venezuelans is that Chavez might want to remain forever in the presidency. “I am not a dictator,” Chavez told me in a 1998 interview. “Of course I am ready to hand over (power). If, for example, after two years I turns out that I am a failure, I commit a crime or some act of corruption or something that justifies my removal from power, I would be willing to do it.”
But Chavez lied a lot.
That’s why the opposition called for a recall referendum. Article 72 of the 1999 Constitution clearly stated that all elected government positions “are revocable, after half the period for which the functionary was elected.” Chavez did not like the idea of the recall vote, even though he had practically written the constitution.
The opposition gathered 3.2 million signatures requesting a vote. But the National Electoral Council (controlled by Chavez) cheated and ruled they had been gathered too early. Months later, 3.6 million signature calling for a vote were gathered in just four days.
The campaign was so powerful that even Spanish singer Alejandro Sanz said that “if they gave me three million signatures to stop singing, I would stop singing.” Sanz continued to sing but not in Venezuela, where the Chavez government boycotted him for years.
To make the story short, the recall vote was held on Aug. 15 2004. Chavez won it with 59 percent of the vote. But nearly 4 million Venezuelans voted to force him out. That was the last chance to stop the creation of a dictatorship in Venezuela. Chavez, as many feared, remained in power until his death, after a string of electoral frauds. And today his handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, is the sitting dictator.
I write all this to emphasize that it’s the opposition that pushes for a recall referendum, not a president. AMLO no doubt believes he will win handily on Sunday. But his biggest risks are voters who want to punish him. Because of the violence. Because of his improvised handling of the pandemic. Because of the inflation. Because of the disappointing economic growth. Because of his unfair criticisms of journalists and feminists. And because of the way in which he monopolizes power. If the vote is not overwhelmingly in his favor, or if the turnout is very low, the political price of this gamble could weaken him in his last three years in office.
In a country like Mexico, with such a young democracy – barely 22 years old – it is very dangerous to play with the idea of removing a president halfway through his term. I believe in the idea that López Obrador should remain as president until 2024, like the constitution says. Not one more day.
Nevertheless, I very much like the concept of a recall. It would have been very useful after the scandal of the white house owned by President Enrique Peña Nieto. Or the total failure of the war on narcos during the presidency of Felipe Calderón. Or to limit the damages caused by Carlos Salinas de Gortari after the massive electoral fraud in 1988. Or to remove a human rights abuser like Luis Echeverria after the massacres of 1968 and 1971. Those would have been real lessons in democracy. Not what is going to happen on Sunday.
Let me be clear: To me, the idea of a recall seems excellent. I see it as an exercise in pure democracy that we should participate in and that it will serve us well in the future. But the way it is being implemented this time makes little sense. A recall process is, above all, designed to limit presidential power. Ironically, it is being used in Mexico to expand and boast about it.
Everything is backward.