MEXICO CITY – For the first time in history, Mexicans will vote Sunday on whether their president should finish out the rest of his term.
It has been a bizarre journey to this vote. For one thing, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador himself demanded it. The president got angry when electoral officials set up a limited number of polling places to save money.
Second, there’s little chance that the required minimum of 40% of voters — almost 40 million — will show up to make the referendum valid.
And third, there’s little chance López Obrador could lose, with current approval ratings of around 60%.
So why is Mexico going through with the vote, which will cost almost $80 million?
Analysts say López Obrador wanted the recall to mobilize and energize his supporters; he is a president who has been constantly on the campaign trail since 2005, and he depicts his administration as a twilight battle to defeat conservatives.
So he is hoping the get-out-the-vote effort will shore up his party in state elections this year, with a possible spill-over effect for the 2024 presidential race. The ballot asks whether López Obrador should continue as president or be replaced.
While some opposition groups have called on people to boycott the vote, some opponents want to actually try to win, and say people should turn out and vote to recall the president.
Martín Meneses, 58, a formal postal worker, says such a vote “is important, so the president can see that the people are waking up from their slumber.”
Like many opponents, Meneses sees López Obrador's highly personalistic, charismatic style as weakening democracy. The president has bridled at criticism, verbally attacked journalists, lashed out at judges whose rulings he disagrees with and has done away with niceties like environmental impact statements for his pet building projects.
Meneses sees the vote as another, expensive play by López Obrador to put himself at center stage. Referring to the government's failure to buy enough medicine for childhood cancer treatments, Meneses objected to “stratospheric costs to hold a vote, when children with cancer don't have medicine.”
The president's supporters see the vote as equally vital.
María Hernández, a 70-year-old homemaker in Mexico City's rough Colonia Obrera neighborhood, is all too conscious of the old-age stipend of about $75 per month instituted by López Obrador.
“In good times and bad, we have to stick with him, because if he isn't here, they'll take away the benefits we have,” said Hernández. “They can't recall the guy who has helped us.”
Abel Medina, 40, who owns a small tortilla ship in Mexico City's historic downtown, said the vote “will be worth it, to give legitimacy to the president.”
“Now we have a good president, not like those of the past who dug us into a whole by selling off state-owned companies,” Medina said. “That's why we ant him to continue.”
If its unlikely to have any real effect, what's the harm in holding a vote, apart from the money spent?
Rubén Salazar, director of the Etellekt Consulting firm, said there were dangers in the way López Obrador's administration has been trying to whip up enthusiasm for the vote; the president's previous referendums have drawn sparse turnout.
“The government's own propaganda apparatus has carried out a very intense campaign, using public money,” Salazar said, noting “those who receive social benefits program have been pressured” to vote.
That remains a concern; Mexico was ruled for seven decades by the old Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, whch routinely traded hand-out programs in exchange for votes.