Majority in Mexico voted to prosecute former presidents, but the turnout was insufficient

According to a quick count by Mexico’s National Electoral Institute (INE), an overwhelming majority of voters voted in favor of investigating former presidents. However, the turnout to make the results of the referendum binding was insufficient

August 02, 2021 by Tanya Wadhwa
Activists in Mexico rallied to condemn the actions of the INE which they allege limited and obstructed participation in the referendum. Photo: Sheila Franco

On August 1, over 93.6 million Mexicans were eligible to participate in a popular referendum and decide whether or not they want former presidents to be investigated and prosecuted for alleged crimes committed during their respective terms. According to the quick count by Mexico’s National Electoral Institute (INE), an overwhelming majority of voters, between 89.36% and 96.28%, voted “yes”. Meanwhile, only a very small number of voters, between 1.38% and 1.58%, voted “no”.

However, the turnout to make the results of the referendum binding was insufficient. According to the INE, only between 7.07% and 7.74% of the eligible voters took part in the plebiscite, far from the threshold required to obligate the judicial power to take action against those who violated the law in the exercise of their duties. To be mandatory, it was necessary that 40% of the participating population or 37.4 million Mexicans support the option “yes”.

The voters were asked to answer the question: Do you agree or disagree on undertaking a process of clarification of the political decisions made in the past years by political actors, under the constitutional and legal framework, and aimed at guaranteeing justice and the rights of the possible victims?

The referendum was promoted by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). He called on the citizens to vote to probe five former presidents, including Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994), Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000), Vicente Fox (2000-2006), Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), and Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018). All of them are accused of committing crimes related to human rights violations, electoral fraud, corruption scandals, illegal privatizations of public assets, among others. Nevertheless, the National Supreme Court of Justice changed the question and removed the specific names of the former presidents.

The low turnout at the polls was not surprising. The opinion polls had indicated that the people would overwhelmingly back the proposal, but only a small number would vote. The ruling Morena party, for weeks, had been denouncing the INE and the opposition parties for maneuvering to avoid massive attendance at the polls to benefit the ex-presidents involved.

The Morena party had rejected the INE’s decision to cut down the budget to open more polling stations, hire staff and run a more efficient advertising campaign. It had accused the INE of fostering a silent election campaign to favor the National Action Party (PAN) and Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Additionally, former President Vicente Fox, among various PAN legislators, had continuously urged citizens to stay at home, using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext.

Omar García, one of the survivors of the attack on the students of the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in September 2014 during former president Enrique Peña Nieto’s rule, through a tweet yesterday, explained that the right-wing forces were calling not to vote because they fear that their colleagues, relatives and friends will be left without inheritance in office.

“For more than 14 years, the people have struggled to hold popular referendums in Mexico. That’s because the political class seized the exercise of power, concentrated it in the hands of a few, and thus have been handing over the positions among nephews, nieces, colleagues, friends, relatives, lovers, etc. This is the reason they are opposing voting today because they fear that their own people will be undermined in public affairs, and the people and the population will learn to administer the state as well. To remove this policy is what this referendum is about,” said García.

This morning, President AMLO, during his daily conference, considered the referendum a “triumph” and “a good start.” He said that “regardless of how confusing the question was, people realized what it was about and 97% voted yes. I am very happy with the results. Never before have so many people participated in a referendum.”

He congratulated the more than 6.6 million citizens who participated in the plebiscite and called on those who did not to do so in the next referendum in March 2022 in order not to miss the opportunity to exercise their right to opinion. “March will be interesting, it is a challenge and it is an opportunity to consolidate these systems of participatory democracy,” added president AMLO.

After the official results were posted, activists who had been helping inform and mobilize people to participate in the referendum, announced the creation of a Mexico chapter of the People’s Tribunal. Journalist Alina Duarte along with Omar García, Ariadna Bahena, and Epigmenio Ibarra declared in a press conference that in the People’s Tribunal, the former heads of state and others could be judged before national and international law for their responsibility in human rights violations, crimes against humanity, and others. They highlighted that the priority is guaranteeing the right to truth and memory for the victims of these crimes and the guarantee of no repetition.

Mexican activists and journalists Alina Duarte, Omar García, Ariadna Bahena, and Epigmenio Ibarra announced the creation of the People’s Tribunal chapter in Mexico to judge the crimes of former leaders.