Mexican president poised to win historic, polarizing referendum on his rule
By Dave Graham
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is this month poised for victory in a referendum on his rule that could fortify his authority during the final stretch of his administration even as critics dismiss the vote as a sideshow.
The recall referendum on April 10 has given the popular leftist Lopez Obrador a focal point for his constant broadsides against the opposition, which is struggling to capitalize on the troubles he has had delivering on promises.
Lopez Obrador argues the first-of-its-kind vote, which he himself called, is vital to validate his democratic mandate. Much of the opposition sees it as a distraction from governing a country where presidents can only serve a single six-year term.
"It reaffirms the principle that the people are sovereign, that they are the ones in charge," Lopez Obrador said of the vote late last year. "(And) the conservatives don't like it."
Many people, however, seem indifferent.
A poll published in early March by newspaper El Financiero showed 52% regarded the referendum as unnecessary. Some 42% took the opposing view. Still, when asked whether Lopez Obrador should finish his term, 63% said 'yes'. Only 30% said no.
The survey estimated between 18% and 27% of the electorate would take part, well below the 40% threshold required to make the result binding, even though the president has said he will step down if he loses, irrespective of turnout.
He has helped to keep the referendum in the public eye by accusing the national electoral institute of siding with his critics, and trying to undermine the vote, which it denies.
Lopez Obrador's approval rating has been robust, helped by a divided opposition and his control of the political agenda via daily news conferences. Latest polling shows it around 60%, even though the economy's recovery from the pandemic stalled late last year and homicides remain close to record levels.
Prominent opposition politicians have argued the referendum is a waste of public money and should be ignored, likely depressing the turnout among their supporters, and making the likelihood of an upset vanishingly small, pollsters say.
"The referendum's a joke," said Alejandra, 23, a Mexico City student who voted for Lopez Obrador in 2018 but now opposes him, partly because she disagrees with his energy policy.
Lopez Obrador wants to change the constitution to favor Mexico's state energy companies, which are large consumers of fossil fuels, over private solar and wind firms. He has set a vote in Congress on the issue for the week after the referendum.
Arguing that past governments rigged the electricity market in favor of foreign capital, he has used the issue to frame his narrative that as custodian of the state, he is defending a poor majority from a corrupt elite bent on self-enrichment.
As a candidate, Lopez Obrador pledged to deliver average annual growth of 4% and to get violent gangs under control. The violence remains acute, with 20 people massacred in a shooting on Sunday. Meanwhile, the economy shrank even before the pandemic and remains well below pre-COVID-19 levels.
Without better results to point to, Lopez Obrador is likely to double down on his polarizing narrative in the 2 1/2 years that remain to him, said Jesus Ortega, a former ally.
"The referendum is part of that strategy," said Ortega, who ran Lopez Obrador's unsuccessful 2006 presidential campaign.
Lopez Obrador won by a landslide in 2018. But in midterm elections last June, his hold on Congress was weakened and opposition parties unexpectedly gained control of a majority of boroughs in Mexico City, long viewed as his bastion.
Mexico City's mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum, is one of the front-runners to succeed Lopez Obrador in 2024, but her chances may hinge somewhat on public support for him in the capital.
If in the recall vote Mexico City delivers sub-par results despite many billboards urging participation, it could hurt her presidential credentials, according to half a dozen government officials and politicians from within the ranks of the ruling National Regeneration Movement.
Sheinbaum's office did not reply to a request for comment.
Roberto Romero, 42, a graphic designer in Mexico City who voted for Lopez Obrador in 2018, said he was disappointed by the government and unlikely to participate in the referendum.
"I have a lot of friends who voted for (Lopez Obrador) who say they're going to look for a different option," he said.
Still, among his supporters, the faith burns brightly.
Jose Luis Zumaya, a 47-year-old logistics worker from Ecatepec on the edge of Mexico City, said Lopez Obrador was helping the poor, and not just kowtowing to greedy foreign companies.
"The old governments were untouchable," Zumaya said, enthusing about the referendum. "They had immunity for ever."
(Reporting by Dave Graham; Editing by Alistair Bell)
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