Mexico’s President Lopez Obrador’s Experiment with Democracy


Written by: Harry Colvin

Throughout March and early April, Mexico City was filled with fliers, signs and billboards encouraging the public to vote on whether or not President Manuel López Obrador, often referred to as AMLO, should remain in office or not. One flier supporting AMLO’s stay in office read, “If you don’t participate, the corrupt ones will take away the scholarships, assistance and pensions that we receive today.” However, it may come as a surprise to many that the ones pushing for participation in this vote were the loyalists of the President. 

When campaigning for the position in 2018, AMLO pledged that the people of Mexico could vote midway through his six-year term to decide whether he should complete his presidential term. In his last State of the Union address in December, the President had asserted that this recall is about ensuring accountability. He said, “It’s not like I’m elected for six years and can just do whatever I want, NO, the people must always keep the power in their hands … and any politician who doesn’t obey, then revoke their mandate and throw them out.” This statement was met with passionate applause from his audience

The recall took place in early April, but the voter turnout was extremely low. 18% of the electorate cast their ballot which was well below the threshold of 40% for it to be binding. 90% of those voters cast their ballot in favor of the President, so it is safe to say that his loyalists were the most active among the voters. Perhaps their public campaigning throughout Mexico City didn’t have much of an influence on the rest of the Mexican electorate, or perhaps the non-voters simply felt that abstaining from voting was practically voting in favor of President López Obrador finishing out his six-year term. 

A strong group of critics claims that this project executed by the President and his staff is simply propaganda for his lackluster tenure as president. He has fallen short of campaign pledges including reducing crime, lifting the economy and controlling natural resources. Opponents reportedly organized a boycott of the election in an attempt to ensure that the 40% voting threshold was not met. They felt that the election was purely political theater and a waste of money. 

The debate over whether this was a true move of democracy or simply political theater is a difficult one to navigate. On one hand, AMLO pledged to execute the recall during his campaign, it was not simply created out of thin air during the middle of his Presidency to reduce the noise of critics. But, isn’t a campaign for Presidency practically political theater itself? 

AMLO celebrated the result of the recall despite the voting threshold not being reached. He addressed the public through a video where he stated that “more than 15 million Mexicans are happy and want me to continue until September 2024″ when his term comes to an end. After the result, critics continued to lambaste the President claiming that he could use the overwhelming victory in the recall referendum to create a path toward lifting the one-time presidential term limit. 

However, in a public service announcement posted on social media platforms, President Lopez Obrador stated he will “continue to serve until the last day of my term, I will not go further than that because I am a democrat and I am not in favor of re-election.” 

Obrador kept his promise, and although it may have been a bit of theater, theater is what makes people believe in politicians. In a democracy, it is crucial to ensure that the government does not simply remain with the status quo but rather look for ways to improve the balance between the government and the people. Searching for ways to alter the electoral system is a healthy exercise for governments, and AMLO did just that. 

Perhaps he knew all along that he was going to win. But democracy is larger than just Mexico and just the current standing president. If he sets a precedent with this recall referendum, it could later be used at a point of crucial change in Mexico’s future. In order to create a strong future for Mexico, one can look at the past and the country’s relationship with democracy. 

Despite technically beginning its relationship with democracy in 1824 after independence from the Spanish Empire, Mexico has endured some complicated years with establishing a democratic government. After a series of presidential battles, wars with the United States and civil conflict, Mexico eventually began a dictatorship-era under the rule of Porfirio Díaz in 1876. This would last until 1911, and regular elections would be held throughout the period despite low engagement and Díaz’s continuous reelections. After a revolution in the 1910s, a new constitution was created and a modern era of Mexican democratic government began. 

Since 1926, the Mexican President has served a consistent six-year term, which has brought some stability to the office. However, trends of coups, corruption and disapproval from sectors of the Mexican population throughout the 20th century showcase the inconsistent dedication to a true democracy. 

AMLO’s attempt at a recall referendum is an effort to assert true democracy in a country that has had an unstable past in terms of its governmental structure. It gives the people more voice than they ever had, offering them the opportunity to essentially end the sitting president’s term if they felt it was necessary. 

Mexico’s next election is in 2024, and opinion is split on AMLO’s chances at re-election. Some feel that he has catered to those who already support him through actions such as this midterm vote. Thus, he could lose support from the middle class with whom he already isn’t particularly popular. 

For the middle class, it appears that being as democratic as possible isn’t necessarily the most important thing for the country. They’re focused on the government assisting with improving social mobility, education and health services. If a candidate promises more attention to the struggling middle class, AMLO’s wish to serve another six years could be crushed. 

Despite AMLO’s referendum as a sign of a stronger democracy, it frankly isn’t what the people care about. The problem with political theater is that it is not the execution the people need. Do the majority of Mexicans want a fair share of political power? Yes. But what they really want is for their lives to be less difficult and for their needs to be more accessible. AMLO’s attempt at giving the people a louder voice in politics was not successful because they did not buy into his showmanship, because he has not given them what he promised in his campaign. Still, this entire endeavor by AMLO was not necessarily a bad thing, it was just simply not what the middle class of Mexico wanted or needed. Only the 2024 election will be able to tell us how impactful the President’s tactics were in connecting with the people of Mexico through this referendum. Based on the vote’s turnout and results, it doesn’t appear as if the middle class is behind him, which could be detrimental to his re-election campaign.