“[G]overnment is in principle democratic, in (liberal) theory mixed, and in practice oligarchic”
The use of populist techniques has set president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), apart from his predecessors. With pledges like “No more corruption in the construction of the country” he has set a world that posts a “corrupt” elite against the “people”. In line with his rhetoric, president Obrador has overused his consultas populares (referendums), in order to legitimize most of his political actions. Since AMLO came into power, he has organized three major referenda: he managed to cancel the airport construction in Texcoco; an interstate train in the southeast region of the country, Tren Maya; and the approval of the new refinery, Dos Bocas, in Tabasco. These democratic practices have never been utilized to the extent in which AMLO has used them. Although they give a voice to the citizenry, especially to those who always felt voiceless and allow him to legitimate his agenda, because it permits him to push his agenda supported by his own referendums. His actions demonstrate the dangers that his presidency carries: the overuse of consultas populares proves to legitimacy President Obrador acts of populism as he intends to resolve the country’s problems through referendums with low-voting turnout and disguising it as the voice of the “people”.
The first problem of AMLO’s referenda is the lack of participation. For example, when it was time to decide on the construction of the Tren Maya, the approval was over 950,000 voters, in contrast to the 89 million electorates in the country – participation was less than 1% of the total electorate. Although the construction of the train proposes benefits to the economy and the tourism sector, it could have a negative impact on its inhabitants, cultural traditions, and local fauna. The new tourism project would cause major damage to the environment, causing many areas to be deforested, the pollution of the water used for local agricultural production, and possible exploitation of the land causing major social segregation. Meanwhile, the referendums from President Obrador have been heavily questioned and criticized by his political opponents, who constantly call him a populist. These examples demonstrate that the overuse of consultas populares legitimizes the President’s acts of populism as he intends to resolve the country’s problems, even at the cost of the consequences that arise as a result of his decisions.
The other reason why these referenda can be detrimental to democracy has to do with their impact on public policy. For example, one of AMLO’S most controversial actions was to put the continuation of the construction of the New International Airport in Mexico up for a vote in a referendum. The new infrastructure project, proposed and started by former President Peña Nieto, was intended to ease traffic through Mexico’s main airport. The results showed that “only 1.2% of registered voters turned out [310, 463 voters], with 70% rejecting the new airport project in favor of Mr. López Obrador’s proposal to keep the existing airport and add a terminal and two runways to a military base north of Mexico City.” Alongside this new decision, it is reported that the cancellation of the new airport plan will cost about $5 billion USD. However, this proved that too much direct democracy isn’t good for Mexico, especially as investors are on the lookout for new maneuvers that President Obrador might leave to public consensus, making his government erratic. One of the main consequences of this action resulted in the fall of the peso on Monday, trading around 20.02 to the dollar, from 19.36 on Friday. Demonstrating how AMLO’s referendums, taken by a small number of people, have impacted the economy of the country.
According to Sakina Haider, master’s student in public policy at the JFK School of Government at Harvard University, there should be checks on when and how referendums are deployed, and they should limit leaders ability to use them for political ends. Requiring bipartisan support before launching a referendum, for example, could help to reduce the ability to manipulate a vote for political capital. Which would be nice, only if the President’s Obrador party, MORENA, didn’t control the majority in both chambers of Congress, with 317 members out of the 628 in both chambers. This allows his dominance over the executive and the legislative to be more worrisome in total.
Although ALMO’s use of populist techniques has worked to legitimize his presidency via direct democracy in the eyes of his supporters, most of the processes he conducts aren’t truly democratic. Most of the cases his consultas populares target only the desires of the president, they have been poorly organized, despite the public voting on them with massive proportions of approval. In some cases, obtaining more than 50% of approval, meanwhile, only having less than 1% of the total electorate in the country. Which means that big decisions that affect the economy of the nation, are taken by a minuscule percentage of the population. Mexico’s citizens have to be careful when electing leaders that seem too democratic to be true – not just López Obrador, but all those who may come after him.