The result of the referendum was never in doubt.
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (better known as AMLO), the president of Mexico, knew this. That is why he called it.
Only around 19% of those who could vote in the recall election held April 10th, 2022 did so. Out of this small pool over 90% voted that AMLO should finish the single six year term alloted him as president. Even if that same 90% had voted to remove him, the measure would not have passed.
“In order to be binding, at least 40% of voters would have had to cast their ballots, an unlikely turnout in this first recall referendum to be held in Mexico”1
This form of democratic posturing is worryingly similar to that of Nayib Bukele, president of El Salvadore. As Melendez-Sanchez highlights in Latin America Erupts: Millennial Authoritarianism in El Salvador;
““The Salvadoran people,” he(Bukele) tweeted May 1, “said, through their representatives: You’re fired!” Earlier that day Bukele claimed that “this is called democracy. In 200 years, our country had not savored it, but now we do.””2
What Bukele considered democracy was his firing of the independent Attorney General, getting rid of a major institutional check on his authority.
While AMLO does not have as much power as Bukele, he has the same penchant for defining democracy not in terms of the institutions of the Mexican state, but his own ideas. The recall referendum had been called because of a promise made when he had run for president, that the people of Mexico would get to vote halfway through his term (three years).
This tracks with AMLO’s general appeal to ‘the people’ to legitimate his actions. Opponents of this referendum also knew that the result was surely going to favor AMLO, and pointed out that the cost, “…1.6bn pesos, roughly $80m – in reality only half of what the government initially asked for”3 was wasteful.
What all of this amounts to is the co option of the democratic process, turning it not into a vehicle for the legitimate representation of the people’s will, but instead an extremely expensive vanity project for populist politicians.
Elections are meant to be dangerous to the political establishment. Politicians that are not scared of an election are either safe through entrenchment, corruption, or ignorance. This corruption and entrenchment gives populists the opening they need to sweep into power (Bukele winning 53% of the vote, gaining a supermajority in the entirety of government4).
There is another reason that a populist may not be scared of an election, as exemplified in the case of AMLO. Here is the clearest example of performative politics; an election that is not in question, created by a single individual, without even one in five voter turnout. Add on top of this the huge cost of the enterprise and the negative aspects of the populist politician are clear to see.
AMLO has a history of spending large sums of money on symbolic politics. In 2018, just after gaining the presidency, he scrapped a half-built airport outside of Mexico city, saying that “…the project was riddled with corruption, geologically unsound, and too expensive”5. This alarmed many outside contractors and business interests, which seemed to be the point; AMLO had gone against big international business in the interest of the Mexican people.
Or at least that was what the performative action was meant to signify. As well as the money that had already been sunk into the half-built airport “The government spent $1.8 billion paying off the Texcoco bondholders…”6, along with 3.5 billion and three more years to construct a different airport.
This new airport is the first of AMLO’s major infrastructure projects to come to fruition. The others have faced many of the same controversies, namely the 8.9 billion dollar oil refinery being built in Obradors home state of Tabasco. Pemex (the government agency building the refinery) has come under attack from environmentalists who claim that the site hosts protected wetlands. In response, “…Lopez Obrador filed a decree giving his major infrastructure projects national security protections…”7. This makes it harder for environmentalists to gain access to government documents that could prove their case.
The refinery itself could credibly be called performative action. The section of Tabasco that it is built in is already noticing the effects of climate change, something that will only get worse with time. But a large public works project, unpopular with environmentalists and those who scrutinize closely how public money is spent, is good for a president that derives his legitimacy not from effective governance, but his nebulous connection to ‘the people’.
Elections called for with no question of the result; multi-billion dollar airports canceled halfway through construction because the previous administration was corrupt; oil refineries built on ecologically precious land, put under the blanket of national security at the first sign of resistance. The reason for these actions is not just their substantive material effects on the people of Mexico but how they play to ‘the people’.
Populism is more a performance than a political ideology. Levers of the state are manipulated not for their result, but how that result is perceived. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador tailors his presidential performance excellently.
One only hopes that the interests of those who would put on a good performance converge with those who would form a good government.