On April 10, 2022, Mexico had its first “mandate recall”, an exercise of participatory democracy inaugurated by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the current Mexican president. Widely known by just his initials, AMLO won by a record 30 million votes in 2018, in a historic election with the highest turnout in Mexican history , with a victory margin of 32.44 points. After two failed attempts at the presidency in 2006 and 2012, López Obrador finally won a landslide victory and has enjoyed a huge amount of popular support. AMLO’s myth is that of a political messiah: he presents himself as a man who stands by “the people”, and who is tired of watching the country being looted by internal corruption and neoliberal policies which favor foreign interests over those of the country and its inhabitants. He has also called for more direct involvement from the people in political decision making, calling referendums on various issues. When López Obrador reached the presidency, he claimed that there was going to be a ”regime change”, and his supporters claimed his victory to be a rupture point in Mexican electoral history. In this article, I argue that AMLO’s referendums are a continuation, not a rapture, of what I call simulated democracy, which has characterized, sadly, most of modern Mexican electoral history.
The history of electoral politics in Mexico is a complicated one. After the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) which initially overthrew dictator Porfirio Díaz and then Victoriano Huerta, the chaotic succession of presidential caudillos who ruled the country finally ended with the creation of a single party, which eventually become the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). From 1929 all the way into 2000, the PRI reigned supreme in Mexico, presumably through “fair elections”. During this time, the electoral body in charge of organizing and supervising elections was a committee dependent on the Secretariat of Home Affairs (Office of Governance, Secretaría de Gobernación) . This allowed for the PRI to rig elections in order to keep themselves in power for decades. The perpetuation of the PRI’s hegemony with the aid of a biased and corrupt supervising electoral body, made pundits call Mexican democracy a “simulation”, in which the official discourse was that of fair elections, while in reality these were completely rigged in favor of the ruling party.
Mexico lived in a simulated democracy for over 70 years. In 1990, after a flagrant voter fraud favoring Carlos Salinas de Gortari over Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas in the 1988 elections, the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) was created. In 1996, then president Ernesto Zedillo passed a constitutional reform which allowed for the IFE to have complete autonomy and no longer be associated with any branch of the executive power. Zedillo’s reform was fruitful, since in the 2000 Mexican elections Vicente Fox Quesada, from the PAN, was elected president. This was the first change of the party in power in all of modern Mexican history, it seemed that free democratic elections had finally arrived in Mexico, and simulated democracy was no more. From 2000 to 2018, Mexico alternated presidencies between the PRI and the PAN, resulting in a bi-partisan situation for 18 years (bipartidismo). In 2014, PRI president Enrique Peña Nieto reformed the Electoral Federal Institute, renaming it to the National Electoral Institute (INE), along with other changes.
Even though the INE has provided Mexico with fairly clean and transparent elections since its reformation in 2014, AMLO attacks them regularly. López Obrador’s daily 2-hour press conferences (mañaneras), are his favorite stage to do so. According to the president, maintaining both the personnel who work for the INE, and the way in which they organize elections is too expensive, therefore going against his policy of austerity. AMLO also has even gone as far as to accuse the INE of being “against democracy” when they revoked a MORENA candidate in the southern state of Guerrero in 2021 because of irregular campaign expenses. AMLO has a bitter history with the predecessor of the INE, the IFE, going as far back as 2006, in which he claimed the institute committed voter fraud that resulted in him losing the presidency. According to López Obrador, the INE is no guarantee of free democratic elections in Mexico, even though this was the same body that granted him the victory in 2018. On April 28, 2022, AMLO introduced an electoral reform intended to dissolve the INE and replace it with a more centralized version that overwhelmingly benefits the executive branch of government and the party in power.
AMLO has also explained his intention to increase the role of popular participation in decision making. So far in his presidency, he’s organized 4 referendums on various matters. Because of the presumed costs of the Institute, only the latest referendum has been supervised by the INE: the mandate recall. The referendum was a failure, with only 17% of qualified citizens participating. Out of all of the 16,502,636 votes, 91% voted for the president to continue with his term. These results were skewed for a number of reasons, particularly because the opposition parties called for citizens to not participate in the exercise, calling it illegitimate, and because supposedly it could serve as a precedent for presidential re-election, completely illegal in Mexico. Boycotting the recall was a bad strategic move for a number of reasons. If the opposition parties were eager for a change in the presidency, they could’ve encouraged participation to vote in favor of removing AMLO. Participatory democracy is something that opposition parties should also be sponsoring in accordance with their own interests, particularly at a time when they’re facing a decline in popularity. Following the announcement of a notoriously favorable outcome, AMLO came out and said he was very satisfied by the overwhelmingly positive response, but still attacked the INE because of the low rate of participation.
These referendums, but particularly this specific mandate recall, are not a rupture, but rather a continuation of simulation in Mexican electoral politics. This situation was impossible for AMLO to lose, since only his supporters were going to participate in the referendum. The mandate recall results mirrored, somewhat, the regional patterns of general elections – AMLO enjoyed a more positive response in the southern region, while he struggled with the northern part of the country, which tends to be more oriented against his policies, as studies have previously shown (Klesner, 2012). Actually, the participation of the northern states included the highest percentages of votes in favor of AMLO being removed from the presidency by a perceived lack of trust. The results of the referendum also proved something else – while MORENA still enjoys a strong base (what in Mexico is referred to as voto duro), the amount of popular support he enjoyed in 2018 has begun to crumble, particularly among young voters who are critical of his lack of support for abortion rights, his aversion towards renewable energy and obsession with a dated oil-based economy , the management of the COVID-19 pandemic, and most recently, his lackluster handling of the increasing violence towards Mexican journalists. In his election victory of 2018, AMLO received 30,113,483 votes, however, in the recall he received only 16,502,636. This marks a 45.19% decrease in participation in a democratic exercise that was tailored to express support for López Obrador.
Another thing to note is the incongruity of AMLO’s claim about the mandate recall. AMLO said in a press release that he was honored to have such high rates of approval for his mandate. He said that the mandate recall was a success and was the first step towards increasing participatory democracy. However, MORENA members claimed on that same date that the INE, in tandem with the opposition parties (who asked for their supporters to refrain from participating) were to blame for the lack of participation in the referendum. All types of excuses and insults were thrown: the INE had failed the people because of how few voting booths were placed, and because of the lack of promotion from the institute. MORENA’s notorious political propaganda machine dedicated its efforts to celebrate the results, and to attack the INE. Epigmenio Ibarra, one of the leading ideologues of AMLO’s government (dubbed the Fourth Transformation), went as far as naming the INE’s president, Lorenzo Cordova, “the ideologue of anti-democratic gesture” (Ideólogo de la gesta antidemocrática). The attacks went on from different MORENA members, following the tone that the INE was against democracy and against “the people.”
These attacks shouldn’t be surprising, since populist leaders are known to have not only an anti-pluralist, but also an anti-institutional rhetoric, as well as advocating for a more organic, direct-rule to represent “the people’s will.” As Federico Finchelstein suggests, “Populism also argues for a ‘dual state’, in which the leader’s position has an extraordinary place. But in contrast to fascism, the populist leader is not entirely above formal procedures and institutions” (2019:183). For example, AMLO’s reform to dissolve the INE and create a version that suits his interests would still have to pass with a two thirds majority in Congress in order to change the Mexican Constitution, which is highly unlikely to happen. While AMLO is a populistwith an anti-institutional stance, he does have to follow legality to a certain extent, even when he’s stated his skepticism about it.
The incongruity however, is there: how can AMLO celebrate the mandate recall as a “success” because of his high approval rate, but at the same time criticize the INE for the ridiculously low amount of participation? These two things can’t be reconciled unless they are seen as what they really are: yet another exercise of simulation in Mexican electoral history, tailored to benefit the party in power and increase their (self-) perceived legitimacy. It is not that an increasingly participatory democracy is bad for Mexico, nor is it that the mandate recall is bad in itself. Rather, it is that using a referendum with such extremely low participation which was notoriously favorable to one side, as confirmation of a high approval rate for the president is explicitly a continuation of simulated democracy.This phenomenon of political continuation after “rupture points” is something that Alexis de Tocqueville observed in post-revolutionary France, which inherited political structures from the old regime, such as a heavily centralized government. Actually, in The Old Regime and the French Revolution, Tocqueville explains how despotism can triumph in a revolution even through democratic ideals.
Finally, there is another distinctive element in how the mandate recall is a continuation of simulated democracy. MORENA has various members that previously belonged to different Mexican parties; however, the number of former PRI members is the most notable. From Manuel Bartlett to López Obrador himself, high ranking members of MORENA still use 1970’s PRI electoral tactics to their modern-day party. A well-known tactic from the PRI was to provide transportation for people to voting booths in order to “vote freely”. Even though the INE asked politicians (of any party) to stay silent during the day of the recall, Mario Delgado, national chair of MORENA, promoted taking people to vote in the referendum. He posted several pictures on his Twitter, including him with a van with the titles “Want to vote? I’ll take you!” (¿Quieres votar? ¡Yo te llevo!). Cynically, there was also a phrase next to the slogan saying “vote freely”.
This prompted national attention, as it was pointed out as illegal and an electoral felony because of its clear conflict of interest and impediment to a neutral electoral procedure. In an interview Delgado later said that he was willing to go to prison if it meant “defending democracy”.
AMLO’s claims that with his victory Mexico has finally reached an “authentic democracy” is nothing but self-indulgence, and his policies, while may be theoretically useful, have been carried out in the same fashion of simulated democracy that has characterized Mexican politics. It is ironic that a government that claims to “eradicate simulations and frauds” rejoices in the clear failure of the mandate recall, which was also tampered with by members of its own party. Even if the opposition’s call for abstention was important in explaining the low level of participation, AMLO and his party have placed the majority of the blame on the National Electoral Institute. MORENA and the INE have had a tense relationship since López Obrador came to power, however, the low participation of the citizenry in the mandate recall was the last straw that pushed AMLO to create the reform to dissolve the institute. Attacking democratic institutions in the name of democracy is sadly nothing new or unheard of in authoritarian regimes.
The author would like to thank Jacobo Molina Rodriguez for their support and suggestions in writing this article