Mexican voters elected Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as president based on his promises to combat government and private sector corruption. True to his word, Lopez Obrador has signaled his intention to take the construction of Mexico City's new airport — a project plagued by corruption allegations — to a public vote. Enforcing the results of a nonbinding referendum, however, would put Lopez Obrador in dubious legal territory and hurt investor confidence in Mexico.
On Oct. 16, the legislative heads of Mexico's ruling party, the National Regeneration Movement (Morena), said their party would not financially support a referendum on whether to continue construction of the new Mexico City international airport. The president of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, a Morena ally, said the referendum lacked legal validity and that he would ask the Supreme Court to invalidate it if President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador attempts to enforce its results. The referendum, which Lopez Obrador has set for Oct. 25-28, would give voters the options of continuing the project — which has been plagued by allegations of $40 million in corruption-related cost overruns — canceling its construction in favor of expanding the existing Mexico City and Toluca airports or building new runways at the Santa Lucia military airbase. The government may also try to reduce costs for some parts of the airport project even if voters choose to continue with its construction.
Why It Matters
The referendum provides a test as to how far Lopez Obrador wishes to stray from normal institutional channels to enforce his populist campaign promises. After all, Lopez Obrador made decisive action against corruption and increased popular participation in referendums — including a vote on the controversial airport — a key part of his political platform on the campaign trail. According to Mexican law, however, Lopez Obrador cannot hold a binding vote on the facility's continued construction as no legal basis exists for such votes on public works projects like airports or for such referendums outside of an election.
The referendum, however, is significant because Lopez Obrador could try to turn a nonbinding, haphazard vote into policy. No federal electoral authority will count the votes, while it's unclear what private or nongovernmental entity will actually conduct the referendum. A vote against the airport's continued construction could paint Lopez Obrador into a corner, as he would either try to turn it into policy and alienate allies by entering legally dangerous territory or ignore the result and suffer political backlash from followers who expected him to follow through on a major campaign promise. If Lopez Obrador were to opt for the former, investors could become wary of providing funds for projects that could attract scrutiny from the government, whether because of corruption or local resistance.
But there is another layer of importance to the referendum. Lopez Obrador is progressing down a politically disruptive path by trying to hold a potentially controversial vote haphazardly — seeking a congressional vote to change the constitution to permit such a referendum would have created less instability. In theory, Lopez Obrador has the two-thirds majority in each house of Congress and a majority of the state legislatures needed to alter the Mexican Constitution to eventually allow such referendums to legally proceed. His haste to put the airport issue to a public vote on an unrealistic timeline and without funding support, however, is exposing his lack of votes in Congress for constitutional reform — even from his own allies — meaning Mexico's new president is opting for a course of action that will inject a sizable amount of uncertainty into the country's politics.