Why More Democracy Might Mean More Disruption in Mexico

7 MINS READJul 25, 2018 | 09:00 GMT
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is Mexico's president-elect. He's pictured here during a June 27, 2018, campaign event in Mexico City.

Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, shown here during a June 27, 2018, campaign rally in Mexico City, wants to amend Mexico's constitution to expand and strengthen voters' ability to set policy through referendums. If fulfilled, Lopez Obrador's change could have unintended consequences.

  • Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador will pursue plans to amend the country's laws to facilitate more legally binding referendums.
  • If Lopez Obrador's reforms pass Congress, they could eliminate prohibitions on referendum topics or change the law so that such votes can be held outside of federal election years.
  • The prospect of more legally binding referendums will add more uncertainty to Mexico's political process, as key areas such as public spending and security policies could go before the public if the planned reforms are approved.

Mexico witnessed radical change in its elections at the beginning of this month, and it appears the prospects for profound transformation are only likely to grow. After riding a populist wave of support to victory on July 1, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador released a list of priorities for Mexico's Congress — which his coalition will also dominate — when newly elected lawmakers assume their seats on Dec. 1. Amid the raft of anti-corruption proposals is one item that could prove crucial: the elimination of restrictions on referendums, together with a related constitutional amendment to make such votes legally binding. Though the proposal is brief and buried within the incoming president's lengthy to-do list, the manner in which Lopez Obrador goes about expanding and amending Mexicans' right to vote in referendums could have wide-ranging and unintended consequences — not least for politicians, the private sector and foreign investors.

The Big Picture

President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and his coalition have emerged as the most powerful Mexican administration in the last 20 years following elections on July 1. As the future president's agenda begins to take shape, it has become clear that righting some of what Lopez Obrador perceives to be the political wrongs of his predecessors will feature heavily in his proposed legislation. Some of his reform proposals, such as work programs for unemployed youth and government-funded pension hikes, will have relatively little effect on investors or the private sector. However, far more serious changes to the country's laws are on the horizon, including a proposal to expand when, how and on what topics Mexicans can vote on in referendums.

Giving Power to the People

Referendums are a relatively new feature of Mexican politics. During the 66-year rule of the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), the populace largely cast direct votes only during federal, state and local elections. Lawmakers passed a constitutional reform in 1983 to permit national referendums, but only the president could submit topics for voting. In 2012, the outgoing administration of Felipe Calderon amended the constitution to recognize the right of the public to begin referendum proceedings. As a result, the president, a third of Congress or a minimum of 2 percent of registered voters can invoke a referendum. Majorities in both of houses of Congress have to approve proposals initiated by the president or lawmakers before the proposals can go before voters. The Supreme Court has final say on whether any initiative appears on the ballot.

Yet the public's ability to call a referendum remains relatively weak compared to other Latin American countries. Although the Mexican Constitution allows voters to initiate a referendum, and binds the president and Congress to the referendum if a majority of voters approve it, lawmakers can delay its implementation by refusing to hold votes on related legislation. In addition, a national referendum is not explicitly binding on state legislatures, which is a necessary step for the approval of constitutional reforms via referendum. And referendums cannot be held on topics related to elections, the federal government's income and expenses or the armed forces. Such votes must also coincide with a federal election, making their timing subject to strict scheduling. But amending the constitution opens the door to politicians and interest groups suggesting other changes, such as altering what subjects voters can address in referendums and changing the law to conduct referendums independently of federal elections.

Lopez Obrador cannot enact such constitutional reforms directly through his party, the National Regeneration Movement (Morena), but he will likely wield enough political power to implement such changes. To surpass the threshold necessary for a constitutional vote, Lopez Obrador would require an additional 17 votes in the Senate and 23 in the lower house to reach a two-thirds majority in Congress. After that, 17 of Mexico's 32 state legislatures would also need to adopt the reform through a simple majority.

Referendum Ramifications

Changing the constitution to hold referendums on a broader range of topics whenever the Mexican public sees fit could have broad consequences. Over the next six years of his term, Lopez Obrador will try to cement his party's position in power and deliver on his populist promises. If the referendum reform process sweeps away prohibitions, Mexico's public could soon be voting on grievances on which voters and nongovernmental organizations have long demanded action: corruption, poor public services and violence by security forces. Political realities will narrow the range of subjects any Mexican government decides to bring to a public vote, but Lopez Obrador clearly has the ability and, possibly, the political will to make referendums more frequent, their subjects more difficult to predict and to make them binding on state legislatures.

Ensuring that referendums are legally binding on all government institutions could result in the approval of subjects that have never previously appeared on a national ballot. But the prospect of votes on many more potential subjects could have unintended consequences. For example, if reforms on public finances are permitted, it could open the door to votes on heavier (or mandatory) social spending, which would subsequently imply a heavier debt burden on the government or a higher tax burden on the private sector. Another plausible scenario involves a vote to reduce troop deployments in the country's long-running drug war. Allowing citizens' groups, such as nongovernmental organizations that oppose some armed force deployments on human rights grounds, to request a vote on the subject could lead to a partial reduction in troop numbers — although a major withdrawal sanctioned by the government is unlikely. Drawing down troops in many areas would precipitate a spike in violence, as criminal groups would go largely unchallenged without the military deployments. Even contentious aspects of energy reform, such as hydraulic fracturing, could realistically come to a vote under a broad new referendum regime, creating problems for business.

But even if Congress ultimately succeeds in changing the laws governing referendums, the Supreme Court and opposition parties will remain obstacles to some referendums on controversial topics. Before proceeding to a public vote, the Mexican Supreme Court has the authority to review all referendums. The court would remain a major gatekeeper in the referendum process. Opposition parties, even if they are outnumbered in Congress, would quickly refer any contentious referendum initiatives to either the Supreme Court or lower federal courts. As a result, the judiciary will likely remain a strong check on referendums, even it does not stop all initiatives that may concern the private sector or political opposition.

Lopez Obrador's plans to expand citizens' right to vote in referendums will become apparent as his presidency progresses. Right now, it's too early to tell whether a constitutional reform drive will quickly become a priority for the next administration, since other legislative matters, including the approval of a bilateral trade deal with the United States or a renewed North American Free Trade Agreement, would likely compete for congressional attention. There's also the potential for a partial reform, in which the timing and legally binding character of referendums change but their possible topics do not. But the extent of Lopez Obrador's political power means that he can conceivably change the constitution, ultimately ushering in a broad range of political and regulatory changes. If that occurs, Mexico will enter uncharted political territory in which the government, private sector and even foreign investors will have to bend to the will of voters far more often.

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