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Mexico in election silence ahead of president’s ‘revocation of mandate’ vote

President López Obrador’s own ballot initiative prohibits him from publicizing things like milestones of his various megaprojects, such as the new Mexico City airport and the Maya Train, but he found a roundabout way of doing so at an appearance this week.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Mexico’s election organizer has instated an order of electoral silence ahead of a referendum unlike any the country has ever seen. 

Politicians from all parties must refrain from tooting their own horns in the media until April 10, when Mexicans will vote on whether or not they want President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to finish out his six-year term. 

The so-called ‘revocation of mandate’ vote was one of 100 promises the president — known colloquially as AMLO — made on the campaign trail. 

Promising to step down if the vote doesn’t go his way, he said: “… as I believe and have said many times, the people grant [power] and the people take it away, the people are sovereign.”

Passed in September 2021, the Federal Law of Revocation of Mandate states that during the period of election silence no person or organization apart from the National Electoral Institute (INE) will be allowed to broadcast political advertisements that may influence voters’ decisions in the ballot box. 

But while the election silence bans him from transmitting outright political publicity, AMLO still found an oblique way to sing his administration’s praises in his morning press conference on Monday.

He made a point of refraining from showing videos of the updates to the new Mexico City airport and other touted infrastructure projects like the Maya Train and the Dos Bocas petroleum refinery in the southern state of Tabasco. 

“We’re going to report that we won’t be transmitting the videos we usually show because the election silence has begun,” he said in his characteristic drawl.

“Even if the reports are about projects that are being done for the benefit of everyone, which have nothing to do with elections, in any case, we want to wait until the judicial authorities clear up what we can and can’t report.” 

To that end, he also asked if such a ban on political discourse would prohibit him from speaking at the Mar. 21 inauguration of his flagship megaproject, the new Felipe Ángeles International Airport in the nation's capital. 

The cited judicial authority told Courthouse News that such decisions were not under its jurisdiction, but rather under that of the INE.

An INE spokesperson told Courthouse News in a text message that speaking at the airport’s inauguration would not violate the ban on political publicity.

“What he cannot do is broadcast the inauguration in its entirety on radio or television,” the spokesperson said, adding: “The media can cover the event, of course.”

The spokesperson did not clarify if internet broadcasts are specifically prohibited under the election silence. 

The president’s sly manner of bending the rules on Monday will likely not be the last time he finds a way to sneak a bit of pro-AMLO PR into the election silence, according to Enrique Gutiérrez Márquez, head of the department of social and political sciences at the Ibero-American University.

“No, AMLO probably won’t be able to control himself during the election silence,” he said in a phone interview. “As president, he’ll surely use his daily morning press conferences to disseminate political news about the vote.”

Still, the unprecedented vote marks a huge step forward for democracy in Mexico, said Gutiérrez, as it “opens the door” for elements like public participation mechanisms and independent candidacies to be incorporated into the larger electoral system in the country. 

Others, however, aren’t quite as convinced of the referendum’s benefit to Mexican democracy.

“The revocation of mandate is, in general, a bad idea,” wrote political scientist Javier Aparicio in an October 2019 blog post, adding that conducting the vote during an active president’s term is “an even worse idea.”

Aparicio — the head of political studies at Mexico’s distinguished think tank CIDE — claimed the vote falls in line with other Latin American leaders who have used such ostensibly democratic mechanisms to ultimately benefit themselves and extend their power beyond the limits of their countries’ constitutions.

His examples included leftist multiterm presidents such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, as well as right-wing Colombian president Álvaro Uribe Vélez. 

“The formula is clear: oversell the idea, govern with short-termist or spectacular measures in order to win a revocatory referendum, and, upon winning it, strengthen one’s position in Congress or seek out a reform that allows for reelection or narrows checks and balances,” wrote Aparicio.

Along with concerns over AMLO’s increasing militarization of Mexico, the revocation of mandate vote — and the fact that the president is more excited about it than his detractors —  concerns analysts like Aparicio.

“Are we witnessing a mechanism for democratic control,” he wrote in August 2021, “or a propaganda strategy?”

Courthouse News correspondent Cody Copeland is based in Mexico City.

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