What to expect from López Obrador’s public consultations

What to expect from López Obrador’s public consultations

Leftist Mexican President Elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who takes office in December, recently held a controversial public consultation to cancel Mexico City’s new multibillion-dollar airport. He is organizing another one over the building of a high-speed railway on the Yucatán Peninsula. Opponents accuse him of using consultations to bypass existing rules and institutions and have raised concerns that doing so could lead to a democratic deficit and generate uncertainty for investors over the medium term.

Mexican President-Elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been a leader of the country’s leftist opposition since the late 1980s. His political brand positions him as a ‘tropical messiah’: a plain-spoken man of humble origins who fights for the poor and decries his opponents as the rich and corrupt ‘mafia of power’. He has a flare for the dramatic which keeps him in the news, and serves the purpose of keeping his supporters energised. When he lost his first presidential run in 2006, he held an ‘alternative inauguration’ for himself outside the National Palace. His victory in the presidential election this July sent shockwaves through Mexican society and the political and business establishment. López Obrador has been a vocal opponent of many government policies over the past two decades. When the government introduced a reform that would allow private companies to enter the country’s energy sector, he organized a march to ‘defend our oil’ from being given away to foreign companies, demanding that the government organize a public consultation on the issue.

López Obrador and Public Consultations

Public consultations are one of López Obrador’s preferred mechanisms for pursuing his policy goals. They are convenient because they can help leaders to legitimize their decisions while at the same time reducing the political risk associated with more controversial policies. They also allow leaders to shape public opinion as media coverage around the consultation creates a ‘context’ for the decision. As Mayor of Mexico City (2000-2005), López Obrador frequently used public consultations to change city policy and fast-track infrastructure projects without going through the traditional channels and organs of city government. Typically these consultations saw extremely low turnout (around 6% of registered voters), which made it easy for López Obrador to mobilize his loyal base and win. Then and now, his critics have pointed to the extremely low turnout as proof that these consultations are hardly the “democratic exercise” that López Obrador claims.

During the five months of the transition, López Obrador has already organized two public consultations: one over Mexico City’s new international airport, and one over a proposed high-speed train on the Yucatán Peninsula. Both are being run by an outside organization hired by the presidential transition team and paid for by members of López Obrador’s own party. Critics have once again questioned the ‘democratic’ nature of these consultations. López Obrador’s party took control of Congress in September, giving it the power to convene actual referenda through constitutional means. However,, the President-Elect says that the current constitutional process is not fast enough, making it necessary to use an extra-legal mechanism, as has been characteristic of his style of governing. The President-Elect has said he plans to submit more decisions to public consultation over the next six years and plans to change the constitution to make it easier to do so.

The Mexico City International Airport Consultation

Since the early 2000s, one of López Obrador’s pet projects has been preventing the construction of the New International Airport for Mexico City (NAIM) on a site on the former bed of Lake Texcoco. Experts largely agree the airport is urgently necessary. Although the airport was first proposed in the late 1990s, construction finally began in 2015 under the administration of Enrique Peña Nieto, just in time to become a central talking point in López Obrador’s successful 2018 presidential campaign. While most Mexicans are indifferent to the airport, they strongly dislike Peña Nieto, one of the most unpopular presidents in modern Mexican history. Peña Nieto’s administration was characterized by a combination of liberalizing economic reforms and explosive corruption scandals at all levels of government. For López Obrador, the airport was the perfect symbol of everything wrong with the outgoing government: a massive infrastructure project for the rich filled with kickbacks and contracts for cronies.

In October 2018, López Obrador held a public consultation on cancelling the airport, saying that it was a waste of money and the contracts ‘smelled of corruption.’ Critics pointed out that the airport was already 30% complete and that the cost to cancel it would likely be the same as the cost to continue construction. Just 1% of the electorate participated in the consultation, which López Obrador won by a large margin. Despite the low turnout and a result that differed vastly from public opinion polls, López Obrador hailed the consultation as a victory of the ‘will of the people’ over ‘financial markets’. He quickly negotiated an agreement with contractors in the project (who he had previously accused of corruption). Then, a few days later, he announced that his team had not yet decided whether to cancel the airport or not. The message was received loud and clear—there would only be one decision maker from now on. Headlines in Mexican newspapers read: “López Obrador: I’m in charge here.”

The Maya Train Consultation

A second public consultation is now organized for the end of November, just days before López Obrador takes office. The most high-profile issue on the ballot will be the Maya Train, a proposed high-speed rail project that he wants to build on the Yucatán Peninsula. For many, the Maya Train is the clearest signal yet that López Obrador intends to use public consultations as a way to bypass existing rules and institutions while legitimizing his policy priorities. The project has not yet obtained any of the necessary technical, legal, or environmental permits (a process which can take three to six months), yet its start date is already set and its funding already included in the 2019 Federal Budget before the public consultation has even been held.

What does it mean for the next six years?

López Obrador’s reputation for disregarding rules and institutions goes back to his days in local politics in the 1980s, however the two consultations held during the transition signal that he has no plans to change his way of operating. This generates both economic and political risks. Markets reacted negatively to López Obrador’s attitude following the airport referendum. The peso fell to its lowest level since Donald Trump’s election, the stock market saw its sharpest fall in a decade, and ratings agencies downgraded their outlook for Mexican public debt. Politically, there are concerns that using public consultations as a way to bypass institutions will lead to a democratic deficit over the medium term.


Categories: Central America, Politics

About Author

Tyler Mattiace

Tyler Mattiace is a Senior Consultant at a political affairs firm in Mexico City. His areas of expertise are international trade policy, Mexican and Central American politics, and US-Latin American relations. He holds a master's degree in International Development from London School of Economics and a bachelor's degree in International Relations from the University of St Andrews in Scotland.