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Here's why Mexico's president is launching a vote to recall himself

An advertisement in Mexico City for the referendum called by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, scheduled for Sunday.
Alfredo Estrella
AFP via Getty Images
An advertisement in Mexico City for the referendum called by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, scheduled for Sunday.

MEXICO CITY — Mexico is holding a first-of-its-kind presidential recall referendum this Sunday. Voters are being asked to decide whether President Andrés Manuel López Obrador should finish out his six-year term — or be removed from office.

While recalls are a common political tool all over the world, normally it's the opponents of an unpopular leader who call for a recall. But Sunday's vote was the president's idea. And polls suggest that he is expected to win.

While campaigning ahead of his landslide victory in 2018, López Obrador pledged to let voters decide at his term's halfway mark whether he should stay.

Opponents say Sunday's vote is pure political theater, an expensive farce. They've called for a boycott.

Here's what to know ahead of the referendum.

What exactly is being asked?

Voters will face a two-part question on the ballot: "Do you agree that the mandate of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, president of the United States of Mexico, should be revoked due to a loss of confidence or that he should continue as the president of the republic until the end of his term?"

Voters will have a choice of two boxes to check. One reads: "His mandate should be revoked due to the loss of confidence." The other: "He should remain in the presidency of the republic."

There is no other issue on Sunday's ballot. Despite the president's popularity and his strong base of support, turnout is expected to be low. For the results to be binding, 40% of registered voters must participate. López Obrador has stated that he will abide by whatever decision voters choose, regardless of turnout.

Why is López Obrador targeting his own presidency this way?

López Obrador says the recall referendum is a powerful tool bolstering direct democracy. His supporters agree — and say while they will vote for this president to stay in office, they hope recalls can be used to throw out future bad leaders.

In his most recent state of the union address, last December, López Obrador told an enthusiastic audience that political leaders should be subjected to recalls, ensuring accountability.

"That way, it's not like I'm elected for six years and can just do whatever I want, NO, the people must always keep the power in their hands ... and any politician who doesn't obey, then revoke their mandate and throw them out," he said to thunderous applause.

Why are his critics calling for a boycott of the vote?

Opponents of López Obrador say he is using the recall to shore up support for himself after a string of political scandals. Rising prices and his inability to control Mexico's staggering violence are chipping away at his popularity.

In calling for a boycott of Sunday's vote, they're hoping to deal the president a political loss by denying him the 40% turnout needed to validate the contest.

Many object to the cost of the referendum, too. Known for his fiscal austerity, the president allocated the equivalent of $77 million for it. But election officials say that's less than half the amount needed to effectively hold the referendum and they worry that they will be blamed if there's a low turnout.

López Obrador has been very critical of the work of the National Electoral Institute, the autonomous agency responsible for holding national votes. He says it is corrupt and anti-democratic, and should be put under the control of the executive branch. He has even suggested that its directors be subject to popular elections.

Many say López Obrador has never forgiven this agency for validating elections in 2006 that he lost by a small margin. The agency director at the time, Luis Ugalde, now with the Integralia Consultores political consulting firm, says López Obrador's threats against the electoral institute's independence are dangerous, as is his constant criticism of nongovernmental groups including independent media and universities.

"Our very young democracy, with a lot [of] deficiencies, is going to collapse," he says. "That is what is at stake at this moment in Mexico."

What's the likely impact of the referendum?

Mexico's constitution states that presidents can hold office for only one six-year term, with no option of reelection. Now that the president is into the second half of his term, analysts say he fears being treated as a lame duck and wants to be influential in critical midterm elections next year — and the all-important presidential race in 2024.

Carlos Bravo, a political analyst at the Mexico City public research center CIDE, says the referendum will give López Obrador a chance to show off his strong base.

"This is a way for him to say, 'I'm still strong in spite of all and people support me,'" Bravo says.

It also gives the president the opportunity to see which of his potential presidential candidate picks can best rally voters.

On Wednesday, one of the rising stars in the president's MORENA party, Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, rallied thousands of supporters to get out and vote in favor of López Obrador. Many say she's López Obrador's most likely choice to be his successor in 2024.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.