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It sounded like something of Robespierre’s horror. The people would pass judgment on five of their former leaders and decide whether they should be tried for their crimes. However, the referendum by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on the prosecution of his predecessors delivered more of a damp squib than revolutionary fireworks. A little over 7 percent of the population voted, a fraction of what it took to be a mandatory exercise.
Investors have already learned the damage López Obrador’s peculiar democracy can do. In 2018, the newly elected president abolished an urgently needed new airport for Mexico City, some of which cost $ 13 billion, according to a “popular poll”. A $ 1.4 billion beer factory under construction in northern Mexico was canceled last year after a vote of 36,781 people in a city of one million people.
Some voters in Sunday’s referendum may have been put off by the tortuous formulation of the question, which has been toned down by the Supreme Court. But all doubts would have been dispelled by the “search posters” of the supporters of the referendum. These showed ex-presidents Carlos Salinas, Enrique Peña Nieto and Felipe Calderón with red blindfolds, who reported their alleged crimes under the slogan “Do you want Salinas, Peña and Calderón to go to jail?”
A human rights organization suggested that ex-presidents would receive the justice of a Roman circus rather than the due process of a modern G20 nation. Critics have questioned the need for a costly referendum if laws already enshrined in Mexican law books allow the prosecution of corruption and other wrongdoings in office.
Such arguments ignore the political logic of the seasoned populist. López Obrador used the referendum to mobilize his supporters and remind them that he is persecuting the enemies of his self-proclaimed “fourth transformation” of Mexico – an epochal change that he immodestly equates with the Mexican Revolution of 1910 or independence from Spain. In keeping with his form, he celebrated the referendum as a success because the vast majority of voters supported him.
In reality, López Obrador’s pursuit of justice seems strangely selective. Despite the extradition of Emilio Lozoya, a former head of the state-owned oil company Pemex, from Spain a year ago on allegations of corruption in a Peña Nieto scandal, Lozoya has yet to appear in court and no charges have been brought against Peña Nieto.
The country’s notorious drug traffickers are embraced using a presidential “hugs not bullets” strategy. Occasionally the hug was more than metaphorical. López Obrador released the son of the incarcerated chief of the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, met Guzmán’s mother and shook her hand and publicly apologized for using the drug lord’s nickname.
Worrying reports have surfaced that drug traffickers favored candidates from López Obrador’s party and kidnapped and threatened opposition candidates in last month’s mid-term elections. Christopher Landau, US Ambassador to Mexico until January, described López Obrador’s stance towards the cartels as “fairly laissez-faire”.
The Biden government, which is dealing with a politically toxic wave of migrants from Mexico and Central America and wants to keep López Obrador as an ally, has said little on the subject – a reluctance it will regret.
For the time being, Mexico’s former leaders were spared the turmoil of the López Obrador revolution. But behind the president’s penchant for content displays lurks a worrying disregard for institutions and the rule of law. Investors should be careful.
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