Referendum. What For?

Luis Rubio

The objective of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador with his referendum proposal is to eliminate the existing mechanisms of representation –the legislature- from the process of decision making.  In his vision, the “people” should ratify his decisions, which were previously taken, because in that way he would maintain, and elevate, his control over political life and the citizenry. “Revocation of mandate,” part of the same scheme, secures the vision: the objective is control, not citizen participation. The legislators, beginning with those of the president’s Morena party, should understand their role in this matter is that of representing the electorate and acting as a counterweight.

The issue is very simple: Who can believe that the citizens are going to vote in favor of raising their own taxes or against jailing the rapist of a girl in Ciudad Juárez? Both are decisions that correspond to the authority –legislative and judicial, respectively- when the circumstances demand it.  Submitting that type of decision to the “people” is nothing more than a cunning maneuver to avoid responsibility or, more frequently, to impose the preferences of the one who submits the decision to poll, knowing full well that the population is really evaluating the president because it does not have the capacity to nor the interest in analyzing the alternatives and implications of their decision.

The referendum is an instrument that is utilized with regularity in some nations and their experience is illustrative. In Switzerland, a nation with a feeble central government, every year an infinity of decisions is submitted to the popular vote. The citizens read the materials and engage in serious discussions. The issues are announced months beforehand and the postures in favor and against are made public and their proponents not only respect their contraries, but also assume these as advocates, not enemies.

The case of the state of California in the U.S. is very distinct. There, the referendum acquired popularity when a group of citizens proposed the establishment of property tax limits, which opened Pandora’s Box. A measure as popular as that was immediately accepted by the voters, which produced two consequences: on the one hand, it drastically reduced tax collecting, affecting the providing of municipal services; on the other hand, it initiated an avalanche of incidences of polling that, typically, are decided not by the substance of the issue but rather by the charisma of the proponent or by the interest of the media.

I have no objection at all to lowering taxes or to laws and decisions being revised; what seems dangerous to me is the procedure inherent in the referendum because it is a deception.  In the state of California, as well as in Mexico, the citizens lack the willingness of the Swiss to evaluate each decision at length and discuss it with knowledge of the facts. The experience of the European nation must be understood within its context: the national government is extraordinarily weak, presidential terms last two years and citizen participation is not only committed, but also transcendental. There the referendum is not utilized as a (biased) means to decide on the continued construction of an airport without contextual information that, in addition, is a construction already underway.

The experiences of Switzerland and California illustrate the kid-glove nature –and the danger- of implanting a decision-making mechanism such as the referendum. The British themselves have not yet emerged from their astonishment at the manner in which their leave-taking from Europe was decided. That referendum ended up a Russian roulette. More to the point, while there are always opposing opinions, what we Mexicans have been able to observe since the first of July is that the polling mechanism is understood as an instrument of manipulation and legitimization and not as a means of the development of the citizenry, the improvement of democracy or the promotion of higher living standards. Under these conditions, the referendum is in the last analysis a mechanism of control and not of participation. Worse, plebiscites are divisive and what Mexico needs is a coming together.

The idea of the plebiscite or referendum is good and healthy: it derives from the supposition that the citizens, as the beneficiaries of or the payee in the result of public decisions, should have greater participation in the decision-making process regarding things that could come to affect them.  The experience is very distinct: these mechanisms wind up in the hands of politicians and the media that possess an enormous capacity to manipulate public opinion in order to legitimatize previously made decisions. With that rationale, a referendum in Mexico would lead to the perpetuation of a president in the government, which is, at the end of the day, the idea of revoking the mandate: that it never be revoked.

Mexican democracy is young and precarious in the extreme, in addition to that, as a county, Mexicans have not broken with the old political system based on control and manipulation. On adopting the referendum as the official mechanism, would do nothing other than consolidate, through the rear door, the post-revolutionary authoritarian regime. The legislators must recognize that they themselves would be the first to lose in such legislation, in that they would disappear as a relevant power. It is not good for anyone for the power to be in the hands of a sole individual.