Mexico Votes In First National Referendum Today, But The Question At Stake Is Murky Mexicans go to the polls today to vote in a referendum on whether former presidents can be investigated and tried for corruption.

Mexico Votes In First National Referendum Today, But The Question At Stake Is Murky

Mexico Votes In First National Referendum Today, But The Question At Stake Is Murky

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Mexicans go to the polls today to vote in a referendum on whether former presidents can be investigated and tried for corruption.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador won a sweeping victory in 2018 on a pledge to rid Mexico of his predecessor's corruption. He says the people should decide whether to go after ex-presidents. And he's holding a referendum just for that purpose. But as James Fredrick reports from Mexico City, it's not clear what Mexicans are actually voting on today.

JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: It's an historic day for Mexico's still young democracy, the first-ever national referendum. Here's President Lopez Obrador in June.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: He says, "In a democracy, the people decide. The people give. People take. That's what this referendum is for."

A billboard just outside my house promoting the referendum shows mug shot-style photos of ex-presidents and says, vote yes for justice. But that's not what this is really about, says Javier Martin Reyes, a professor of constitutional law at CIDE, a university and thinktank.

JAVIER MARTIN REYES: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: He says the text of the referendum now has nothing to do with ex-presidents. The Supreme Court made that very clear. Before a referendum goes to a vote, the Supreme Court must make sure it's legal and constitutional. Specifically targeting the former president was a no-go. So Reyes says the Supreme Court did something unexpected.

REYES: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "It didn't just change the text of the referendum. It changed the meaning of it." Now this is what Mexicans are seeing on their ballots translated into English.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Are you, or are you not in favor of the pertinent actions being taken in accordance to the constitutional and legal framework to undertake a process of shedding light on the political decisions made in past years by political actors aimed at guaranteeing justice and the rights of potential victims?

FREDRICK: So what does that mean exactly? I went out in Mexico City and asked potential voters to read the question out and explain what they thought it meant.

KEVIN SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: This is 29-year-old Kevin Sanchez. He hadn't heard of the referendum or (speaking Spanish) in Spanish. And reading the question didn't help his understanding.

SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: He says it's not really clear to him, and he'd need more information. He says he probably won't vote.

Thirty-two-year-old Alejandra Cerejido told me she's strongly in favor of prosecuting ex-presidents. As to what that question means...

ALEJANDRA CEREJIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: She thinks it's asking whether the government should audit all decisions of previous governments and declare whether they were good or bad for the country.

Seventy-year-old Martin Gonzalez really struggled to understand the referendum.

MARTIN GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: He says, "It's asking if the referendum is legal, if I agree with our Mexican laws? And I think yes."

Here's Professor Javier Reyes again.

REYES: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: He says it's a tragedy that the first referendum in Mexico will end up with the people not actually deciding anything, such a vague, broad question that means President Lopez Obrador can do whatever he wants or simply do nothing. But all this may be irrelevant. For the referendum to count, 40% of registered voters need to submit a ballot. During last month's midterms, 52% of voters turned out. But with limited funding for elections, less than a third of polling places are open for the referendum. For NPR News, I'm James Fredrick in Mexico City.

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