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

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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