Mexico top court backs referendum on prosecuting ex-presidents

FILE PHOTO: Mexico's presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Movement for National Renewal (MORENA) party takes part in an event at the Wilson Center in Washington, U.S. September 5, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico’s Supreme Court on Thursday narrowly backed a bid by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to hold a referendum on whether to allow the prosecution of five of his predecessors, delivering a boost to him ahead of 2021 midterm elections.

Supreme Court President Arturo Zaldivar said six out of 11 judges declared the referendum constitutional. However, some qualified their support, saying the question could be put to the public only in ways that did not lend themselves to political abuse.

Lopez Obrador has proposed holding the referendum in tandem with mid-term elections in June, though it is not clear that it will be allowed to proceed on the same day.

He argues Mexicans should be allowed to vote on whether to prosecute Enrique Pena Nieto, Felipe Calderon, Vicente Fox, Ernesto Zedillo and Carlos Salinas, the five men who each served a six-year presidential term between 1988 and 2018.

The president has unstintingly cast his predecessors administrations’ as corrupt, blaming them for aggravating inequality, weak growth and chronic violence in Mexico.

Critics push back against this argument. They note that under Lopez Obrador, the economy tipped into recession in 2019, his first full year in office, while homicides have risen to reach record-breaking levels.

The president’s supporters hailed the court decision as a landmark in efforts to hold past leaders to account for Mexico’s failings. Opponents condemned it as a further slide into polarizing the country and submission to Lopez Obrador’s will.

Lopez Obrador said this week if the court rejected his bid, he would immediately set about trying to reform the constitution to find another way of pursuing the matter.

A public opinion poll by newspaper El Universal in August showed overwhelming support for allowing ex-presidents to face trial for crimes committed on their watch.

Reporting by Dave Graham and Miguel Gutierrez; writing by Laura Gottesdiener; Editing by Leslie Adler and Cynthia Osterman