Mexican president asks Senate for unprecedented vote on five predecessors

FILE PHOTO: Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador delivers his second state of the union address at National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico, September 1, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Romero

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Tuesday moved closer to an unprecedented national vote on what he describes as the corrupt rule of his predecessors, alleging they allowed massive theft of public resources over decades.

Pitching a referendum next year, either in June or August, Lopez Obrador singled out the terms of five former presidents going back to 1988. He read out a long list of grievances during his regular morning news conference, blaming them for rampant graft and spiraling cycles of violence and inequality that have convulsed the country.

The timing of the planned referendum, which must be approved by Congress, means the subject of corruption in previous governments will likely dominate the campaign ahead of midterm elections next year.

Critics of the move say Lopez Obrador is seeking to divert attention from his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, an ailing economy, which is seen slumping to levels not seen since the 1930s-era Great Depression, and record levels of gang violence.

The leftist president signed a formal request asking the Senate to trigger the vote on possible trials for his immediate five predecessors, all from the long-ruling centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) or the conservative National Action Party (PAN).

“Mexico experienced a period characterized by excessive concentration of wealth, monumental devastation to the treasury, privatization of public goods, general corruption, foul electoral processes, and governing practices that led to uncontrolled growth of violence,” he said.

A parallel effort to collect voter signatures, largely organized by activists from his Morena party, could also legally trigger the vote if the threshold of some 1.8 million citizens is met by a deadline later on Tuesday.

Elected in a landslide on an anti-corruption platform in 2018, Lopez Obrador has repeatedly said he would personally vote against allowing trials of the former presidents, but says it is important to let citizens decide for themselves.

Lopez Obrador’s two immediate predecessors, Enrique Pena Nieto and Felipe Calderon, have denied wrongdoing. The other former presidents - Carlos Salinas, Ernesto Zedillo and Vicente Fox - have not yet spoken out on the referendum push.

Reporting by David Alire Garcia; additional reporting by Raul Cortes Fernandez and Ana Isabel Martinez; editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Jonathan Oatis