A referendum backed by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on whether to investigate Mexico’s former political leaders has fallen short of the required turnout though it had overwhelming backing from those who voted, initial results showed on Monday.

Mexico’s National Electoral Institute said that, according to a preliminary count of nearly 99 percent of ballots, 97.7 percent of participants supported the proposal of putting the decisions of previous political leaders under investigation.

Still, turnout for the referendum was just over 7 percent, far below the 40 percent threshold set to make it binding.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said he was pleased with the outcome, adding that it marked the start of a practice that would become a ‘habit’ for Mexican voters [Mexico’s Presidency/Handout via Ruters]

Speaking at his regular news conference, Lopez Obrador said he was pleased with the outcome, arguing it marked the start of a practice that would become a “habit” for Mexican voters.

He added that he would press ahead with plans to hold a referendum in March on whether he should stay in office until the end of his term, which is due to conclude on September 30, 2024.

Al Jazeera correspondent John Holman, reporting from Mexico City, said it was difficult to determine exactly what Lopez Obrador wanted out of the referendum.

“This huge referendum, possibly five ex-presidents that could be investigated and then prosecuted, and then [it] turned out to be a bit of a damp squib,” Holman said.

Lopez Obrador has used plebiscites to overturn decisions by past governments, including major infrastructure investments such as a partly built new Mexico City airport.

The leftist leader has blamed former Presidents Carlos Salinas, Ernesto Zedillo, Vicente Fox, Felipe Calderon and Enrique Pena Nieto, whose administrations extended from 1988 to 2018, for fuelling corruption, inequality and violence in Mexico.

Turnout at some Mexico City polling places appeared light Sunday, with opponents of the referendum saying in a slogan, ‘The law must be applied, not put up for a vote’ [Gustavo Graf/Reuters]

Sunday’s referendum asked voters to reject or back “a process of investigation of political decisions taken in past years by political actors” that would be aimed at “guaranteeing justice and the rights of possible victims”.

Critics noted that Mexico has no formal amnesty for former leaders, and there is nothing in current law saying they cannot be brought to justice. As opponents say in a slogan, “The law must be applied, not put up for a vote.”

Turnout at some Mexico City polling places appeared light Sunday.

Jose Francisco Espinosa Cortes, 60, who drives a taxi and runs a computer repair business, was one of only about 60 people to have voted by mid-morning at a polling station in the middle-class San Rafael neighbourhood.

“A lot of people have fallen for the propaganda of ‘why go out and vote, nothing is going to change,’” said Espinosa Cortes.

“But if we don’t end impunity, we’ll never end corruption,” he said, calling the referendum “a historic chance for Mexico to get justice.”

“There should be a line of people out to here,” he said, gesturing to the empty sidewalk in front of the polling place.

Photographer Santiago Ruisenor, 43, preferred to take his daughter to a Mexico City park to play Sunday rather than vote. “This is a farce,” Ruisenor said. “This is pure cynicism, an act that is only being used to increase the president’s popularity.”

A banner showing images of five Mexican former presidents, obscuring their eyes with red bars, and calling for citizens to participate in a referendum on whether ex-presidents should be tried for their alleged crimes during their time in office [Christian Palma/AP Photo]

Jose Antonio Crespo, a political analyst at Mexico’s Center for Economic Research and Training, called the referendum “strictly an exercise in politics and media exposure”, noting the outcome of the ballot question was never in doubt.

“It will be an indicator of how many people still support Lopez Obrador, of how much capacity he has to mobilise people,” said Crespo.

Al Jazeera correspondent John Holman reports now that the referendum has fallen short, “The question is: ‘What then will the president do next? Was this just an exercise to check a box?’ … or whether there will be a truth commission to come out of this.”

Lopez Obrador originally wanted the referendum to ask voters if they wanted the former presidents to be prosecuted, but Mexico’s Supreme Court ordered a broader formulation of the question to protect due process and the presumption of innocence.

The referendum cost the country about $25m.

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