Mexico City (AFP) - Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Sunday easily won a divisive referendum he promoted on whether he should step down or complete his term -- a vote marked by low turnout.
With an approval rating of nearly 60 percent, Lopez Obrador's presidency had never appeared seriously at risk, and the left-wing populist was himself one of the vote's biggest cheerleaders.
The 68-year-old president, elected in 2018 for a six-year term, won slightly more than 90 percent of votes in favor of his staying in office until 2024, according to an official initial count.
But the turnout rate was estimated to be no more than around 18 percent, well below the 40-percent level needed for the poll to be legally binding.
That means that even if Lopez Obrador had lost, he would not have been obliged to step down.
Lopez Obrador ruled out using the result to pursue a constitutional reform allowing him to seek another term, as some critics have accused him of planning to do.
"I'm going to continue serving until the last day of my term.I'm not going to go past that because I'm a democrat and I'm not in favor of re-election," he said in a video message.
Supporters of the referendum -- the first of its kind in Mexico -- said it was a way of increasing democratic accountability, giving voters the opportunity to remove the president due to loss of confidence.
"Now we have the chance to change what's not right.There have been presidents who, after being elected by the people, ended up serving other interests," Benigno Gasca, a 57-year-old mathematician and musician, told AFP.
But critics saw the referendum as expensive propaganda and an unnecessary distraction from the many challenges facing the country, including drug-related violence, poverty and the rising cost of living.
"It's a useless exercise -- money thrown away," said Laura Gonzalez, a 62-year-old retired teacher.
Mario Delgado, leader of the ruling party Morena, said voters had recognized Lopez Obrador's "dedication to the most needy and the enormous moral authority with which he governs.
"Only an indomitable, unwavering democrat like him can subject himself to a recall process," he added.
But Marko Cortes, of the conservative opposition party PAN, said the vote was marked "by illegality, lies, manipulation and the diversion of public resources."
Alejandro Moreno of the PRI, which ruled Mexico for seven decades until 2000, tweeted that Morena had turned the referendum into a "mockery" to "satisfy its own ego and continue deceiving Mexicans."
Some 93 million voters were eligible to participate in the midterm referendum, which was incorporated into Mexico's constitution in 2019 at Lopez Obrador's initiative.
Most of the signatures that were collected in order for the vote to happen came from his supporters.
Experts had predicted that a win could give impetus to Lopez Obrador's policy agenda, such as controversial energy reforms.
The president also has his eye on the 2024 elections and the prospects for his party and possible successors, including Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum.
"We all knew that the president was not going to be removed and his opponents were not going to vote," said political analyst Hernan Gomez Bruera.
Despite the high abstention rate, the referendum showed that Lopez Obrador and his followers have "political muscle" to mobilize support, he told AFP.
"The real litmus test will be in 2024 when he leaves, because no one seems capable of taking his leadership place," Bruera added.
Lopez Obrador enjoyed an approval rating of 58 percent in March, although that was far below a peak of 81 percent seen in February 2019, according to a poll of polls by the Oraculus firm.
Carmen Sobrino, a 64-year-old housewife, said she heeded the call to vote because she was happy with Lopez Obrador.
"I hope he continues," she said after casting her ballot in the capital.
The president accused the National Electoral Institute before the vote of sabotaging the exercise in collusion with his political opponents by failing to do enough to promote it.